Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Guest Blog Post: How Deliberate Practice Can Make You an Excellent Writer

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

This old saw applies to writers as much as to musicians. In today's guest blog post, author and writing teacher Barbara Baig explores the importance of "deliberate practice"--a technique that involves not just identifying and challenging your writing strengths and weaknesses, but active, critical reflection on the writing process itself--and suggests ways in which writers can use deliberate practice as a tool for honing their craft.

For the record, I don't agree with Barbara about the irrelevance of talent. I believe that some people start out with more innate verbal, visual, and imaginational ability than others, and can benefit more from practice--just as some people start out with more athletic or mathematical or musical ability, and benefit more from training. However, even the greatest genius risks failure if he or she doesn't do the work. Just about any writer can benefit from the techniques suggested below.

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by Barbara Baig

In a recent blog post (Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot), Victoria Strauss explained the truth about why most people shopping manuscripts don’t get published: it’s because their writing isn’t very good. Agents and editors are looking, above all, for excellent writers. But how do aspiring writers set about achieving excellence?

The answer to that question comes from the field of expertise studies. Research scientists in that field have for decades been interested in the question of what makes certain people really good at what they do. To find the answer, they have studied high achievers in many different fields: music and firefighting, chess and golf—even writing. Most of us are sure we already know why some people are great in their field—it’s talent, that mysterious quality given at birth to the fortunate few. But we are wrong.

In study after study, researchers have found no evidence for innate talent as the prerequisite for success. Nor have they found that hard work alone makes certain people great. While successful people—those who achieve excellence in a domain—do work very hard, it’s how they work that distinguishes them from others. It turns out that just putting in hours and hours at your chosen work is not enough; the only way to get better is to make sure you’re devoting those hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.”

Most of us think that we know what practice is. Maybe we once learned to play tennis, and we remember practicing our forehand. Or maybe we are learning to play the piano, and we practice scales. It’s unlikely, though, that what we are doing is really “deliberate practice”—and it’s almost a certainty that we have never applied the concept of deliberate practice to improving our ability to write.

When most people practice, they repeat things they already know how to do. But when those who become experts in their field engage in practice, they spend most of their time doing things they don’t already know how to do. They are constantly challenging themselves to improve, to do things better, to gain additional skills. Deliberate practice isn’t just hacking around; it’s hard work, which demands reaching for objectives that are always just out of reach. The only way to attain those objectives is through immense amounts of repetition. Ted Williams, the great Red Sox hitter, used to take swing after practice swing until his hands bled. Larry Bird, the legendary basketball player, got up at 6 a.m. every morning in high school, went to the gym, and shot 500 free throws.

Athletes and musicians all devote themselves to practice; they know that’s the only way they can become good enough to compete at a professional level. Practice is how they learn their skills; practice is how they keep those skills sharp. But when do most writers ever practice?

For most people, the answer is: Never.

That’s because we learn how to write in school; and in school, writing is always done under what I call “performance” conditions: it counts—it will be read, assessed, graded. Even in most creative writing workshops and writers’ groups, the focus is on performance writing—not, in this case, to get a grade, but to write something good enough to get published. The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to learn your skills and to improve them if you never give yourself a chance to practice. Most aspiring writers are doing themselves a great disservice by focusing on trying to write publishable pieces. They simply don’t have the skills they need to produce professional-quality work. Instead of trying to get published, they need to devote themselves, at least for a while, to practice.

What, though, does a writer practice?

At first, that seems like a tough question. There are so many different kinds of writing, so many apparently different standards of excellence. But if we take a practical look at that question, it’s not so difficult to answer. Writers, I tell my students, need to have two main sets of skills: I call them “content skills” and “craft skills.” The content skills are the ones we use to come up with ideas and material for pieces of writing; they include creativity, imagination, and curiosity. Writers also need the ability to establish a natural relationship with readers, so we can transfer our content into their minds. We need craft skills, as well, both an understanding of the “large craft” of how our chosen genre works (a poem does not work the same way as a novel or an op-ed piece) and skill in the “small craft” of choosing words and putting them together into clear, eloquent, and musical sentences.

That’s a lot of skills, isn’t it?

That’s because writing is a complex activity, just as complex as hitting a fastball coming over the plate at a hundred miles an hour or performing a Beethoven sonata. One of the keys to deliberate practice is to break a complex skill down into component parts and practice each part separately. Athletes and musicians do this all the time; writers can learn this way, too.

To begin, write down all the writing skills you presently have. Are you good at coming up with ideas? Do you have a well-trained ability to do research? Does your imagination give you vivid, detailed pictures? Are you good at finding wonderful words?

Next, write down all the skills you need to learn or to work on. If you are just getting started with writing, you may find this difficult. If people have made comments on your writing, you can use those comments to make your list. If, for instance, you have been told that your characters are not believable or your descriptions fuzzy, then the skills of creating characters and writing description go on your list. Or try this: read over a piece of writing by your favorite author, writing you consider excellent. Now write down all the things the writer does that make this piece so good. How many of these things can you do now? How many of them do you need to learn how to do?

Your answers to these questions will tell you what you need to practice. Now you need to devise practices for yourself, and start doing them on a regular basis. If, for instance, you realize that you’re not very good at coming up with material, try this: make a list of all the things you want to write about and add to that list every day. Then, every day, pick one item from the list and write nonstop about it for ten minutes, simply collecting onto the page, at random, any material that comes to mind about your subject. In this way you will strengthen your creative faculty, which comes up with ideas and material.

Or if you need to get better at telling a story, you could find a book of folk tales or urban legends, and read one and retell it, on the page, in your own way. Do the same thing with another story, and then another. Or if you realize that you need to learn how to write more complex sentences, then get a good grammar book, learn something about sentence structure, and practice writing sentences with more than one clause.

To get the most benefit from practice, keep these two principles in mind: repetition and reflection. Repetition—lots of it—is required to make skills automatic, so that when you sit down to write your novel, they are ready to work for you. Reflection—what did I learn today? what do I need to learn next?—keeps you on track in your pursuit of excellence.

If all this sounds like a lot of work—well, it is, just as becoming a professional athlete or musician is a lot of work. But if you love to write—love it as much as Ted Williams loved to hit or Larry Bird loves to play basketball—then practice is a kind of dedicated play, a source of pleasure and fulfillment. And if you are willing to shift your focus from getting published to becoming an excellent writer, then there’s a very good chance that, eventually, your skills will take you to the “big leagues” of the writing world.

Recommended Reading:

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everyone Else
Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
David Shenk, The Genius Myth

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Barbara Baig has taught writing for over twenty-five years and is the author of How To Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play (Writer’s Digest Books). She offers free practice-based lessons for beginning and struggling writers at www.wherewriterslearn.com.

30 comments:

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

I agree with you, Victoria, in that talent does have a part to play. I also find Barbara's advice to be sound. One should spend a great deal of time working with words. I would add that to be a fine writer, one should also spend time playing with words. Play with sounds, play with synonyms, antonyms, homonyms. Pun. Silly play with words can, I think, help creativity and expression, finding fresh ways to say something.

Raquel Byrnes said...

Something that also helps me is to read outside my writing genre. Noticing different styles and figuring out why they appeal to me help me to improve as a writer.

Love the suggested exercises...especially the legend retelling. Great post.

Edge of Your Seat Romance

Gary Baker said...

I have a tendency to become 'blind' to my own writing so find feedback from trusted sources invaluable.
Like practising that golf swing - you need someone to give you pointers when your head moves.
To practise writing without feedback could lead to 'errors' being compounded.

Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God said...

Thanks, Victoria. I'll try some of these lessons.

Be blessed,

Lynnda

pensees said...

I enjoyed this post. Writing as 'dedicated play'- helps to think of it that way!

M. C. Evers said...

One interesting way some practice--though in a VERY grey area...I have heard some local writers say that they write pseudonymous fanfic as a way of practicing certain aspects of the craft under circumstances with less pressure. It's kind of a way of throwing pasta on the wall (experiments of various kinds), in an established universe, to see what sticks.

Of course, you don't even have to share fanfic. But even kept to yourself, it can give you ideas and let you play in a no-threat situation.

Tony Noland said...

Excellent advice. It's beneficial to get a book of writing exercises, like Ursula Le Guin's "Steering the Craft", and work through them. If the writing for a particular exercise feels clunky and unnatural, then it probably means it's an area where you need work.

Barbara Baig said...

Thanks to all of you for these useful practice ideas!

One of the great things about writing practice is that each writer can customize it to his or her individual needs. We can apply our creativity to coming up with helpful ways to practice, as well as to writing drafts.

Karin Kallmaker said...

Sound advice. We instinctively know it for musicians and writing is an art too. Itzak Perlman practices 4 hours a day, sometimes more, and that's aside from learning new pieces and performances.

One other essential element of practice for a writer, IMHO, is reading. Reading is a form of study for writers, especially reading widely in the genres/forms we are hoping to master ourselves.

Ricky Bush said...

Hmmm...does leaving blog comments count as practice? No, I guess not, but you are on the money as far as practice goes. Talent is not overrated and those that have it may need less practice, but no-talent guys like me have to stay at it constantly.

Rosanne Dingli said...

Sometimes, without even knowing, we are practising the imaginative aspect in our heads as we go about other tasks. But the mechanical, actual 'putting the imagination into words' aspect needs the physical practice Barbara speaks about here.
Taking the same 'idea' and phrasing it fifteen different ways is what works for me, when I am deciding how to make a paradigm shift apparent to a reader... how to verbally express the little events that change a character somewhere at the beginning of the last quarter of the book. Attempting to word an event differently is great practice, and I wish I had time to do this in a more disciplined way. Thanks for this elbow nudge.

Frances Grimble said...

This is a great post. I was a dancer and dance teacher for many years, and believe me, it's mostly sheer practice (sweat), not innate "talent." Most serious dancers are very competitive. When a series of classes starts, the students all grill each other about how many years have they danced, what kind of dance, who taught them, etc. Especially, the less good dancers grill the better ones, to see if they can find out anything that will help them be as good. Then if someone progresses significantly faster in class, everyone wants to know how they did it.

Guess what: The dancers who start a series of classes looking great to begin with, have always had more experience before the class started. The ones who progress faster are the ones who practice more between classes.

Also, many people who start out looking perfectly awful but who determinedly practice very often and very hard, eventually come out looking pretty creditable.

Even with utter beginners, some look better than others, but if you question them, you find relevant experience. As beginning dancers, musicians have the advantage of a great sense of rhythm and a habit of practice. Computer programmers are very good at grasping and memorizing complex patterns/choreographies.

I don't think there is anything magic about being a writer either.

AC Repair Mercer Island WA said...

I have a tendency to become 'blind' to my own writing so find feedback from trusted sources invaluable.

Abra said...

Intriguing!

I'm curious, though, how to analyze your practice work--how to know you're not retreading old habits, spinning your wheels, or learning to do it wrong. Bird and Williams could tell when they succeeded by whether the ball went in the hoop or out of the park. If, for instance, I'm bad at plots, and can't tell a good one from a bad one, but spend all month writing plot after plot--what do I hold them up against to see if I'm getting any better?

Frances Grimble said...

IMO, compared to dancers, writers tend to view the quality of their own work as a mush of "good or "not good." You need to break performance into small goals, much smaller than "a good story," and work at those goals. Writers tend to distrust their own judgment more than people in other creative arts, and claim they're bad because they don't know they're bad. There is a difference between defining what you want to achieve but not yet having the skill to achieve it, and not understanding it at all. You need to narrow down exactly how something does not work and hammer at it till it does.

But if you need feedback from other people, people are all over. Just be sure to pin them down on why they think something works or does not work, even if you have to ask them repeatedly.

Frances Grimble said...

Now that I think of it, writers probably distrust their own judgment because they expect to have editors as intermediaries. When you go on stage for a live performance, you are out there, to succeed or fail. No one is going to intercede for you with the audience. You also can't tell much about the audience's reactions to details because you're too busy, both physically and mentally, to pay close attention to them. Therefore, you need to have a strong set of your own goals and always be aware of how far you achieved them, this time. Personally, I think that kind of self-reliance is very helpful.

joylene said...

Wonderful blog, thank you. I've been feeling less than motivated lately, but now that I've read this, I really feel like I'm now equipped to fix what's wrong. Awesome!

Seosamh o Hainle said...

This is a very useful blog, Barbara sounds like an interesting woman with sound ideas.

Wendy said...

I enjoyed this post both for the suggestions of how to practice our art and for the comments. Frances, you defined an aha moment for me in your comparison of writing and dancing. Thank you for pointing the way to overcoming my own self-doubts :)

Frances Grimble said...

Wendy,

Thanks.

The other thing writers do, is they get judgmental. Every dancer has weaknesses, both in particular pieces they are working on and in general. But they don't say "I'm bad," they say, "This is something I need to work on." There are things that take an inordinate amount of time to learn. Sometimes for no obvious reason and when everyone else is picking the material right up. All that means is you have to work longer and/or harder. But saying "I'm awful" is just self-defeating. It actually feels really positive to always have well-defined goals to work toward.

Barbara Baig said...

Oh, such great comments!

Karen-- I absolutely agree with you that reading is a fundamental practice for writers. We read for pleasure, and we also need to study what our favorite writers do--to identify the skills they have so we can work on those skills ourselves.

Ricky-- Leaving blog comments can indeed be a way to practice--as long as you apply the principles of deliberate practice and challenge yourself to improve a specific skill every time you comment. Every time we write something, no matter how trivial, we are presented with a new opportunity for practice. As for people who have "talent" needing less practice--the research shows this is not so.

Roseanne--I agree with you: we can (and should) practice using our imaginations away from our desks. In fact, many writing practices (the ones that develop our "content minds") can be done separately from putting words on the page.

Frances--Thanks so much for sharing your expertise from the world of dance. Your comments show us how learning takes place there: through practice and through the imitation of models. It is these fundamental ways of learning that I am encouraging aspiring writers to make use of. As you point out, writers tend to make blanket judgments on their work: they believe in the talent myth--you either have it, or you don't. But writing is a kind of work that demands specific skills--and those skills can be learned, just as dance skills can be learned. And I absolutely agree with you that the way to learn is to break skills down into component parts and practice each part until it starts to come easily to you. The expertise researchers have shown that setting small goals, and working towards those goals through deliberate practice is exactly how world-class performers learn their skills.

Ac and Abra--Yes, feedback from trusted sources can help us learn our skills. But we don't always have access to this. So we need to find models--good writers to imitate. Rather than spending a month writing plots, for instance (and thinking all the time, "I don't know how to do this"), we can retell existing stories (such as folk tales) or we can extract the plot from a favorite story and retell it in our own words. We can also, if we wish, read books on plot. In such ways we can learn what "good plot" is.

Joylene and Seosamh and Wendy--I'm so glad you found this post helpful.

And I want to stress (if you all don't mind) that becoming a better writer has a lot to do with the mindset with which we sit down to write. If we take a "performance" mindset--that is, I must produce something good today--then we are likely to be disappointed at the end of our writing session. But if, instead, we say, "What do I need to learn today? What do I need to practice?"--and then we do practice-- then we will probably come away with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

BCampbell said...

Really nice post. I agree with the method for practicing writing. However, I disagree about why writers shopping manuscripts do not succeed. I disagree because I am an avid reader, having read over 100 books. I have come across many books that are horribly written that have been published by places like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Scholastic. I think it is more of whether it is profitable or not is the real standard. Sadly, most books are horribly written. Now, there are ones out there that sure have been written well, at least in my opinion, but those are very few.

Frances Grimble said...

Barbara,

Thanks.

The correlary to breaking things down for practice, is that you have to be willing to let all the other things go to some extent (work on them minimally) while you work hard on only one of them. For example, in dance, you work separately on space (where you are on the floor), steps, arm movements, timing, style, memorizing a long choregraphy, and other things, before you try to put the whole thing together into a dance, or try to do it all well at once. Even steps are broken down into a measure or two at a time, at first. You have to be confident that it will all come together, just not right now.

You also need to be willing to work on stuff when you're not officially working on it. I took classes where a fellow student was super fast/good at memorizing long choreographies. When asked about his secret method, he revealed that he danced in the shower. Every time he showered he practiced memorizing the choreography, while "marking" the steps and arm movements (going through the motions without really trying to dance). Also, every other time he was stationary and had nothing else to do.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Baig,

I'm so happy that you are out there teaching and writing about this approach to writing. I have been working on breaking down the writing process and practicing specific skills for a while but have had the hardest time finding others who do the same. I feel so validated! LOL.

Things I've been working on.

Similes and metaphors. I write lots of similes every day. Sometimes they are terrible but sometimes I come up with some fresh ones.

Lately I have been interested in physical descriptions so I will look through an art book at the library and practice descriptions (with similes) of faces, bodies, clothes, settings, etc. Sometimes I imitate another author's descriptive style. I like Alice Munro for that :) She has nice paragraph structure she uses over and over to describe characters.

Sometimes I practice writing similes for relationships or situations or feelings or memories or dreams.

I've also been writing similes for individual sentences and paragraphs of stories. Then, later, I use that little poem as a road map for my own story or sketch.

I've also been working on dialogue. I have been writing down scraps of real conversations I hear throughout the day, then trying to work them into my sketches.

I'm getting into a phase where I'm going to be working on revising and putting together a few finished poems and sketches, because I was going through some notebooks and realized I had a lot of writing I wanted to revisit and use, but there is so much if I don't start reworking it, it will be too much to handle. :0

I really enjoy imitating established writers, and I am with you on breaking down the writing process and practicing its component parts. Thanks! I'm ordering the book!

-dana

Anonymous said...

Also, the idea of just practicing writing that isn't going to be shown or evaluated in a school or by others. Yessss! Some schooling really does a disservice to learning a utilitarian sort of playfulness that seems so valuable.

I have been avoiding MFA programs for exactly that reason. Do they still require about 50% of the credits to be from literary analysis of the hypothesis-supporting evidence sort? I believe I mastered that form in high school and think it's silly that so many English departments think that that method of reacting to literature is so valuable. Yes it is important to be able to use reason, but aren't fiction and poetry more concerned with irrationality?

I think I would rather go to art school for visual arts where it seems that process is valued much more than it is in MFAs.

-dana

Barbara Baig said...

BC--I'm glad you agree with the posts.

Frances--You are fortunate in already having a model (from dance) of how to learn through practice. Thank you so much for sharing more of what you know. I agree with you completely that we must practice one skill at a time, setting others aside temporarily. Eventually they all come together. And just as the dancer you describe used every second of free time to practice in his mind, so writers can use their time to practice away from the page. Agatha Christie, to take one example, used to play with story ideas while doing housework.

Dana--Thanks for all your cool practice ideas. It is indeed true that the learning through practice approach, though common in many other fields, is not widely used in writing courses and workshops. And, alas, I don't think you'll find that approach being used in MFA programs.

Jan said...

Practice, practice, practice. I'm in a MFA program and was fortunate to take two classes from Barbara. She more than helped me to see and write outside the box as it were. I find that as I hone my novel that I return again and again to the things I learned from her. Not only practice but reading, emulating, making each word count, and so much more. Barbara, I love these comments and am so grateful for your leadership in this field.

Elizabeth West said...

Oh this is great. Reading this, I just made a connection to figure skating, which I also do. That is practicing things I don't know, and breaking them down into their components. Put back together and done properly, they become a spin or a turn. My coach is working on improving my skills with this technique right now.

And it's completely applicable to writing. Had I realized this before, the feeling of vague "What do I do now?" might have fled much earlier. The little elements need that focused attention and when I put them together, they will be much more effective.

Thank you, Victoria and Barbara! :)

Chidelia Edochie said...

This is the most insightful post on creative writing I've read in a long time.
~Chidelia

Stephanie Golden said...

I found this post--and the comments--so interesting. I'm a Buddhist meditator and have been thinking (& writing my own blog) about the intersection between meditation practice and the writer's craft. Meditation is very much a practice of doing one small thing over and over and over until the mind is trained, flexible, "wieldy" as the Buddha said, and can rest on one object for an extended period. Barbara's post and the comments give me much food for reflection on parallel "practice" on the writing side.