Can you practice writing?

James Koppel has a pretty interesting post about programming entitled Practicing is not Performing: Why Project-Based Learning Fails, about why trying to learn something about programming by doing a project is not the way to learn. I don't agree with everything he says, but the gist of his comments really does get to me.

Last year, wearing my nerd hat, I set out to write a programming language parser using an obscure algorithm, working in two different programing languages that I didn't know. I figured I could learn everything I needed along the way, as I've always done. It all took much, much longer than I'd expected: the languages were very different from what I'd ever known before, the algorithms involved much deeper math than I'd ever expected.

James's advice is the fundamentals of learning:

  1. Break down a skill into the smallest components.
  2. Drill on those components rapidly and with feedback.
  3. Incorporate those pieces into larger assemblies, then drill on those.

Everything in my project tells me that I could have gone much faster if I'd followed James's advice. On the other hand, learning how to write old-school proofs is something that just takes a lot of time, and working my way through The Theory of Computation is one of those things.

But this is my writing blog, and so the question is: how do you do this sort of thing with writing? Theoretically, you can. The classic MFA textbook on writing is Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction, of which I naturally have two copies (I bought a second digital copy so I wouldn't have to lug the physical book with me to re-read it), although you can frequently find it in used bookstores, where disillusioned writers drop it off after taking a summer community college course and realize writing isn't really for them.

I once took that summer community college course on writing prose fiction, and the teacher and I disliked one another a great deal, although we had a lot of respect for one another, one of the few times I've encountered that dynamic. I learned a lot from him. He absolutely loathed genre writing. Other students rarely did the homework; I brought in 2000 words each week every week to be critiqued and discussed. He had to swallow his dislike of science fiction and romance to read through and analyze my use of character, presentation, plot, structure, and setting, as it was often the only material he had from students, and that was part of the class's appeal.

Burroway has writing assignments, and I guess you could do them for each of the chapters in her book. I did some of them, what we could cover in an eight-week course, but I always worked with an eye toward incorporating the material into something that was already written. (For the record, minus the sex scenes, a lot of that classwork became a part of Travellogue: Reunion.)

Can you have "practice" stories, that never get shown the light of day? I suppose you can. But unlike code, a writers should keep everything in a trunk, where someday while you're writing, it may call to you and say, "Hey, that think you wrote twenty years ago? Some variant of it would go perfect right.... there."

Earlier: On writing a series for 30 years

Later: Flow, and its place in Writing