How to Apply Deliberate Practice — A Guide for Writers On Medium
|Bryan Collins||Jun 26, 2016|
Are you ready to master your craft?
Do you want to become a writer on Medium, who rises above the crowd?
Have you got what it takes to turn deliberate practice into part of your writing life?
Two years ago, I read the book Outliers: The Story of Success by the Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell.
In his popular psychology book, Gladwell explains it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline, like playing the violin or writing.
“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
I took Gladwell’s point at face value.
I wanted to achieve my 10,000 hours.
So, I set a target of writing just fiction for 3 hours a day or 21 hours a week.
I picked three hours a day, because most fiction writers — even Stephen King — don’t write over three hours a day, every day.
I recorded how long I spent writing fiction each day, using a timer on my computer, and I totalled up the hours at the end of the week.
Three hours a day adds up to twenty-one hours a week and approximately one thousand hours a year. At this rate, it would take ten years to achieve mastery, AND that means, writing seven days a week, 365 days a year.
No sick days, no holidays, and no time off.
I found it impossible to balance the demands of a job and family life with writing fiction three hours a day, every day without a break.
I resented this lack of progress, and my plan fell apart within weeks. Then, I discovered how Mozart turned deliberate practice into part of his early life.
What Mozart Teaches Us About Deliberate Practice
The Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, worked in obscurity for a mere ten years (or 10,000 plus hours) before he became popular.
But, here’s the thing:
When he was a beginner, Mozart didn’t just practice by composing music.
Under his father’s guidance, Wolfgang learnt to play the piano, the clarinet, the violin, and other musical instruments.
He also studied great music, travelled to the courts of the day to watch others perform, and then emulated what he saw.
Mozart deliberately practiced each area of his craft, and he discovered where his true talents lay faster.
In Mastery, Robert Greene describes a letter Mozart sent to his father before he became famous.
“I am a composer… I neither can nor ought to bury the talent for composition with which God in his goodness has so richly endowed me.”
After practicing each area of his craft, Mozart spent the rest of his life working towards one goal: becoming a great composer.
Master the Way You Apply Deliberate Practice
Mozart is an extreme example, but here’s the thing:
The quality of time you spend practicing your craft is more important the quantity.
Gladwell’s 10,000 hours refers to everything creative people do, not just the time you spend with a violin or a pen in your hands.
This was one of my mistakes.
I was too focused on just fiction writing, and I didn’t count other types of writing, like blogging or copywriting. I also didn’t count the time I spent studying topics, like creativity, storytelling, and more.
You can put your 10,000 hours in if you turn practicing every area of your craft into part of your life.
So what does this look like for writers on Medium?
Deliberate practice for writers means being open to new ideas, even when you’re not sitting at your desk or in front of the blank page.
It means reading outside of your comfort zone and using what you read to improve your writing.
It means committing to lifelong learning and putting as much as you can into practice.
How to Practice Writing Like an Expert
When it’s time to sit down in the chair and put one word after another, use this time wisely.
Pick an area of your craft you want to improve and work hard at it. This way, you’ll figure out what type of writer you want to become faster.
The more time you spend doing this, the better your creative skills will become.
Wondering what areas to work on?
Here’s a deliberate practice plan for five types of writing.
1. Openings and closings
How do you like to enter a room? Or better yet, how do you like to leave one?
If you’re a writer, it should be with a bang.
The introduction of your stories or articles is where you grip your readers from your first sentence.
Your conclusion is where you tie your thoughts together or encourage your readers to take action.
They’re damn hard to do well.
How to apply deliberate practice for writing openings and closings:
I once read every post on a popular blog and copied all the first lines into a Word document, so I could figure out how the writer opened each of his captivating posts.
This helped me figure out the writer invokes an emotion in each of his introductions and returns to this emotion in his conclusion.
Study how other writers you admire open and close their stories and articles. Keep a notebook of great introductions and conclusions and emulate these writers, until you’ve mastered their tricks.
Deliberating writing and rewriting introductions and conclusions will improve your ability to grip your readers and make an impression on them.
If you want to improve the rhythm of your writing, practice the delicate art of transitions.
So what, exactly, is a transition?
(Hint: there’s one)
A transition explains the relationship between one sentence or idea and the next. They break up long and short sentences and ease the reader from one paragraph to the next.
Here’s the thing:
If you write for the web — hell, even if you’re writing a book — mastering transitions encourages visitors to read your work longer.
How to apply deliberate practice for writing transitions:
You can improve your ability to write transitions by studying how other writers break up their work through key words and phrases.
Key transitional words include:
Key transitional phrases include:
Let me explain
Here’s the kicker:
Keep a list of transitional words and phrases like these. Then, when you’re editing, break up some of your longer sentences, by working in these transitions.
Finally, read your work out-loud and ask yourself it sounds natural.
If you need more help writing transitions, study this in-depth article by Henneke.
Copywriting — or writing words that sell — is a type of writing that marketers and advertisers use to tell stories and to sell their product or services.
Learning the basics will help you introduce an idea to your readers and convince them to act on it.
For example, if you self-publish a book, you can use your copywriting skills to write the book description on Amazon or on your website.
And, if you want to earn a living from writing, copywriting is a great way to do it.
How to apply deliberate practice for copywriting:
Start with the problem-agitate-solution formula. It’s easy to learn, and you can use it for blog posts, emails, book copy, and more.
You have only to write about a common problem your readers have, agitate it, and then provide your readers with a solution.
(Hint: I used this formula introducing this blog post).
You can also practice copywriting by keeping a swipe file on your computer.
Fill this swipe file with headlines, hooks, book descriptions, reader testimonials, and everything else you need to assemble great copy.
4. Generating ideas
Putting one word after another, sometimes, feel like building a brick wall. It’s a slow and methodical process, and if you haven’t got the right materials, you’re not going accomplish much.
Ideas are the writer’s materials, and your book or your articles depend on the quality and quantity of your ideas.
How to apply deliberate practice for generating ideas:
Carry a notebook (digital or otherwise) when you leave the house and record what you see every day.
Better yet, put a notebook by your bed and write in it, first thing, when you wake.
In my notebook, I record ideas for blog posts, headlines, pieces of research I read, fragments from dreams, and more.
The writer, James Altucher, recommends recording ten ideas every day and then combining these ideas.
He likens this to idea sex and says it’s the best way to become more creative.
Whatever your approach, get into the habit of generating ideas every day for your books, stories, and articles. It doesn’t matter if they are good, bad, or just bizarre.
Because when you apply deliberate practice like this, you’ll never run out of material.
5. Telling stories
Telling stories is one of the best ways to grip your readers, but it’s also a type of writing that’s difficult to pull off.
Two months ago, I attended a conference for non-fiction writers by the screenwriting guru, Robert McKee.
McKee challenged the non-fiction writers in the room to tell more stories.
He told us:
“He who tells the best story, wins.”
These days, I introduce almost all of my posts with a personal anecdote and with a story about someone I admire from history or pop culture.
This practice helps me improve an area of the craft where I’m weak.
How to apply deliberate practice for telling stories:
You can tell a great story if you’re honest, personal, and if you reveal something about yourself you’d rather keep secret.
Start by working personal anecdotes into your non-fiction writing. If this is difficult, keep a journal for several months and record what you do each day.
Then, when you need an anecdote, read through several months of journal entries and extract a story that applies to whatever you’re writing.
Read Story by Robert McKee and watch this presentation that explains how Pixar tells stories.
Then, tell me about yourself.
Be Smart, Be Patient
Creative masters, like Mozart, turn deliberate practice into part of their day-to-day lives.
They’re able to get more value from their work and get more value from their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
There are no shortcuts to creative success. It took Mozart ten years to discover where his true talents lay.
Are you ready to practice writing for ten years?
If you are, be smart about it.
Improve the creative skills, where you’re weakest, and when you’re not writing, look for and apply ideas and lessons from other writers you admire.
Because it all counts.
Image of Malcolm Gladwell courtesy of PEN American Center — Philip Kerr and Malcolm Gladwell