A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.

The description of the episode reads:

What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if  deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.

Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.

When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.

First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.

And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:

  • it includes working with an experienced teacher
  • you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
  • it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
  • “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
  • “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”

Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.

Comment