Columns > Published on August 21st, 2017

Woodshedding for Writers

Header: lil artsy via Pexels

Woodshedding comes up all the time in interviews with guitar players. Doesn’t matter if it’s Brian Wilson or Mastodon’s Brent Hinds, most every guitar player will talk about this concept.

What is it?

Picture a young Eddie Van Halen. He’s in his bedroom, and all he’s doing, all summer long, is playing the guitar. Maybe trying to nail down one really tough, really complex 15 seconds of a song. Maybe learning every Cream solo note for note.

He gets two notes in and screws it up, starts over. And he does that again. And again.

That's woodshedding.

Woodshedding is easy to understand and tough to do. Especially for a writer. But it might be just the thing for you.

What We Have To Understand

Woodshedding looks really different from the way a lot of us write.

A lot of us work on a story or an essay or a poem. We don’t pick out one small skill and try to figure it out. We don't spend a lot of time directly copying the work of others. 

That’s what’s different here. That’s what you have to understand. This is a really different way to work on your writing. It’s practicing writing. Not the practice of writing. It’s practicing your skill, breaking "writing" down into a bunch of very tiny skills and working through them until you've got them down.

It's not like a retreat where you shut yourself away and work on a piece or an edit. It's practice.

There is no gratification outside of that. There are no pats on the back. If you go into this thinking, “Alright, no pressure. But maybe I’ll write something worth publishing while I’m at it,” then you’re getting into woodshedding for the wrong reason.

If you’re someone who can’t work in that kind of space, that’s cool. This probably isn’t for you. If you’re someone who is excited about the idea, then read on.

Specificity

“I want to write shorter sentences.” “I want to write in a voice that doesn’t sound like mine.” “I want to work on my dialog.”

These are all examples of specific tasks tied to writing. These are the sorts of things that benefit from woodshedding, from long, focused practice sessions.

If you want to make good use of your woodshedding time, pick out something specific you need to work on and break it down as much as possible.  "Fiction writing" isn't small enough. "Sci-fi" isn't small enough. Get micro. "Descriptions of sci-fi technology" is better.

If you're not sure what to work on, I'll give you a tip. 

When I worked with runners, most of the time, the thing they would benefit from most was the thing they least wanted to do. If I had a runner who hated track workouts, then I made sure to get some track workouts in there. 

If you hate dialog, if you hate writing sex, if you hate long sentences, then there's a good chance you don't understand those things the way you should. The places where you're weak make for great starting points.

Fail Away

Having a way and a place to fuck up is crucial. A place where everyone doesn’t have to see you do it. A place where you can look and say, “Damn, that was all wrong,” and instead of over analyzing what went wrong, try it again.

This is the beauty of the woodshed. You are in a place where the fuckups are expected. Doing it wrong is in the plan. Go out there, fuck up a lot, and get better through it.

Sustainable Effort

If you hate dialog, if you hate writing sex, if you hate long sentences, then there's a good chance you don't understand those things the way you should.

One key difference between playing guitar and writing is that with the guitar, you’ll hit a point when you just can’t play anymore without taking a break. Physically. When the fret board is getting bloody, it’s probably time to put down the guitar and have a Snapple (or whatever the metal equivalent of a Snapple is).

When you’re woodshedding your writing, you need to make a constant, mid-level effort that’s sustainable for a long stretch. You don’t have to work like mad, sweating and biting your lips. But you have to keep working, and you have to keep working for as long as possible.

Figure out the pacing that lets you put in a couple hours at a time. Figure out a pace that allows time to slip away from you.

Plan On A Long Haul

Assuming you’d never played guitar, if you picked one up today, how long would you expect it to be before you could play the opening to “Eruption?”

I’m guessing you’d give yourself a break if you weren't good at it in a day.

You need to do that with your writing too. Give yourself the time to get better. It’s a skill and an art, and it takes a long, long time to be really good at it.

Don’t get frustrated, don’t toss your early efforts out into the world. Keep working and plan on being there for the long haul.

It’s Not Just For Newbies

In a Guitar World article, an interviewer asked veteran guitar player Earl Kugh whether woodshedding was still necessary for him:

Oh yeah. I used to retain things better than I do now, so it takes practice. I enjoy the challenge. I practice to keep current and keep my hands agile, and it’s interesting.

Woodshedding isn’t just for folks who haven’t played before, and it’s not just for brand new writers. It’s for everyone. Like Klugh is saying, new writers can woodshed to develop new skills. Veterans can do the same, and the woodshedding might be even more crucial for them. I know that the older I get, the more work it takes for new ideas to penetrate my skull.

Woodshedding Exercises

Are you convinced? Convinced enough to give it a try?

Cool. Here are some ways to get started.

Copy and compose exercises

Great woodshed fodder. All you do is find a sentence, copy it word for word, and then compose your own sentence using the same style. There’s an oft-recommended book, Copy and Compose by Weathers and Winchester. Unfortunately, it’s tough to come by, but their updated version, A Strategy of Style, can be hand for less than $10 bucks. And, you know, there’s a pretty good chance someone condensed it for academic purposes… 

Roy Peter Clark's Newspaper exercise

Here's the first exercise from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, which we’ve been discussing in the community a bit:

1. Pick up a newspaper.

2. Read it with a highlighter. Highlight the subjects and verbs.

3. Do the same with your writing.

4. Do the same with something you're working on now.

5. The next time you struggle with a sentence, rewrite by putting the subject and verb at the beginning.

The idea being that clear writing begins sentences with subjects and verbs, which is a pretty common practice in news writing.

Read-Alouds

Take something you’re working on and read it out loud, out REALLY loud, sentence by sentence. Pick it apart and perfect everything. Make everything sound spoken. Take anything you stumble over and rewrite it the way you'd say it.

Get Friendly

Here’s one I like to do, and it’s about comedy, which you don't see too much in serious writing work.

Here’s a link to some scripts for Friends.

Print off a couple, go through, and punch up the jokes. Or make it darker. Whatever you want. Pick a way to go, and then go through, line by line, and take the script in that direction. Punch it up, punch it down, but pick one thing to convey and slide it into the existing work.

Brunetti Modification

Ivan Brunetti does a drawing exercise where he has students draw an object. A car, a telephone, a castle, something like that. First they have two minutes to do it. Then they start a second drawing, same object, but they only have one minute. Then 30 seconds. Then 10. Then 5.

Then the students go back and see which version they prefer. Usually it’s one in the middle.

Pick out a quick, compelling story from your life. Something simple. Write it out in two minutes. Don't stop your pen. Write the entire time, adding in details if you need to. Then, write the same story, but only give yourself one minute. And so on.


Have any experience with woodshedding? Tips? Suggestions? Let us know in the comments. Happy practicing.

Get Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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