Deliberate practice for writers

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Lots of people know about the importance of deliberate practice. But few explain exactly how to execute it. Here are instructions on deliberate practice for writers.

As you read my column today, I’d like you to keep one metaphor in mind. Imagine that you want to learn how to play the piano. Would you try to do it without a teacher? Probably not. Somehow, most of us recognize that with learning to play the piano, we need the trained ear and the pedagogical knowledge of a piano teacher.

The same is true of writing.

Unfocused practice such as morning pages is fine — assuming you have the time and interest for them — but they’re not likely to improve your writing, any more than plunking out popular tunes on the piano is going to improve your piano playing. (I’m not trying to trash morning pages, by the way. They can accomplish other important goals, such as reducing anxiety or starting to build the writing habit.)

But as I read posts on 15 different web pages about using deliberate practice for writing, I noticed that not one of them mentioned the need to find an expert to help. This misrepresents the basic tenet of deliberate practice. You need a pair of outside eyes to identify your weak spots and to suggest ways of fixing them.

Let me begin by saying that the weak spots will never rest on grammar and spelling, even if you have trouble with them. Although these two technical areas have bedevilled many writers — including F. Scott Fitzgerald  and Ernest Hemingway — copy editors, colleagues, family or friends can easily fix them. Don’t worry about them. They are the least important part of writing.

Instead, I see three fundamental areas that are worth addressing through deliberate practice. Note that I’m talking specifically about non-fiction writing. Similar but different challenges face fiction writers.

The process of writing

Many people know they want to be better at writing but they struggle with output. They can’t find the time to write or they can’t sustain the process or they find it too stressful. This is almost always more than a simple time-management issue. Instead, it’s the result of a series of bad habits or mistaken beliefs, most of which were likely developed in high school or college. People who struggle with this issue feel:

  • They don’t have sufficient talent (they’re wrong about this — talent helps, but it’s never enough)
  • They’re too easily distracted (they’re right about this but it’s an easy problem to fix if they’re determined to do it)
  • They think their first draft must be as close to perfect as possible (when, instead, a crappy first draft is a better idea.)
  • They don’t have the time (none of us has the time but then again most of us find time to watch TV.)

To overcome these challenges, writers need some small, discernible goals. Writing for five minutes a day is a reasonable place to start and reflects the Kaizen philosophy, born in Japan with car manufacturing. You may have to struggle with the notion that five minutes is enough but you won’t have to struggle with the actual writing for such a short time.

Most of all, however, writing for five minutes a day will help if you have a person to whom you can be accountable. This is the greatest strength of my own Get It Done group for book and thesis writers. But if money is tight, then make arrangements to be accountable to a friend, another writer or a writing group. Having some accountability makes a huge difference.

Content or structural issues

Most pieces of non-fiction writing need to make an argument of some sort. This applies even to news writing where, essentially, the “argument” requires the writer to declare what’s important, i.e.: Here is the most important thing that happened at last night’s meeting. OR, here is the most important thing the company accomplished last year.

Some writers have difficulty identifying what’s important — they see too many issues as important, forgetting that if everything is equally important, then nothing is.

Others don’t know the best order in which to present their findings. Still others appear to want their readers to drown in information — they don’t understand how to present their facts in interesting and compelling ways.

Content or structural issues are among the most difficult to fix all by yourself. While it’s easy enough to tweak words or push paragraphs around, how do you know you’re meeting the needs of your readers? And these challenges become even more acute when the writing project is lengthy — a long feature, a report, a thesis or a book.

If this problem is stressing you, and you don’t have an urgent deadline, I suggest putting your draft away for a while to let it incubate. You may simply be too close to the project and unable to make reasonable decisions.

Next? Prepare an outline. Yes, I know — typically, I counsel against outlining before writing. (Instead, I suggest mindmapping.)  But after you’ve written, preparing an outline can be a very useful way of exposing your work’s underlying structure or architecture. The outline can let you know whether your foundation is solid or whether text needs to be moved around some more.

If you can afford an editor, this is a good time to hire one. And, for this challenge you’re seeking what’s called a substantive editornot a copy editor.

If you can’t afford such a person, then turn to colleagues for help. Find someone who’s an expert in what you’re writing about and talk over your challenges with them. Don’t throw your draft at them demanding feedback. Instead, begin with a conversation. Then, speak with others who know less about your subject and find out what they want and need to learn. Talking through your ideas with others can help you sort out what you want to say yourself.

Finally, and this is the most important tip, find a writer whose work you really admire and copy it, word for word. This copycat method is something I still use, even though I’ve been writing professionally for 38 years. And it still teaches me useful techniques — even though I’ve had many years of experience.

Faceting work

This is where self-improvement or deliberate practice becomes relatively easy for the highly motivated writer. You can do this stuff by yourself.

Strengthen your verbs: Take a highlighter and mark all the state-of-being verbs: is, looks, seems, appears, acts, becomes, gets. Work to replace them with more interesting, exciting verbs. This can be challenging but comfort yourself with the knowledge that deliberate practice, by definition, is hard. Then, take a different coloured highlighter and mark all the other verbs. Are they as effective as they could be? For example, could complain become kvetch (which is both more interesting and more colourful)? Should argues become claims (which carries the additional meaning of showing your doubt in the argument)?

Check your quotations: I often find corporate writers use what I call “blah-blah-blah” quotes. They contain information, sometimes even important information, but they don’t say it in a particularly interesting way. Here’s an example I pulled from my community newspaper: “The superintendent has an obligation and the authority in the School Act to do that because it’s his responsibility to make sure we don’t incur any financial liabilities as a result of what the district is doing.” Isn’t that boring? To me, quotes should represent the best of the very best — like silver jewels displayed on black velvet. Don’t display your rhinestones! If the interview subject hasn’t said the sentence in an interesting, idiosyncratic or colourful way, then don’t use it! Instead, paraphrase. For more information on paraphrasing, see here and here.

Eliminate unnecessary words: Some words only tire your readers (or you.) They add no value to the sentence. Get to the point more quickly by ridding yourself of these burdens. Make the job easier by using your search and replace key to find them. Look for prepositions because, frequently, you can simply omit them. (You don’t need to cut back when you can cut. Nor does your product need to be sold off, when it can simply be sold.) Watch also for redundant pairs: past memories, various differences, basic fundamentals and future plans. And eschew redundant categories as well: large in size, heavy in weight, period of time, round in shape. Eliminate every word that you can.

Consider your sentence length: Readability statistics tell us that the easiest-to-read writing has an average sentence length of somewhere between 14 and 18 words. But the key word is average. It’s equally important to understand that you should use sentences of a wide variety of lengths. If your sentences are only long, your writing will be boring. And if they’re only short, they’ll sound too jerky and staccato. For this reason it’s a good idea to look at the individual length of your sentences in a piece. You can do this with the Hemingway app.  Just don’t try to put every sentence into the short box. It’s more than okay to have the occasional long one, provided you also have some very short ones (one to five words) to balance them.

Ensure you have enough transitions: Effective writers use transitions all the time. Often, they repeat words or phrases to help “pull” you into the next sentence or paragraph. And just as often they use specific words that help the reader figure out where you’re going. You may use these words naturally, but check to see. If you don’t, consider adding some of them to your text. Here’s a list:

  • Addition: also, and, furthermore, in addition, in fact, let alone, moreover, nor, or, too
  • Clarification: basically, in other words, put differently
  • Emphasis: above all, besides, even more, indeed, more importantly
  • Example: as, for example, for instance, here, in fact, including, like, my point is, specifically, such as, the evidence shows, there, to illustrate
  • Cause & effect: accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, hence, so, thus
  • Comparison: also, as well, besides, likewise, similarly, too
  • Contrast: although, but, conversely, however, in contrast, nevertheless, on the other hand, still, though, this is not to say, unlike, when in fact, whereas, while, yet
  • Sequence: finally, first, last, next, second, third
  • Summation: altogether, as I have said, consequently, in short, on the whole, to summarize, therefore
  • Time: after, following, in the past, later, meanwhile, now, preceding, soon, then, while

Deliberate practice is hard to do by yourself. But make a stab at it. And if you want more help, please, give me a call or send me an email.

Do you use deliberate practice for your writing? How do you do it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of POP: Stand Out In Any Crowd, by consultant Sam Horn. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See **here to learn how to post as a guest.