Why aren’t we getting better at writing?

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

Does the idea of improving writing skills make you feel hopeful and excited? If so, the term “deliberate practice” is one you need to learn…

Has our writing improved in the last 100 years? This question occurred to me as I listened to a recent podcast by Stephen Dubner.

You may know Dubner as coauthor of the remarkable bestseller, Freakonomics.  But if you haven’t yet been seduced by the pleasures of podcasting, I encourage you to begin with the Freakonomics podcast. It’s superbly done and very entertaining.

Dubner focused on the topic of Deliberate Practice  last week and interviewed the acknowledged worldwide expert on the subject, S. Anders Ericcson (pictured above). If you don’t have the time to listen to the 51-minute recording, I’ll give you a quick précis here.

Standards of excellence in the world have risen dramatically over the last 100 years. If you look at athletics, for example, in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a male between the age of 18 and 34 must run the event in three hours and five minutes.

That sounds incredible enough to me because even when I ran, I never covered more than about three miles (just under five kilometers). But here’s the really interesting part: The current admission standard for the Boston Marathon is very similar to the gold medal time of the first marathon in the modern Olympics, 1896. In other words, what used to be considered a spectacular achievement is now relatively commonplace.

Furthermore, the current world record in marathon races — two hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds — is nearly 56 minutes faster than that of the gold medal winner in 1896.

How did this happen? Perhaps improvements in gear — such as better shoes and more aerodynamic clothing — have played a role. But, clearly, that alone is not enough. Ericcson believes the biggest credit should go to Deliberate Practice.

Here’s Ericcson describing how Deliberate Practice works:

  • You must be highly motivated to improve your performance.
  • You must perform a series of tasks that take your pre-existing knowledge and expertise into account and challenge you outside of your comfort zone.
  • You need immediate informative feedback on your performance of these tasks and suggestions on what to do differently.
  • You must repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks until your performance improves.

In other words, there’s no loosey-goosey “practice” time if you want to get better at running — or for that matter playing piano, shooting hoops, or speaking another language. Instead you need highly structured exercises — outside of your comfort zone, remember — so that you can face up to the errors you’re bound to make and work on eliminating them.

Dubner and Ericcson didn’t focus on writing in their podcast, but the conversation about the worldwide rise in “standards of excellence” made me start to wonder about the printed word. Are we getting any better at it?

To try to figure that out, I asked Dr. Google to show me some examples of newspaper articles from the 1920s and here is part of one:

An earthquake, heralded by an earlier tremor, shook Eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire today, causing alarm to thousands, making houses tremble on their foundations, breaking windows, and tossing furniture about. It was the fifth earthquake in the three centuries of New England’s recorded history.

Along the north shore, the towns and cities received the brunt of the natural convulsion.  In Marblehead, Gloucester, Beverly and Salem people ran from their houses, huddled in amazed groups in the streets, or sought safety in their cellars.

Houses shook on Beacon Hill in Boston.  The ground trembled as far north as Danville, N. H.  Brockton and points along the shore felt the tremor, as did Arkham. 

The authorities at Harvard University made the following statement:

“There was an earthquake shock recorded by the seismograph station of Harvard University at 9:23 P.M. 
“The shock was of four minutes duration. Vibrations apparently from an offshore disturbance obscured the preliminary tremors. Because of this it was impossible to estimate the distance or location of the centre of the area affected. It appeared as if the strongest shocks were to the north and east of Boston.

Then, by way of contrast, I then found an article about a 2015 earthquake occurring near Vancouver, where I live:

B.C.’s South Coast was hit by an earthquake that shook many people from their sleep just before midnight, in what one seismologist called the largest quake in the region in years. 

Some people near the epicentre northeast of Victoria reported their homes shifted, and others were knocked off their feet. 

“The house moved seriously to the right, came back, it was loud. The aquarium had a mini-tsunami and overflowed. We were in the kitchen and got tossed into the counter,” wrote one commenter on the CBC website. 

Many reported feeling a large impact that felt like a truck hitting their homes, while others in Metro Vancouver reported windows rattling and items on walls shaking.

I think most of us would have a slightly easier time reading the 2015 article — the vocabulary is more casual and the connecting phrases are more sophisticated — but I’m not sure I could claim the same dramatic improvement we’ve seen in marathoning.

And if looking at literature, I think I might be forced to come to an almost opposite conclusion. Consider, for example, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) vs Dan Brown. Or if that strikes you as unfair, because Dan Brown isn’t highly regarded, what about Shakespeare vs Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood?

Why isn’t our writing becoming significantly better? Part of the issue surely relates to taste. But I think it also arises out of the absence of deliberate practice. Most of us don’t have access to the type of coaching we need to improve our writing – either we can’t find it or we can’t afford it.

Next week I’m going to suggest some deliberate practice steps that all writers can take to improve their work.

What do you do to improve your writing skills? 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.

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