How to use Deliberate Practice when writing – part 2

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.