Sure Growth and the Psychology of Practice

How to Become a Great Writer (no, seriously, this is how)

This post is directly inspired by a recent Freakonomics podcast titled How to Become Great at Just About Anything. Tantalizing premise, isn’t it? Most of us have heard of the 10,000 hour rule; it takes 10,000 hours doing something to become excellent at it. (This is paraphrased.) Well, there’s more to it than just doing what you want to be good at, and the podcast spent a great deal of time discussing the element missing from this generalized statement – deliberate practice.

Anders Ericsson, the professor of psychology behind the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, is the source of the much-lauded 10,000 hour statistic. It was, however, popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell shared it as only an element of work in connection with already outstanding talent, emphasizing that amazing people of huge skill and public acclaim began already exceptional, but could only fully realize that potential through dedicated hard work (often compounded early in life so they could be experts in their area by startlingly young ages).

Ericsson, however, emphasized this time frame as being applicable to far more people – but those hours require a higher standard of practice than just putting in the time. He’s named this standard of work “deliberate practice”. As he uses this as a term unto itself, let’s talk about what it represents. I highly recommend listening to this episode for more specific details, as I’ll be applying the definition to writing as we go, rather than giving the wider definition shared in the episode.

Growth, argues Ericsson, is achieved at the edge of the athlete’s endurance. Progress occurs there, and not in the range at which the effort is comfortable and sustainable. So deliberate practice requires spending time doing those things that are just beyond your capacity to do well.

To give that a picture for writing, pushing our capacity can be applied in volume of words produced in a sitting. Push that 100 more words! It could also mean reaching into a new method of marketing, incrementally stepping up your immediate personal reach, putting in to teach a class, perhaps practicing your pitch for a table at a book festival. Of course, if these are already easy for you, look for improvement at the edge of your personal comfort zone.

Deliberate is the key word for Ericsson. There’s a marked difference in the method of practice between an amateur and a professional. He calls the method/style of practice “purposeful”. He says, “Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.”

Sounds an awful lot like lessons to me. He does recommend this kind of guidance, since so many of us are too close to our own work to see our strengths and weaknesses clearly. If we can’t immediately commit the necessary time and money to formal instruction, there’s no reason not to apply the technique.

Where writing is concerned, this is one of the easiest things to talk about and not at all the simplest to actually do. There are hundreds of how-to articles on specific aspects of writing, but it’s difficult to justify spending precious time writing exercises instead of working on our larger projects. This type of dedicated practice/study, when combined with constructive critique, improves specific skills that may trip up larger projects. Of course, when asking for feedback, be sure the readers know this is a practice piece and produces feedback on your specific areas of concern. Perhaps suggest to your regular critique group a series of skill projects, where members can work on their weak points and receive constructive feedback on their short practice pieces.

While it would be nice to have a simple answer to how to become a great writer, there are simply too many facets of skill, personality, lifestyle, talent, and support involved to make this an easy path. Recall, though, that this is a creative pursuit like any other. Practice is important. As this is art, there’s no way “practice makes perfect”, but it can sure create improvement!



Freakonomics radio:

How to Become Great at Just About Anything

April 27, 2016 @ 11:00pm

by Stephen J. Dubner

Produced by: Greg Rosalsky

  • K. Anders EricssonConradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University
  • Steve Levitt, Freakonomics co-author and William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.
  • Malcolm Gladwell, author and staff writer at The New Yorker
  • Susanne Bargmann, psychologist and musician
  • Bob Fisher, soil conservationist, coach, and world record-breaking free-thrower



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