When Should You Practice, and When Should You Publish?


Writers would love to jump in, write an amazing book right off the bat, and get published right away. In fact, we’d all love to excel immediately in every skill we try. But that’s not how learning works.

When should you slow down, practice, and develop your skills? And when is it time to speed up, execute, and publish?

In the last episode, I told you the story of when I learned to drive at age fifteen, when I was horrified to discover that the DMV will just hand out learner’s permits to children whose only qualifications are that they passed a written test to prove they know what stop signs mean.

Really, that episode was about what it takes to acquire and then use a new skill. That’s a shared experience for all humans, whether you’re a fifteen-year-old learning to drive or a forty-year-old learning to write a novel.

(Happily, writing novels doesn’t tend to have life-or-death stakes. At least not for the writer. The characters might not be so lucky.)

Anyway, the point is that I think of skills in terms of two stages: the learning stage and the execution stage.

In the learning stage, you’re practicing a skill you don’t yet have. You’re experimenting, sometimes getting things right and sometimes getting things wrong. You’re stretching yourself in ways that are unfamiliar to you.

In the execution stage, you’re using a skill you’ve already built. You’re creating art consistently at the level of skill that you’ve mastered. The goal here isn’t to gain new skills, but to make more stuff using your existing skills.

And as much as we’d all love to skip the learning stage and go straight into executing every skill we ever dream of, the reality is that we can’t. We all start in the learning stage. And if we persevere through the learning, we make it to execution.

There’s something I didn’t tell you in that episode, though. And that’s what we get to dig into today.

Not an Endpoint, but a Waystation

Here’s the thing: when I say “learning stage” and “execution stage,” those sound super clear-cut. Like you start at the learning stage, spend a while intentionally building skills, and then pass through into the glories of the execution stage, where you get to whip up book after book after book and land on bestseller lists to the grand applause of a raving audience of readers.

But that’s not exactly how they work.

The truth is, there’s always more to learn. If writing is an ocean, this ocean is deep. There are always more depths to plumb. There are always more skills to acquire.

So the execution stage isn’t so much an endpoint, where you’ve acquired all the skills and you’re now done learning. It’s more of a waystation, a place to rest and celebrate what you’ve gained, until you decide you’d like to press forward into more learning.

I’m mixing all the metaphors here, I know. And I’m probably going to mix in more. I’d apologize, but I’m not really sorry. We can all live with some slightly chaotic imagery.

There’s Always More to Learn

Let’s go back to fifteen-year-old me learning to drive.

The skill I built when I was learning to drive was the skill of driving an automatic car around the cities and interstates of the United States. And I did it! I gained the skill! I’m in the execution stage. I do that kind of driving a lot.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve reached the endpoint of driving skills. There are so many more skills I could learn if I wanted to. Here are just a few:

Driving a racecar. That seems like it would be very, very different from driving my Camry along the highway.

Driving a semi truck. Again. THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM A CAMRY.

Driving a stick shift. I learned to drive automatic cars. I am not in the execution stage for manual cars. If you put me in a manual car, we’re not going anywhere.

Driving on the left side of the road. I’ve never lived anywhere where they drive on the left side of the road, so I’ve never needed to learn.

Driving in countries outside of the US. I know American traffic rules. I don’t know traffic rules for any other country.

These are skills I do not have. I could gain them if I wanted to.

In order to do that, I’d have to go back to the learning stage of driving.

And as we discussed in the previous episode, I really did not like the learning stage of driving a car. I found it incredibly stressful and alarming. Also, at this point in my life, I don’t want or need these driving skills.

So I stay in the execution stage with the skills I have, which get me safely around my city and around the US, and I don’t add on more driving skills.

Practice or Publish? You Choose . . .

The learning and execution stages of writing are the same. There are always going to be more skills to learn.

I mean, have you figured out how to write a book in third person omniscient point of view with multiple POV characters and multiple timelines? No? There are still skills available for you to learn.

And just like I get to decide when I’m satisfied with my current set of driving skills and when I want to learn to drive stick, you get to decide when you’re satisfied with your current writing skills and when you want to level up.

At any given moment, for any given book, you can choose whether you want to be in the learning stage or the execution stage.

You can change stages from book to book. You can change stages from draft to draft. You can even change stages midway through a draft (although I think there’s a lot of benefit to finishing an entire draft in one stage).

At any point, you can choose to slow down, be more methodical and iterative, and challenge yourself to explore new layers of skill you haven’t tried before.

And at any point, you can choose to speed up and focus on executing the skills you already have.

You get to flow between execution and learning as much as you like, through your entire author career.

. . . So How Do You Choose?

It’s powerful stuff, right? The ability to choose whether you want to add more skills or create more stories using the skills you already have. And the ability to flow between those two stages as much as you like, at any point.

And it begs the question: how do you choose which stage you want to be in? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each stage, and how should you pick?

Let’s talk about it.

The Benefits the Learning Stage

First up: the benefits of the learning stage. I love this stage, and I love these benefits. There are probably a lot of benefits to this stage, but there are two in particular that I want to highlight.

1. You expand what’s possible for you to create

Here’s the first benefit: when you’re in the learning stage, you’re raising the ceiling on what is possible for you to create.

You’re acquiring more skill. You’re opening up more possibilities.

And as a result, you’re becoming more and more capable of tackling bigger, more ambitious projects.

When you spend time in the learning stage, you build the skills you need to tackle the ambitious projects you dream of.

2. Learning a skill makes you happy

And the second benefit is this: learning skills makes people happy.

Building a skill is rewarding for its own sake. Just the act of learning something new makes us happy.

If you want to be happy, why not spend some time learning a writing skill you haven’t yet mastered?

The Danger of the Learning Stage

That said, there is one major risk of the learning stage that is important to watch out for. Here it is:

It’s possible to get stuck in the learning stage and never publish.

There is always more to learn. Always. And as a perfectionist myself, I am tempted to want to learn everything before I do anything.

For writers, this looks like continuing to build your skills and edit your manuscript through revision after revision after revision . . . and never letting go to publish it.

The Solution

How do you press through this temptation and push yourself to publish?

The key is to get really, really clear on what “success” means to you. You can start with what “success” means to you in general, for your author career as a whole. But then, get more specific—really specific about the specific book you’re working on.

What does success mean for this book?

How will you measure it? How will you know you’ve achieved it?

Kim Kessler, my editor friend who’s made a couple appearances on this podcast, likes to call this “Minimum Viable Proud.” What’s the minimum you need to accomplish in order to be proud of this book you’re creating?

Defining this for yourself is liberating. It means that you don’t need to gain every writing skill in order to publish your book. All you need to do is get this book to the level of Minimum Viable Proud.

And then you get to publish and share it with the world.

The Benefits of the Execution Stage

Which brings us to the execution stage. And as you might guess, the benefits and drawbacks here are the reverse of the learning stage. Here’s the major benefit of the execution stage:

You get to publish!

Yep, this is the stage where you get to publish stuff. You get to publish more books, more frequently. You get to share your writing with the world and build your audience of readers who love your stories.

You get to experience all the external rewards of an author career—mainly, having people read your stories and love them too.

The happiness of skill building is an internal, personal kind of happiness. The happiness of publishing is an external, public kind of happiness.

The Danger of the Execution Stage

That said, there is, of course, a danger in the execution stage as well. Or perhaps not a danger, but certainly a limitation. Here it is:

The ceiling on what you are able to create is relatively fixed. All the stories you write are going to match your current skill level.

This is great as long as you love what you’re creating. But it’s possible that as you write more books, you’ll start envisioning increasingly ambitious stories, stories that require skills you haven’t mastered.

And if you try to tackle them in the execution stage, you might find the experience difficult or frustrating or even discouraging. When you’re used to executing relatively easily, it can be jarring to encounter a story you can’t execute easily, a story that stretches you beyond your current limits.

The Solution

So what’s the solution? How do you balance the fun, creative flow of the execution stage and the invitation to advance your skill?

Well, for as long as you love creating at your current level of skill, keep doing it. If you’re telling the stories you want to tell, you’re getting the responses from readers that you want to get, and you’re having fun in the process, there’s absolutely no problem here! Keep doing what you’re doing, and enjoy it.

And if or when you come across a project that you’re passionate about, and you discover that it’s going to require a higher level of skill in order to do it justice, be open to shifting back into the learning stage.

Remember that there’s no judgment here on learning versus execution. Both of these stages are simply universal stages of skill development. One isn’t better than the other.

Shifting back into the learning stage is going to involve slowing down, studying, trying new things, and probably failing a bit before you succeed. But the result will be that you’ll raise the ceiling on what you can execute, so when you shift back into the execution stage, you’ll be even more capable of even more ambitious stories.

Plus, learning is its own reward!

Get Comfortable Flowing From Learning to Execution and Back Again

Honestly, as an editor and book coach, I absolutely love working with writers who have spent a long time in the learning stage, shifted into the execution stage and produced some books they’re proud of, and are open to shifting back into the learning stage to take their skills even higher.

Some of my best clients are the ones who are super open to this flow of shifting back and forth between the learning and execution stages.

They come to me with an established set of skills that they know how to execute well. That means that a lot of the time, when I give them editorial notes, they can take them in and execute them quickly, because we’re treading on familiar territory.

And then, when we spot an opportunity for them to stretch their skills and grow, they’re really excited to take it and build even more skills. And I get to share what I know and push us both to expand and grow. Those kinds of projects often stretch me, too, and make me a better editor as we go.

I say all this because at the start of this series, I told you what I see most often: writers want to execute. We want to be in the execution stage with all our skills. That’s where we feel comfortable, that’s where we feel confident, and that’s where we get to produce and publish books fast.

But I want to encourage you to get comfortable with the learning stage, too. And give yourself and your writing space to shift back and forth between these two stages.

Personally, I think that’s where you’ll find the greatest reward.

Your Self-Assessment: Are You Learning or Executing?

So here’s your invitation. I invite you to take a few minutes for a self-assessment.

Think through the whole of your writing career, from the first day you ever picked up a pencil and sat down to write a story.

  • At what points in your career have you been in a learning stage?
  • At what points in your career have you been in an execution stage?
  • How long do you tend to spend in each stage?
  • Which stage do you feel more comfortable in?

You might find that you’ve actually spent most or all of your time in one stage rather than the other.

Maybe you’ve been all execution, publishing book after book without giving yourself time and space to go deep in your writing. Or maybe you’ve been all learning, working on one single manuscript for years without ever letting go to publish.

If you’ve never been in an intentional learning stage, ask yourself:

  • Are there writing skills that you would like to develop?
  • What could be possible for your writing if you slowed down and did another pass or two on the project that you’re currently working on?

If you’ve never been in the execution stage, ask yourself:

  • How do you define “success” for the book you’re currently working on? What’s your Minimum Viable Proud?
  • What skills do you still need to build in order to reach that point?
  • Are you actually there now, and it’s time to publish?

Still Not Sure? Get Feedback

If you’ve been in the learning stage for a long time, and you’re having trouble gauging whether your writing is ready to publish, this is a great time to get outside eyes on it. You could hire a professional or get feedback for free.

A developmental editor will be able to tell you exactly what skills are working in your writing, and what skills are worth focusing on right now before you publish.

And beta readers can give you data on how your book lands with people who enjoy books like yours. Their role isn’t to identify which skills you need to develop. But they’re stand-ins for your ideal readers.

From their feedback, you’ll be able to see whether your book is getting the response you want, or whether it’s not getting the response you want and you want to keep working on it before you publish.

And if you’re in the execution stage, feedback is helpful for you, too.

You’re probably already getting feedback from real, actual readers who have purchased and read your books. Are they responding in the ways you want them to respond? Or is there something not quite working?

And if you didn’t know how to answer the question about what could be possible for your writing if you gave your current project another pass or two, you might like to get feedback from a developmental editor.

An editor can point out what’s working well and what skills you might consider building next, whether that’s to enhance what you’re currently doing or to allow you to expand into new projects.

Get Comfy With the Flow

No matter what you learn in that self-assessment, though, at its heart, my invitation is this:

Get comfy with the flow. Get comfy shifting from the learning stage to the execution stage and back again.

The ocean is deep. There are depths to your writing you haven’t yet plumbed. Spend some time diving into the learning stage.

Then come back to the execution stage and publish some books using all those skills you’ve gained. Take a rest at this waystation in our messy mixed metaphor.

And when you’re ready, dive back into the ocean and discover what more you can learn.

Publishing your books is a wonderful reward. And learning new skills is a wonderful reward, too.

Happy editing!

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