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Deliberate practice for writers

How do you become a genius? With ‘deliberate practice’! It works in the fields of music, art, sport, even tech – so why not in creative writing?

The buzz around deliberate practice really took off with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, and the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any field.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about US Professor KA Ericsson’s research into what makes top performers tick. Really focused, specific practice and breaking down your activity into tiny elements was the key.

Musicians have done this for centuries. When I was learning the cello as a wee girl, I sat for hours, twiddling up and down scales, doing exercises, and earning impressive finger corns.

In sport, too, it’s usual to practice things like grip, swing and stance as individual elements, before putting it all together.

Artists often copy the masters to learn technique, focusing in on brushstrokes, or how a particular light effect is created.

Deliberate practice is an accepted strategy for most forms of mastery.

So how about deliberate practice for writers?

Many writers do freewriting or morning pages. I find them a great way to get into the zone. However, they’ve never really helped me to learn specifics about craft. For that, I need close reading, and analyse of other people’s writing. And then, practice.

A systematic approach like this might seem off-putting. But why? Imagine a musician never practising elements of technique, how to hold a bow, play scales or arpeggios! Even jazz musicians – who are all about improvisation – practice chords, riffs and progressions for hours on end.

Why? Because scales and chord progressions are the building blocks of music. They’re part of the core vocabulary that music is based on.

With deliberate practice, musicians can master basic techniques that are used time and again in different combinations.

Can writers deliberately practise to improve their craft skills faster? I absolutely think so, and do this myself. Here are some starting points.

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5 ways to try deliberate practice writing

  1. Substitute words in a favourite sonnet to see how the underlying structure works
  2. Map the beats of a scene and use it to write your own.
  3. Dissect your favourite thriller writer’s strategies for handling pace.
  4. Mark up the verbs in two short stories and compare their impact.
  5. Analyse the writing techniques in an unfamiliar genre, and brainstorm ways of using them.

I’ve done this myself and with student groups, and the results can be amazing. Often, scales drop from writers’ eyes when they realise that structure and syntax can have just as much impact as words, for example. Or when they see escalation and reversals being used.

There’s definitely a downside to this. You’ll never see writing, films or plays in the same way again. It’s the price you pay for going behind the scenes, for demystification of any job or profession. But it’s worth it.

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