Deliberate Practice and the Semi-Pro Writer

Mar 6, 2018 | Better Writing

Writing is a craft. That’s good news, because you can master the craft. But it can be bad news because learning to write well won’t be quick or easy. Here are some thoughts to help you on your way to good writing.

All Good Writers Were Novices Once

Nobody is born knowing how to write well. We all have to learn the basics of word choice and grammar and usage. Reading a lot helps, but there’s only one way to learn how to write well.

You Learn to Write by Writing

You don’t become a good writer by reading books about writing. You become a good writer by writing, analyzing what you’ve done, and learning how to do it better next time. You’ll become a good writer faster if you do something like what’s called “deliberate practice.”

The Truth About Deliberate Practice

Anders Ericsson, of Florida State University, coined the term deliberate practice to describe a particularly effective way of learning for people in certain fields. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept in his book, Outliers. Gladwell got some important parts wrong. For one thing, deliberate practice has a very precise and narrow definition.

Deliberate practice, as Ericsson describes it, develops skills that other people have already figured out, for which effective training techniques have been developed, and where training is overseen by a trainer or coach. It’s perfect for things like learning to play the violin. It’s not how most writers, including semi-pro writers, learn to write well.

Purposeful Practice and Learning to Write

In his book PEAK: The Secrets from The New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson describes what he calls “purposeful practice.” He says that purposeful practice is focused, involves feedback, and involves getting out of your comfort zone.

Purposeful practice is what you need to master any field that doesn’t have clearly-established quality standards, training techniques, and qualified teachers.

When I work with my clients, most of the time we’re working on a project, like a book. My coaching takes place in the context of the project. That’s helpful, but you can learn a lot just by taking a focused learning approach to becoming a better writer.

The Learning Loop

The Learning Loop is the simple way that you learn anything most effectively. Plan what you’re going to do. That can be a blog post, a book chapter, a video script, or anything you want to write. Write it. Finally, analyze what you did and how it could get better.

You can do a lot of this yourself. Concentrate on a specific part of what you’re doing. Perhaps you want to learn to tell stories more effectively. Or, maybe, you may decide to work on headlines, or transitions, or chapter construction. It doesn’t matter what it is if you know what you are trying to accomplish.

You can do a lot of your own feedback, too. There are tools that measure things like readability in Microsoft Word and in standalone services like Grammarly. That’s good, but there’s something better.

Get feedback from other people. If you write a blog, pay attention to the comments. If you’re writing a book, send it out to beta readers. You can also use one of my personal favorites, an intelligent 15-year-old. Critique from others will make you uncomfortable, but it will also make your writing better.

Reflect on what you’ve done, then use your insights to do better next time. According to Gladwell’s reporting on Ericsson’s work, you can expect to put in 10,000 hours of practice to master any domain, including writing. Wow.

10,000 hours! Are You Nuts?

One reason that Gladwell’s interpretation of deliberate practice got so much attention is that Gladwell (an excellent writer) gave it a memorable name: “the ten-thousand-hour rule.” Supposedly that was the amount of deliberate practice it takes to develop mastery in any domain.

But, Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” is a bit misleading. It takes a lot of time to master anything, but there are a lot of variables. So, don’t think “10,000 hours.” That can be daunting. Instead, think “It’s going to take a while and a lot of work.”

Don’t Set A Limit on Your Development

I suggest that you not worry about how much time it takes to get good. Instead, assume that you’ll want to continually improve your writing. Writing is a craft, and like any other craft, you can always get better at it.

Bottom Line

If you want to write better, make a commitment to doing the things that will help you achieve that goal. Read a lot to get an idea of what good writing looks like. Plan your work, then get feedback and analyze how you did. Figure out how to do better next time.