How to Practice in the Right Ways
(and why it matters)
Everything you know how to do in your life you had to learn. Typing, driving, reading, using a smartphone. They all took time to master. They required practice. And, whether or not you realize it, the ways you practiced determined how quickly you learned and how much skill you gained.
When we typically think of practice we assume that the more we do something the better we’ll get at it. We can see that that’s not true when we consider lifting weights. If you pick up a set of 10-pound weights (I’m a weakling, ok?) and lift them over and over, day in and day out, you will initially gain some muscle (provided you’re doing it right and not injuring yourself). However, assuming your goal is to build muscles, that “practice” won’t suffice if you don’t increase the number of repetitions or get a heavier weight. That’s because you eventually reach a new level of homeostasis and, when that happens, you need to change tactics to keep gaining muscle.
The same is true for your writing. Our bodies, physically and mentally, are inclined to strive for equilibrium. In order to change that equilibrium, we have to choose to work out (else we happily stay the same forever). So, we lift weights or practice new skills like how to write a beautiful sentence or tell an entertaining story. We evaluate our current skill level compared to where we want to be, develop successful practice techniques, and continue to challenge ourselves in the process.
Anders Ericsson, who has spent his career studying competitive athletes, musicians, chess champions, and memory masters, has developed a learning strategy fundamentally different from how we typically consider acquiring new abilities. His strategies, described in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (co-written with Robert Pool), discuss the right types of practice that we all can implement in order to gain the skills we desire. Just ask Dan McLaughlin who created a plan to become a professional golfer with no previous training. Though he may not have reached his goal due to injuries, his plan is a testament to the best learning practices.
In Ericsson’s words: “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.”
How to learn
The basic and most helpful method to learn a new skill is to try something new, make mistakes, correct those mistakes, and slowly build upon that skill over time. You have to do the work, evaluate where you fall short, and improve based on that analysis if you want to become an expert. Unfortunately, systems like the current education system in the US are more focused on knowing than they are on doing. We, therefore, have to come up with our own practice techniques to gain the skills we desire.
Luckily, Ericsson’s system helps students of any subject area think about how to practice in the right ways: by using deliberate practice.
- Purposeful practice is practice in which someone tries very hard to improve. It “has well-defined, specific goals” that are long-term, focused, involve constant feedback, and get you outside your comfort zone on a continuous basis.
- “Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.” It requires the right teachers, the right mindset, full and conscious attention. It is purposeful and, most importantly, it is informed.
In my last post, I talked about how being a writer comes down to one thing: writing. Doing the work. That means deciding what you want to achieve with your writing and turning pro in order to achieve it. I’m going to assume you’re here because you want to become a professional writer (though, wanting to write and show no one is a fine goal too).
Being a professional writer means you finish what you start, that you take your craft seriously and spend time learning, that you figure out the steps you need to take to get you where you want to go, and that you act upon those steps.
It also means you make writing a habit. That you do what you can to write as much as you can in a week (bonus points for at least 300 words a day, though points don’t matter to anyone but you). Habits eliminate the question of whether or not you’ll do something. They allow you to make decisions ahead of time so that you don’t revert back to your old routine and forgo the necessary work.
You can’t expect you’ll always want to do the work because it isn’t easy. It’s most often a thankless, solo experience that takes a lot out of you. Developing habits—like setting out your gym clothes and going every morning when you wake up—make it easier when the time comes to put in the work.
And, as seen with lifting weights, you can’t just throw more effort at something. At least not forever. You’ve got to figure out what the right habits are and work to develop them. You have to get outside your comfort zone because, as Ericsson and Pool say in Peak, “If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”
Generally speaking, if you want to write a book:
- Figure out your global goal. What is your book about? What do you want it to do?
- Determine how you will accomplish that goal.
- Why are you including the things you are? Do they help you achieve that goal?
If you want to be a professional writer, you’ve got to practice writing books (scenes, stories, chapters, articles, or whatever format you desire). And, you’ve got to develop a training method that will help you learn how to do so (and how to do so well) in order to satisfy your readers. You could take the steps above and apply them over and over hoping to improve over time. Or, you could follow the training techniques below.
How to Practice Writing
How do you develop a system to specifically practice writing? Tennis players can learn from the best teachers. Chess players can study the grandmasters. Musicians can listen to how a piece should be played and go through the sheet music note by note, correcting errors along the way. But what about writing? So much goes into it.
At the surface level, practicing in the right way means you:
- Identify the experts
- Figure out what they do that makes them so good (read their work)
- Figure out training techniques that allow you to do it too
- Do the work
- Evaluate where you have come up short, rework the problem, and try all over again
But if all it takes is figuring out who the experts are and doing what they do, why isn’t everyone a great writer? Because it takes effort. And the level of focus required to bring your skill levels as close as possible to the experts (without copying what they write because that’s not the goal) is time-consuming and tedious.
Luckily for us, in the same way that artists learn to paint by copying the greats, we can take the stories we love and learn to write our own from them.
Know that the “right” activities should:
- Get you outside your comfort zone (ask you to stretch yourself)
- Offer immediate feedback on performance
- Be similar to how experts became such (meaning, similar to their practices – read On Writing and you’ll get a clear picture of how Stephen King became an expert, for example)
- Develop the skills that experts in the field possess
The “shortcut” process to deliberate practice when writing is to get yourself a teacher who can give you the right exercise to practice certain skills. They can evaluate where you came up short and help you stay on track to improve.
Directly from Peak, a good teacher:
- Will be able to identify where you fell short and give you specific activities on how to improve
- Knows the best order to learn things
- Understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills
- Can provide useful feedback
- Can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses
- Should be accomplished in the field
- Should know how to teach in that field
- (And as an aside, you may need to change teachers as your skill grows)
Develop Your Writing System
It’s also ok to not have a teacher. It’s still possible to learn the skills you need. Generally speaking, your system should have you:
- Pick stories you want to emulate (or scenes. This is because you’ll be able to learn many skills faster when writing short pieces, but you’ll still be writing a contained story so the skills overlap)
- Evaluate what those stories do well (what is the global story accomplishing in your own words?)
- Visualize your story doing the same
- Write your story
- Analyze where you fell short (get feedback of some sort)
- Try again
Basically, you try to do something you cannot do by coming up with your own exercises. You pay attention to what you get wrong and correct those mistakes every time. In other words: “Focus. Feedback. Fix it.”
Make modifications to any practice system depending on the type of story you want to write, its length, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and for the audience who will be reading it.
My practice looks something like that of Benjamin Franklin (which I learned from Peak). He essentially found articles he wanted to emulate. He wrote down their essence sentence by sentence, let time pass, and tried to rewrite the article from his hints. When he was done he was able to compare his draft to the original to evaluate where he had come up short. His goal was to create his own articles as well-written as the originals. He then did the same using verse to increase his vocabulary followed by mixing up the sentences so he could learn how to format an argument.
My intended process (of course everything is modified in action):
Set a goal. If the story I’m studying does a particularly good job at the narrative device or creating active characters I try to make that my goal. Otherwise, I work on a skill I’m having trouble with. Anything from dialogue to the setting to a decent premise.
Find a story I want to emulate. I start with short stories because I want to learn a lot of skills in a short period of time. And, I find stories that accomplish whatever goal I’ve set.
Evaluate the story. I analyze what the story is accomplishing and how it does so in as much detail as possible. I use The Story Grid methodology as well as the skills I learned from AP English.
Write out what the global story is accomplishing. In my own words, I figure out and write down the controlling idea, premise, conflict, or whatever else I need to in order to understand what’s happening. (Since my goal isn’t the same as Franklin’s, I don’t go sentence by sentence.)
Write the original story out in my own words. After sufficient time has passed and I’ve forgotten the basics of the story, I try to write it out myself.
Compare my draft to the original. This shows my weaknesses. It also asks me to evaluate what the original author did and why so that I learn the mindset myself.
Write my own story using an element I wanted to learn from the original. If I were focused on dialogue, I’d write a new story of my own that focuses on that task. I then compare what I’ve created to what I wanted to and edit until I feel comfortable sharing it. This is where my goal comes back into play and specifically in my own work.
Get feedback from another writer or editor. Feedback is invaluable because it lets me know what readers think and feel about what I’ve written.
Then edit once more. I repeat the process as much as necessary to get the story up to a workable draft and try to submit it to different places.
When I feel like I’ve sufficiently learned enough craft to stop analyzing other author’s stories (which I may keep doing as long as I’m alive), I’m going to start a process of writing a short story every week. The goal is to build my skills, to learn the craft, and to do the work. Then, I’ll use the smaller stories to build novels, screenplays, etc., which I’ll be able to do because I’m not forgetting the global component when writing short stories (and I’ll come up with a new training tactic once that day comes).
Writing a short story every week (or a scene, chapter, whatever)*:
- Day 1: Think globally. Consider what you want the story to be about. Why do you want to tell it?
- Day 2: Consider the core of your story. What’s the purpose? What do you want to achieve by telling it? Use that to develop a premise and characters that will struggle the most with the necessary actions.
- Day 3: Write out the necessary scenes that will prove your point.
- Day 4: Write a draft.
- Day 5: Evaluate that draft. Write down any changes you think you need to make and why.
- Day 6: Rewrite your story.
- Day 7: Complete a final edit by yourself and send the work to someone else.
Keep in mind that, because of the amount of effort developing skills takes, it’s ok to start with shorter sessions and work your way up. It’s ok to nap during the day (yes, you read that right). Just make sure your sessions have clearly defined goals. That you develop the right habits. That you maintain the right mindset. Do the work.
*Again, modify these techniques to best suit you. Perhaps you already know story structure and have written some successful novels. Try writing a scene every three days or every day. See what you can accomplish by going into your writing knowing what you want to achieve, evaluating your work, and fixing your mistakes.
Why practice in this way?
If the goal of professional writing is to earn a living from your work, you have to satisfy your readers. To satisfy your readers you should understand craft. Your stories should make a promise and fulfill that promise in a surprising but inevitable way. They should keep readers reading and, ultimately, they should beg to be shared with new audiences.
In practicing this way, you reduce the amount of time it will take to write stories that work. You’ll internalize story structure and be able to apply it in new and exciting ways. You’ll learn from the best and you’ll take those skills with you and continue to build upon them every time you write something new.
Put Your Work Out There
That doesn’t get you off the hook from one other thing: sharing your work. If you have a teacher, you’ve already got a built-in place to submit. If you don’t, research. A critical part of the learning process is learning where you failed. It’s hard to do that for yourself on pieces you’re invested in and are close to. Resources like The Story Grid absolutely help (as do our editors), but outside feedback is necessary.
Though taking criticism is also a learned skill, it does get easier and it, too, can be practiced.
You Determine your own Potential
No one alive can guess at the potential you possess. So long as you maintain your motivation and keep pushing past the plateaus of learning that will come up, there is no limit to what you can achieve. Ericsson and Pool remind us: “How much you improve is up to you.” So, develop your writing practice. Become the professional you want to be. Write.