Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Deliberate Practice Looks Like for Writers

Recently I was intrigued by a series on deliberate practice for writers that Daphne Gray-Grant posted on her blog, The Publication Coach.

The concept of "deliberate practice" is based on the theory that hard work is more important to success than innate talent, and that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at anything (discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, Cal Newport on his Study Hacks blog, and many others). These 10,000 hours are not meant to be rote repetition of skills, but a deliberate attempt to master difficult or troublesome areas yet unconquered--thus, "deliberate practice." An example would be two guitar students who each practice for an hour. One student practices by playing over and over the pieces she knows, while the other student ignores what she knows and uses the hour to tackle an especially difficult passage that's been giving her trouble. The latter is an example of deliberate practice. 

For writers, deliberate practice can take many forms. The key is so do something every day that improves your craft, moves you forward as a writer, and pushes you heave-ho out of your familiar writing nest.

One type of deliberate practice that Gray-Grant recommends is to type out a passage from a favorite author, then go back and analyze exactly what the writer has done to make the passage appeal to you. Look at his word choices. What verbs did he use? What sorts of nouns? How long are the sentences, and how are they constructed? How did he use metaphors and similes? Did the passage make you laugh? Or pluck at your heart strings? If so, why? Try to cull out specific techniques that the author used and then emulate them in your own writing.

Another deliberate practice is to choose a skill that you're weak at or feel less confident about and set out to conquer it. If you feel hampered by a limited vocabulary, pick up a dictionary or thesaurus and learn, and then use, a new word or two every day. If your weak spot is dialogue, study how the champs handle it, read chapters on dialogue in writing-craft books, and then write scenes that put into practice what you've learned. Critique partners can be valuable here. Listen, learn, and spur each other on to try new, more challenging, techniques.

Gray-Grant recommends making deliberate practice part of your daily writing routine. It's satisfying to write the sort of things we're already good at, but it's even more satisfying, in the long run, to become better writers.

What do you think? Do you think the concept of deliberate practice makes sense for writers? Or do you think it all sounds too workmanlike for a creative endeavor like writing?

(Photo courtesy of Michelle Miekeljohn at

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