Genius or innate talent likely doesn’t exist. This inspiring conclusion from decades of research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, documented in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, is great news for those of us who didn’t find our “thing” early and begin practicing at age four, five, or six. Ericsson proves that nearly anyone can become very good, even expert, at a variety of skills with one key tool: deliberate practice.
Of practice, many have heard the oft-quoted “10,000-hour rule,” which was lifted from Ericsson’s work. But it’s bogus. Or, to be more politic, it’s arbitrary. The number could as easily have been “7,400 hours by the age of eighteen” or “25,000 hours by the age of thirty.” And those numbers are related only to a study of violin students and top pianists. The “rule” doesn’t apply to all people or disciplines. “If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement.” The “trick” is to do the right kind of practice.
So what is deliberate practice? Ericsson lists seven key traits, three of which I’ve highlighted with writers in mind.
Mental Representations. The details of mental representations differ from field to field. My interpretation for writers is comps. We learn to write by reading and beginning to define what we want to achieve with our own words. What books are most like the kind you want to write? What authors most exemplify the voice/style/pacing you want to use? An important trait of deliberate practice is that it “develops skills other people have already figured out how to do.” What better teacher than books we admire?
Read a comp more than once. Type or write scenes and chapters from the book to get the feel of the flow of words, then try a scene from your own project. How did it change the quality of your writing? Numerous authors have noted they developed their own voices by first imitating others. Anyone can put words on the page; a writer knows what kinds of words s/he wants to put on the page.*
Specific Goals. Overall improvement comes from “a series of small changes that add up to the desired larger change.” First drafts suck for a reason. A good novel someone other than a relative might want to read includes: characters, each with their own wants/needs; a plot that builds to a logical, if surprising, conclusion; setting; dialogue; chapters; scenes; paragraphs; and sentences. And that’s only the basics. We also look for voice, theme, point of view, style, and more.** Writers can’t hold all these elements in their head at once from day one and page one. We work in stages.
Identify a specific goal like sharper dialogue, deeper characterization, clearer stakes, lyrical sentences, more visual descriptions, and focus on that one thing for a while. Use your comps, and keep your early efforts for later comparison. “New skills are built on top of existing skills,” so a solid foundation is essential for advancement.
Feedback. It’s tough to improve if we can’t see where we’re weak. Teachers, mentors, and critique partners are invaluable in pointing out problems and offering ways to address them. They also are monitors of our progress who not only encourage us but also remind us how much we’ve improved, especially when we’re too deep in the process to see it ourselves.
We learn best “when we try to reproduce what the expert performer can do, fail, figure out why we failed, try again, and repeat—over and over again.” Doesn’t sound fun? “One of our most significant findings was that factors students identified as being important to improvement were also seen as labor-intensive and not much fun…improvement was hard, and they didn’t enjoy the work.” But they kept practicing, deliberately, because that was how they got better.
“Research on the most successful creative people finds that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time.”*** Read, write, set specific goals, and get feedback from thoughtful readers, and you’ll get better, too.
*See “If You Don’t Have a Teacher” in Peak for a fascinating look at how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to be a better writer by reproducing articles from The Spectator.
** Art from Wonderbook by Jeff VenderMeer.
*** In this case, “time” refers to months and years, not consecutive hours spent “butt in chair.”
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Thank you for reading!