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Writers Talk About Writing

How Deliberate Practice Can Help Your Writing

I'll never forget the headline that led me to Cal Newport. It read: "How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30 pm."

As a time-management zealot, I was hooked. And curious. How could this guy — an academic — manage to end his day by 5:30 pm? As a professional writer, I've almost never been able to pull this off.

I started following Cal's blog, Study Hacks to learn his strategies and I've bought and read two of his books. My verdict? He's a really smart guy who offers terrific advice for students. But here's the interesting part: adapt his ideas slightly and they'll improve your own working life, even if you never darken a school doorway ever again.

And of all his fascinating subjects (including how to accomplish a large volume of work in little time, the importance of batching email, and having a good shutdown routine), I find his advice about deliberate practice the most relevant for writers.

The concept of deliberate practice was identified by K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University. If you've read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, or Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer you will have already encountered deliberate practice. Basically, it holds the following tenets:

  • Hard work is more important to success than talent.
  • Lack of natural ability is never an adequate excuse.
  • The hard work is vastly time consuming (requiring 10,000 hours according to Gladwell).
  • The type of work you do is even more important than the volume of it.
  • Your work must explicitly address your own weaknesses and deficiencies.
  • Your work must have clear objectives and goals.
  • You are far more likely to succeed with a coach, teacher or mentor.
  • You must be highly motivated.
  • The work is hard and tiring.

If you want to see deliberate practice in action, look no further than your nearest music school. Here is an excerpt from one of Cal's interviews with an accomplished pianist:

"The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing," Cal's subject said. "If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you'll hear people 'playing' by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety."

I've even seen this in my own children. My son — who is studying to become an opera singer — is intensely musical. He could play piano by ear at age seven and he could improvise chords with his left hand, before he was officially taught how to do it. Yet he resisted practicing with the intensity of a pit bull trying to avoid a veterinarian. 

My daughter (now studying Sciences) was not as naturally musical but she worked her brains out at it. She went to the piano every day — without being reminded by her parents  — taking with her a kitchen timer, which she always set for 30 minutes. She took her pieces apart and practiced only the difficult bits, often one hand at a time, before she put them back together.

Almost immediately, she outstripped her more talented brother and he has only recently caught up. (He found his motivation to practice when he decided to apply to music school.)

So how does deliberate practice affect non-scholars? Here's what Cal has to say: "Unless you're a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on deliberate practice," he writes. "Instead, they're putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion."

The sad truth is, once people get out of school, they frequently lose the will to improve. They also lose the impetus because they're being paid whether or not they improve. And improving is hard work!

But most writers are highly motivated. While some of us are doing it for the money, many of us simply want to improve because we value the activity and want to get better at it.

If you want to become a better writer, the most important thing to know about deliberate practice is that it is not a writing activity. It's either a preparatory job or an editing one. Don't allow your internal editor (that self-improving and/or hectoring voice) to intrude upon your writing time. Writing — which is creating — needs to remain free of judgment. But here are three suggestions for incorporating deliberate practice into your life:

1) Find a writer whose work you admire and start copying his or her writing. I mean this literally. You can do it by hand with a pen or pencil or on your computer, whichever you prefer. It's something I do every morning for five minutes. In case you're wondering, I'm currently copying Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik. 

But you don't have to choose books about writing; you can copy anything. The idea is to absorb the syntax and rhythms of another writer. Here's a short list of writers I consider worthy of such effort: Joan Didion, Atul Guwande, Susan Orlean, George Orwell and E.B. White. But don't limit yourself to my preferences. Fine writing is a matter of taste. 

2) Find a model you can imitate. My first suggestion was generic. This one is specific. The next time you need to write something, find another writer who has already done a similar job. 

No one should spend time re-inventing the wheel. I can guarantee that something very similar to your writing job has already been done. The trick is finding it. But it's worth spending some time doing this — not just for the effort it will save you, but also for your own education. 

First, however, you must thoroughly understand exactly what it is you need to write. Start there. Analyze your assignment. What is its purpose? (To entertain? To explain? To persuade?) Who is your audience? (The general public? Specific interest groups? Business? Customers?) Does your assignment fall within any recognized writing categories? (Journalism? Case studies? White papers?) Are there any limits regarding tone and style? (Writing for government? Academia? Legal concerns?)

When you have your own job defined, cast a wide net for excellent writing that meets the same needs you have. Remember: it doesn't have to be on the same subject. Look for areas outside of your own field that might face some of the same parameters. (For example if you need to incorporate stories about individuals check out the literature of self-help. Those books are usually filled with interesting anecdotes about individuals.) 

Once you develop the habit of finding a model, it will become second nature to you and you may hit yourself over the head for not having done this before!

3) Analyze your model. This is not the same as just reading. In fact, you may have already wondered if you should start copying your model. Yes! This will not only better acquaint you with your model's style, but it will also give you text you can print out and mark up. Take about 1,500 words you've copied and look for:

  • Verbs: Highlight them all. How specific are they? How evocative?
  • Sentence length: How many words in a typical sentence?
  • Figurative language: How often does the writer use metaphor, simile and personification? (You could even quantify this: say, e.g. one metaphor per 500 words)
  • Concrete vs abstract: Does the language give you strong visual images or is it more abstract?
  • Stories: How often does your model give stories, anecdotes or examples? 
  • Structure: What type of structure does your model use? Chronological? Thematic? Order of importance? Classification? Cause and effect? 

Yes, this is hard work. But that means it fulfills the number 1 tenet of deliberate practice. Give it a try.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 14th 2013, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I love this article! As a writer--and being much older than this author--I have done some of the things suggested, but had no idea that they were so important. I think I've always worked on instinct to improve my writing. It will be fun to choose a writer to copy. I've been listening to Anthony Trollope and admire his writing tremendously, but I don't think that many people would like it as much as I do. But the point is to copy and I'm sure that would be helpful. All the exercise for practice sound helpful and I plan to use them.
Monday January 14th 2013, 7:48 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
A+
Monday January 14th 2013, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
Hard work made easier by a concise list of tips. Thank you!
Monday January 14th 2013, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Diana R. (Charlotte, NC)
Thanks, I needed this today!
Monday January 14th 2013, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
Wonderful tips. Thanks!
Monday January 14th 2013, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Kathy W.
It's a hard message to hear, but ever so necessary.
Monday January 14th 2013, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Regina M. L. (Napa, CA)
Daphne:

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I've experienced an epiphany about writing today and it's all because of your great article. So timely!

I'm acquainted with your website, Publication Coach, and even received your newsletter by email for a long time...I admit I had to stop because I found the information so useful and inspiring I would stop doing what I was supposed to be writing just to read and absorb your insights! When a person is writing for a living, it's too easy to get distracted.

I also read 81/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better as well and loved it.

Thanks again,

Regina
Wednesday January 16th 2013, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Wine Gal (Los Gatos, CA)
Thank you so very much for this article! I am new to writing and it is difficult to get over the fear of putting your work "out there." You have given me some great ideas to work with and I'll definitely be visiting your website. =)
Wednesday January 16th 2013, 9:06 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all of your very kind comments. Copying the work of another writer is an infinitely useful tool. I have been writing for more than 30 years but each morning I now spend five minutes copying someone else. It's remarkably useful.
Thursday January 24th 2013, 8:20 AM
Comment by: tashana S.
Great article. I will print and post right next to my nightstand where I can absorb it daily.
Tuesday February 5th 2013, 9:56 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
Recently I fell into the dark apriori hole, which offerred only frustration. Thank you for the free 'remain free of judgment'ladder.

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