How to use Deliberate Practice when writing – part 1

Word count: 746 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Here is the first entry in my three-part series on Deliberate Practice for writers.

I’ll never forget the headline that led me to Cal Newport. It read: “How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30 pm.”

As a time-management zealot, I was hooked. And curious. How could this guy – an academic — manage to end his day by 5:30 pm? As a professional writer, I’ve almost never been able to pull this off.

I started following Cal’s blog, Study Hacks, to learn his strategies and I’ve bought and read two of his books. My verdict? He’s a really smart guy who offers terrific advice for students. But here’s the interesting part: adapt his ideas slightly and they’ll improve your own working life, even if you never intend to darken a school doorway ever again.

And of all his fascinating subjects (including how to accomplish a large volume of work in little time, the importance of batching email, and having a good shutdown routine), I find his advice about Deliberate Practice the most relevant for writers.

The concept of Deliberate Practice was identified by K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University. If you’ve read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, or Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer you will have already encountered Deliberate Practice. Basically, it holds the following tenets:

  • Lack of natural ability is never an adequate excuse.
  • Hard work is more important to success than talent.
  • The hard work is vastly time consuming (requiring 10,000 hours according to Gladwell).
  • The type of work you do is even more important than the volume of it.
  • Your work must explicitly address your own weaknesses and deficiencies.
  • Your work must have clear objectives and goals.
  • You are far more likely to succeed if you have a coach, a teacher or a mentor.
  • You must be highly motivated.
  • The work is hard and tiring.

If you want to see Deliberate Practice in action, look no further than your nearest music school. Here is an excerpt from one of Cal’s interviews with an accomplished pianist:

“The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing,” Cal’s subject said. “If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”

I’ve even seen this in my own children. My son – who is studying to become an opera singer – is intensely musical. He could play piano by ear at age seven and he could improvise chords with his left hand, before he was officially taught how to do it. Yet he resisted practicing with the intensity of a pitt bull trying to get off a leash. My daughter (now studying Sciences) was not as naturally musical but she worked her brains out at it. She went to the piano every day — without being reminded by her parents (!) — taking with her a kitchen timer, which she always set for 30 minutes. She took her pieces apart and practiced only the difficult bits, often one hand at a time, before she put them back together.

Almost immediately, she outstripped her more talented brother and he has only recently caught up. (He found his motivation when he decided to apply to music school.)

So how does Deliberate Practice affect non-scholars? Here’s what Cal has to say: “Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on deliberate practice,” he writes. “Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion.”

The sad truth is, once people get out of school, they frequently lose the will to improve. They also lose the impetus because they’re being paid whether or not they improve. And improving is hard work!

But here’s a fundamental point that likely affects you. Most writers are highly motivated. While some of us are doing it for the money, many of us simply want to improve because we value the activity and want to get better at it.

Because I’ve committed to keep this newsletter brief enough to be read in three minutes, I’m making the topic of Deliberate Practice a three-part series. Next week I’ll suggest ways in which you can incorporate the principles of Deliberate Practice into your own writing.


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