My 11-year-old daughter attended the Japan-Seattle Suzuki International Institute this week, and I tagged along as her companion. Attending a class for parents, I picked up advice on how to help her practice and play her violin better.
The session was led by a virtuoso violinist and teacher, Brian Lewis, who studied with Shinichi Suzuki. This is the same Dr. Suzuki who created the renowned Suzuki method of music, in which very small children learn to play with amazing beauty and grace.
I found that Brian Lewis’s advice applies to writing better too. Here’s what he recommended:
1. Work systematically on improving one thing at a time.
My young violinist should work on being focused or developing a good bow hand or playing with a beautiful tone or getting the notes right—not on several things at once.
Likewise, we writers should focus on being more concise or getting to the point or using the right tone or using active verbs or focusing more on the reader’s needs.
Once we improve that one aspect of our writing, our new skill will stay with us. Then we can work on another part of our writing.
2. Visualize doing it perfectly.
Perhaps echoing Dr. Suzuki, Lewis asserted that we can’t do anything we can’t imagine. He suggested that, like competitive athletes who visualize success, musicians should listen to a piece and see themselves playing it perfectly.
As writers, we can’t exactly imagine ourselves tapping our keyboards perfectly. Unlike physical skills such as playing the violin or sinking a basketball, writing is mental. But we can imagine reaching the goal we want a document to achieve. We can envision writing each of the parts to achieve it. And we can see ourselves editing and proofing carefully and confidently.
3. Divide up practice time.
Young violinists are advised to break up their practice time into chunks—chunks such as tone exercises, bowing practice, scales, practicing the tricky spots in a piece, and so on. They should also take mental and physical breaks to keep the experience fresh.
Writers can learn a lot from this practice suggestion. Too often we sit down at the keyboard and attempt to do everything—brainstorm, write, plan, organize, edit, spell-check, and proofread all at once! It’s nearly impossible to succeed—and that’s why our audience may end up mentally organizing and editing for us as they read.
Like musicians practicing effectively, we would do well to divide our writing into logical tasks: determining our purpose, brainstorming ideas, organizing, writing, editing, and proofreading. We should take breaks in-between. And when we’re finished, just like a final play-through of a piece of music, we should read through our document for our own pleasure and sense of accomplishment.
4. Build on small successes.
Young violinists should play everywhere—for their families, relatives, church groups, classmates, etc., before playing an important concert. According to Brian Lewis, before performing at Avery Fisher or Carnegie Hall, he has played a piece of music at 50 other professional venues in preparation.
In the same way, writers ought to start small. Before agreeing to revise the company procedure manual, we ought to write at least a few procedures. Before taking on a division newsletter, we should succeed writing articles and columns. And before agreeing to a high-stakes assignment, we ought to do well at smaller projects such as trip reports, updates, and meeting minutes.
5. Learn to live with wrong notes.
Young musicians learn the lesson that wrong notes are part of playing an instrument. Brian Lewis told the story of having a lesson with the world-famous Itzak Perlman. When Lewis apologized for a wrong note, Perlman responded, “I have played that note wrong too, but I played it beautifully.”
Wrong notes happen—just like wrong words, typos, and run-on sentences. Like musicians, once a wrong note is behind us, we writers need to move on to the next phrase, the next passage, and the following piece.
When children play music, they discover parts of themselves and connect with other people. Beyond that, the goal is that they learn to love music and love playing it.
Like making music, writing—even business writing—is a discipline, a method of self-discovery, a way of contributing and expressing ourselves, and a connection with other human beings.
But love it? Yes, it is possible. Remember, you can’t do it unless you can imagine it!