Sometimes learning to write better feels futile; progress appears glacial. This week, I was thinking about my photography and how I’ve improved as a photographer. Since the new year, Facebook keeps suggesting that I share bad photos from 2010, euphemistically termed “memories.” (Okay, I concede that they are memories, but they still aren't good photos.) Looking back on these images this week, I realized that improvement often happens even when I’m not looking.
In 2010, I decided that I wanted to learn to take better photos. Heeding the collective wisdom that practice was the most important part of becoming a photographer, I took zillions of photos of anything and everything. Armed with a budget digital camera, but without any real understanding of photography, I took many boring photos. They often looked like this:
By 2012, I could see small improvements in my photos, but I couldn’t explain why certain photos worked while others failed. I decided to take a photography class online. I learned some fundamental principles about light and a few rules for composition, including using lines, shapes, and forms. I tried to put some basic photography rules into practice. I studied other people’s photos. I practiced some more. My photography improved.
I managed to get more things right in these photos, including light, leading lines, diagonals, and depth of focus.
When I finally upgraded to a decent point-and-shoot digital camera and then to a DSLR, I tried to learn as much as I could about the settings, dials, and gizmos on my camera. I bought a tripod. Then I started learning how to shoot in RAW format and doing some basic photo editing with GIMP. I practiced framing photos in my head everywhere I went. I tried especially to improve the kinds of photos I felt the most insecure about, like portraits.
What I love about both of these photos is the light, the composition, the colors (or contrast, in the case of the wedding couple), and focus. I still struggle with portraiture, but these are some of best ones I’ve ever done. I practiced and practiced taking shots like this until I felt more confident.
All of this is to say that practicing writing seems to me much like practicing taking photos. I had to learn (and relearn and then relearn again and I am still learning) basic photography concepts to improve my pictures. I’m trying to apply the same concept to my writing. Regular practice has improved my writing skills, but my writing improved a whole lot more once I learned some basic concepts. Using the same process of learning to take better photos, I’ve started to try to learn some stuff about writing, practice, learn some more, and practice more. My process looks something like this:
Read some rules about writing. Figure out how to apply them to my writing.
Read other people’s great writing. Figure out how to imitate those writers’ styles.
Read crappy writing. Figure out how to avoid those writers’ styles.
Learn some technical stuff about writing: grammar, syntax, punctuation. Figure out how to apply these rules..
Read some books about writing style.
Practice doesn’t make perfect (ever), but it does make for great improvement. It’s easy to feel like I’m not making any progress or improving at all, but when I look back on my first attempts to take good pictures and my most recent ones, I’m pretty sure that both my photography and writing are improving, even if it’s hard to see progress in the moment.
[Header photo: Hotel Boulderado exterior, Boulder, Colorado, 2016]