How to use Deliberate Practice when writing – part 2

deliberate practice

Word count: 796 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Here is the second entry in my three-part series on Deliberate Practice for writers. Be sure to read part 1 first!

Here is the most important thing to know about Deliberate Practice. It is not a writing activity. It’s either a preparatory job or an editing one. Don’t allow your internal editor (that self-improving and/or hectoring voice) to intrude upon your writing time. Writing – which is creating – needs to remain free of judgment.

But you can and should use Deliberate Practice when preparing to write. How? Here are three suggestions:

1. Find a writer whose work you admire and start copying his or her writing. I mean this literally. In fact, I first wrote about copying great writers in a column on March 13. But here’s my dirty little secret. Even though I had promised myself to start copying weekly, I hadn’t done it. Not even once!

The thing about practice is you actually have to do it! Now, I don’t imagine I’m above following my own guidelines, but I was busy. I have some big contracts. I coach. I’d launched a five-times-a-week blog that keeps my writing nose to the computer grindstone. Even though I’d intended to copy another writer at least once a week, I just hadn’t been able to manage it.

Last Tuesday, however, I had a revelation. For me, it’s far easier to do something every day than once a week. (I know. A paradox!) As a result, I have now given myself the daily task of copying another writer for five minutes. I can copy about 275 words in my five minutes. In case you’re wondering, I’m currently copying Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik.

But you don’t have to choose books about writing; you can copy anything. The idea is to absorb the syntax and rhythms of another writer. Here’s a short list of writers I consider worthy of such effort: Joan Didion (pictured above), Atul Guwande, Susan Orlean, George Orwell and E.B. White. But don’t limit yourself to my preferences. Fine writing is a matter of taste.

2. Find a model you can imitate. My first suggestion was generic. This one is specific. The next time you need to write something, find another writer who has already done a similar job.

No one should spend time re-inventing the wheel. I can guarantee that something very similar to your writing job has already been done. The trick is finding it. But it’s worth spending some time doing this – not just for the effort it will save you, but also for your own education.

First, however, you must thoroughly understand exactly what it is you need to write. Start there. Analyze your assignment. What is its purpose? (To entertain? To explain? To persuade?) Who is your audience? (The general public? Specific interest groups? Business? Customers?) Does your assignment fall within any recognized writing categories? (Journalism? Case studies? White papers?) Are there any limits regarding tone and style? (Writing for government? Academia? Legal concerns?)

When you have your own job defined, cast a wide net for excellent writing that meets the same needs you have. Remember: it doesn’t have to be on the same subject. Look for areas outside of your own field that might face some of the same parameters. (For example if you need to incorporate stories about individuals check out the literature of self-help. Those books are usually filled with interesting anecdotes about individuals.)

Once you develop the habit of finding a model, it will become second nature to you and you may hit yourself over the head for not having done this before!

3. Analyze your model. This is not the same as just reading. In fact, you may have already wondered if you should temporarily start copying your model. Yes! This will not only better acquaint you with your model’s style, but it will also give you text you can print out and mark up. Take about 1,500 words you’ve copied and look for:

  • Verbs: Highlight them all. How specific are they? How evocative?
  • Sentence length: How many words in a typical sentence?
  • Figurative language: How often does the writer use metaphor, simile and personification? (You could even quantify this: say, e.g. one metaphor per 500 words)
  • Concrete vs abstract: Does the language give you strong visual images or is it more abstract?
  • Stories: How often does your model give stories, anecdotes or examples?
  • Structure: What type of structure does your model use? Chronological? Thematic? Order of importance? Classification? Cause and effect?

Finally, create an outline. You shouldn’t outline when writing. But it’s a perfect tool for analyzing. Once you’ve analyzed your model you’ll be in the right position to start imitating it – not word for word – but at a higher, more sophisticated level.

Only deliberate practice can help you do that.

Next week I’ll talk about how to use Deliberate Practice when editing.

Posted September 25th, 2012 in Power Writing

  • Trish Barnes

    I don’t know how you do it, Daphne, but you always offer useful insight into the writing process. This is great advice.

    I copied parts of The Weaver’s Grave, my favorite short story, by Seumas O’Kelly.

    Wish I’d been analyzing as I went! Next time…

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      So glad you enjoyed it, Trish. I am still copying Spunk & Bite. I think it will take me most of a year but it is SO WORTH IT!!!

  • Heather Beers

    Dear Daphne,

    I’m wolfing down your advice on deliberate practice like a teenage boy who’s just had his braces removed and told he can finally eat pizza and cheeseburgers for the first time this year. THAT’S how good your stuff is.

    In fact, my 16-year-old daughter and I chatted about deliberate practice and how it relates to learning history–a subject she’s interested in, but which she is afraid she won’t retain. I talked about you and your triplets as if you’d just been over for coffee and oh, by the way, here’s what my friend Daphne taught me about deliberate practice and I bet it will help you, too. 🙂

    Keep those goodies coming! I’m chomping at the bit for the arrival of next Tuesday’s email!

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      So glad you found my post useful, Heather. Deliberate practice takes a certain amount of concentration but parts of it are fun, too! (Deliberate Practice is not actually supposed to be any fun — but I guess that’s a matter of taste!)

  • Mike Drigger

    Great Blog! It’s really helpful.
    Deliberate practice requires time and hard work, but anyone can reap the benefits, regardless of whether you think you have any special innate talent for the activities you care about most.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Glad you enjoyed it, Mike. I agree — talent is a much overrated virtue!

  • Jill Stewart

    Nicely done. I
    will share it with my PR writing students tonight. Jill Stewart

    p.s. as soon as I saw a section on verbs, I knew this would be useful!

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Verbs are so important. They do the heavy lifting in most sentences!

  • One critical aspect of deliberate practice is feedback from experts on your performance. Can you share with us how you have been soliciting feedback on your progress? Thanks!

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      Yes, this is very important. I am lucky enough to know a number of professional non-fiction writers and we exchange our work with each other, offering critiques and edits. If I were younger, I’d look for an editor. If I ever start writing fiction, which I may at some point, I will have to hire a coach, I think.

  • sumaiceck1983

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