Deliberate Practice: The Way To Become An Expert Writer
Deliberate practice and innate talent: you’re probably familiar with one of these concepts. We often seem to have a perception that without writing talent you can’t succeed in this line of work. And honestly, how many times have you thought about quitting because you felt you weren’t good enough in your craft?
But, luckily for most of us, it turns out that talent is not the key to success – deliberate practice is. According to the paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, the difference between experts in a field and us regular mortals is no less than “a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” In other words, those we perceive as super-talented just practiced more than we did – and did it the right way.
But if deliberate practice is the way to go, how do you do it? What makes it what it is? The psychologists and scientists who researched it have come up with what constitutes it.
Motivation is important for deliberate practice
The first requirement in any task, and in deliberate practice, is to be motivated to do it. In an activity like this, finding motivation can be hard, and the reason is simple. You want to become better, but it’s going to take many hours to become an expert in the field. Your progress isn’t always going to be obvious, either.
Deliberate practice takes your skill level into account
The difficulty of the task has to be just right. It isn’t deliberate practice when you sit down to write something you do very well. No, what you’re aiming at is challenge – it can’t allow you to do the task automatically. It has to be something that you struggle with, but not so difficult as to discourage you. If you were a guitarist who just learned to play Smoke On The Water, you wouldn’t jump into Yngwie Malmsteen’s arpeggios next, right? Same thing applies to writing.
Repetition is key to deliberate practice
Repetitive tasks are what makes the core of deliberate practice. They don’t have to be the same, but they need to be similar. If you want to improve your descriptions, you don’t have to practice describing the same thing every time, but it can be something similar.
The practice is often not fun – it’s hard, repetitive, challenging and can be exhausting. As a writer, you might have more variety than, say, musicians do, but don’t expect to enjoy deliberate practice much.
You need to have instant feedback
This might be the most elusive thing for a writer to attain: feedback from someone better and more experienced. Without it, your improvement will be minimal, unless you have the ability to be realistic about your writing. But what you can do, if you have nobody to help you, is to measure yourself against your ideal. That, of course, takes defining the ideal, and dissecting what makes it good and desirable for you.
To summarize: deliberate practice is intentional and repetitive, with tasks adjusted to your skill level, which takes motivation and feedback to be fully effective. It should be practiced daily, but it’s important to watch out for the intensity in order to avoid burnout. So, never practice for more than an hour without a break, and not for more than a few hours every day.
You need to know your weak points in order to improve them, though. Think about what yours are. For a lot of novelists, it’s either dialogue, or description, or both. Writing Exercises is a great resource, one I often use for my deliberate practice if I’m out of inspiration.
Deliberate practice: dialogue
Perhaps you struggle with certain types of dialogue, or dialogue in general. Narrow down the areas where you’re lacking, and devise your deliberate practice.
Some things may be more challenging than others – for example, I sometimes struggle with finding the voice of my characters. I think of a quirk, something from their background that might affect the way they talk and words they use.
Whatever you do, it’s important that you don’t make it easy for yourself. Go through your dialogues – if there are any that make you cringe, do deliberate practice with a similar setup. Or do dialogue prompts, if it’s every aspect of dialogue writing that you struggle with. And practice until you get it right.
Deliberate practice: description
The best way to practice description is finding a picture and describing what you see. For example, if there’s a castle in your work that you thought you didn’t describe well, look up pictures of castles and start practicing. Become familiar with the vocabulary you need to do it.
Whenever you’re out of inspiration for what you may practice, look up random prompts and pictures. Based on what you want to accomplish with your descriptions and how you want them to be, you can practice describing the same item over and over, until you are pleased with the results.
You want to say a lot in a few words, or be as detailed as possible? Do short descriptions, and save every one of them, so you can notice yourself getting closer to your goal.
Whatever you set your mind and energy to, if you persevere, you will become better, and deliberate practice is a great way of attaining expertise. Once you’ve spent 10,000 hours describing, it will be hard not to consider yourself an expert, right?
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