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Deliberate Practice

Almost every successful writer does one thing – writes. There are books about scheduling writing time, finding a few minutes for writing while you're waiting in the doctor's waiting room, etc.

The reasoning behind this is that "Practice makes Perfect," and the psychologists' term for it is Deliberate Practice. This is why Michael Jordan practiced his free-throws Every. Single. Day. Why a concert level piano player practices scales. Why Tiger Woods putts for hours (or he did before the latest kerfluffle). And it's why chefs practice chopping vegetables constantly: http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2010/01/31/getting-good/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+thesimpledollar+(The+Simple+Dollar)&utm_content=Twitter

In 1993, a psychologist named K. Anders Ericcson and his colleagues wrote a paper called "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance." * They found that expertise in an area, whether it was sports or artistic performance, was directly related to how much disciplined work they put into it, starting at an early age. Yo-yo Ma was a child prodigy, practicing his cello from the time he was four years old. Venus and Serena Williams had tennis rackets almost as soon as they could walk. And they kept at it.

The point behind this amount of practice is to make the basics automatic. When you drive, do you consciously think about how you hold your hands on the wheel or how much pressure to give the gas pedal? Do you need to review the directions to work? Probably not, because it's become second nature to you. The same applies to reading – Do you sound out every letter the way you did in first grade? I didn't think so.

It works with writing, too. The more you write, the better you get. Period.

But it helps to make it Deliberate practice. Michael Jordon didn't just toss a ball around. He worked on his free throws, being critical and making judgments. He worked with coaches and teammates. He knew his strengths and weaknesses and tried to improve both.

Deliberate Practice is specific and technique-oriented, repeated often and is paired with immediate feedback. **

So, my writing goals for the new year include:

1) Identify what I need to work on
2) Schedule daily writing time, even if it's only a half hour, and
3) Seek out feedback while I'm working on a project, not just when the first or second draft is done.

Do YOU write every day? If not every day, do you schedule time to write?

* http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.pdf

** http://www.hooversbiz.com/2009/03/04/deliberate-practice-in-a-nutshell/

And another article about Deliberate Practice: http://money.cnn.com/2008/10/21/magazines/fortune/talent_colvin.fortune/index.htm


I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I can't argue that the more I write, the more I feel my results have improved, so there's something to the idea of practice.

On the other hand, I think the argument in favor of practice is undermined a bit by the examples cite. Every one of the examples you used here is of an activity that requires a certain level of physical execution.

The concert pianist may have perfect understanding of musical timing, rhythym, and pitch, but unless his fingers are capable of taking what's in his brain and reproducing it on the keyboard, he has nothing. He practices those scales to train muscle memory and dexterity. At the same time, if he doesn't have a natural sense of expression, all the practice in the world won't do it. That's why most music-lovers would assert that a concert pianist is superior to a computer producing the exactly correct sequence of notes, for the correct duration, at the correct pitch. That extra something the pianist brings to the table is something you can't create by any amount of practice.

Practice every single day, on a regular schedule, is invaluable for any art that requires specific physical activity to bring it to fruition, whether it be playing an instrument or painting or shooting free throws.

We need something different for writing. There's no need to develop muscle memory and automatic response on the physical level for writing. It doesn't matter if you type 20 words per minute or 80, when you're writing. It's not the act of recording the words that you're practicing, it's how you formulate that sequence of words.

I'll confess that I'm impatient. I'm not willing to sit down and spend hour doing writing practice, as practice. I approach everything I write as something to finish and publish. Doing anything less feels like wasting my time. I may look at it later and decide it didn't go anywhere, or that it should get massive re-work, but when I'm starting it, it's with the intent of producing something I'll want to show off later. That makes a difference for me.

I think there have been two key things that have made my writing grow and improve over the last couple of years.

1. Feedback. It's far more difficult to improve at anything without someone outside looking at it and making comments. That's crucial. My beta-readers are worth their weight in gold. So is my crit group, and my editors on the pieces I've sold.

If someone, especially an editor, tells you you should change something, don't just agree with them. Ask them to explain why.

2. Mindfulness. It's not just about your own writing. I've come to realize that since I started writing myself, I never read anything any more without paying attention, at least occasionally, to their craft, as well as to the story. That's another kind of practice, and it does help you be more aware of what you're writing as you do it.
I probably wasn't as clear as I'd hoped I was, since I wrote this early this morning (that's my story and I'm sticking to it ;-)

What we think of as "muscle memory" really has two parts. The first would be actual muscle toning - there are some muscles that get used more and the control is better with more practice.

The other part is more analogous to writing - the construction of neural pathways. With repetition of a task, the neural pathway involved in that task is reinforced and becomes strengthened. More, ancillary pathways atrophy and die off. That's why, if I'm even a little tired, I usually drive right into my parking space despite the fact that I wanted to go past and to the store for milk.

Sorry if I wasn't clear.

And thanks for your response - there's a lot to digest, but I completely agree about betas and crit groups, as well as mindfullness.


Thoughts from a Magic Seeker

I've read this info before, and I tend to agree with you. I definitely like your goals for the year - I plan to attempt all three, myself.

I try to write every day, but when I'm down (or doing tooooo much technical writing) my fiction writing slips. I need to move it back to the top of the list!

I'm linking back to this post. It's worth sharing.
- Deb Salisbury, the Magic Seeker from FM
I have bookmarked the articles for future reading, and future use in the class room.

I have a problem with some current teaching philosophies which exclude doing drills and exercises as part of the teaching process.

Whilst I agree with 'teaching for understanding', 'realating back to life', and 'equity in education', I'm still old school enough to believe in pratice lays an important part in learning. And not just 'physical activities' but mental ones too.

Replaying the times tables is one way of remembering them, understanding how those times tables work, and the patterns within in them helps the memory.

Doing exercises on factorising a quadratic equation in the different ways helps to remember those ways and also the understanding of when one is more apprpriate than others.

Look, cover and writing out a word 5 times (or typing), helps to embed the spelling of that word into the memory so it becomes an automatic process.

We practice an act deliberately to help transfer that act/information/thought into our brain and continue to practice to keep it there.

Makes perfect sense to me.