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  • Foto van schrijverIris Marsh

Deliberate Practice for Writers: Write Better Stories

Bijgewerkt op: 21 nov. 2023

Deliberate practice is a term that has been thrown around a lot over the past years. Most of the time, it’s associated with Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book that states you have to put in 10,000 hours to become a master at something.


The research this is based on, however, doesn’t really talk about the number of hours you put in. Because it’s not necessarily about how much time you put in. The more important thing is how you use the time you have.


Deliberate practice was first coined by Ericsson. In one of his first studies, he followed different groups of violin players (amateurs, teaching students, professional students) and recorded how they studied to get better at their craft. This resulted in his deliberate practice.


Since then, there have been other studies on the topic, many also considering talent as a factor. Because, yes, talent does factor in. In general, the more talent you have for something, the less time it will take you to master something through deliberate practice.


Makes sense, right?


That also means that if you don’t have a lot of talent, it’s still possible to become a master at something. You simply need to put in more time.


And you need to use that time wisely.


In this article, I’ll walk you through what deliberate practice is and, more importantly, how you can use deliberate practice as a writer.



deliberate practice for writers: write better stories

What is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice, as defined by Ericsson, should be a specific task that’s performed with internal motivation and repeated with a correct method or strategy.


What does this mean?


For one, being internally motivated means that you want to practice your craft. The reward you receive is purely (or mostly) internal. You’re not doing it because someone else tells you to.


The task you’re doing should be repeated multiple times so that you ingrain the learned skill.


The task should also use the correct method or strategy. This means that when you want to learn a certain skill, your method for learning this skill should fit with your current skill level and knowledge base.


In particular this last part can be tricky. That’s why Ericsson tends to focus on a teacher-student type of relationship that goes with deliberate practice. The teacher or coach will know the student’s level and will design the task accordingly so that the student can grow.


In addition, deliberate practice also has a very specific goal: you want to level up on a certain skill.


Deliberate practice is an effortful activity, which means it takes time and energy as well as access to the right resources. Because of this, you can only do deliberate practice for a limited time each day before you grow tired. Usually, when you start out, practice is an hour or less per day.


In fact, Ericsson found that the difference between the good violin students and the best violin students was that the best students took a break in the afternoon. They also made sure they got enough sleep.


To sum it up, deliberate practice is:

  • Specific

  • Effortful

  • Requires feedback/instruction

  • Requires repetition

Let’s see how we can translate this to come up with deliberate practice techniques for writers.

 
 

Deliberate practice techniques for writers

1. Define your specific goal

First, you have to define your goal. What specific thing do you want to get better at? Here are some ideas:

Any of the above is a skill that would make you a better writer.


To know which skill you should work on, think about where you currently are as a writer. Are you still at the beginning? Then it could be a good idea to focus on story structure and character development to build your foundation.


Are you further along in your journey? Then pick a specific writing technique such as setting descriptions or dialogue.


Whichever skill you pick, there’s never a wrong answer. The important thing is that you get better as a writer.


2. Find the right method or strategy to practice the skill

Next, you have built an exercise around the skill you’ve picked. To do this, you need the right amount of knowledge. You can gain this knowledge in multiple ways:

  • Hire a writing coach to teach you

  • Read a book (or several) on the topic

  • Search the internet for information (blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc.)

Once you feel you know enough about this topic, you start with your first exercise.

 
 

3. Create your exercise

Before I start with writing, I prefer to see the skill in action as it’s supposed to be by analyzing writers who are a master at their craft. Pick a few books you love. You can always learn a lot about a certain skill by analyzing your favorite books.


For instance, if you want to learn more about story structure, pick a book, start reading it, and break down the structure. Use whichever methods you’ve learned about, like Save the Cat!, Hero’s Journey, Super Structure, or something else.


Or if you want to write better settings, open a book and start reading. Note every setting description and look at these more closely. Which verbs did they use? Did they incorporate multiple senses? What else did they do that stands out?


The second exercise is the actual writing. Create a writing exercise around your chosen skill.


For instance, for your exercise on story structure, you can analyze a story you’ve written in the past in the same way you did with the published books. Or you can write a plot outline for a new story based on the frameworks you’ve learned about.


Or for setting description, you can pick settings you’ve written in your current manuscript and rewrite them based on what you’ve learned. Or pick a certain type of setting each day, choose what you want that setting to do, and write that setting with what you’ve learned.

 
 

4. Put in the effort & repeat

Deliberate practice is effortful. So, put in the effort. Even if it’s just 30 minutes a day, you’re getting better at your craft. Repeat the exercise until you feel you’ve gotten the hang of it. Then it’s time for feedback.


5. Getting feedback

We won’t know if we’re getting any better if we don’t ask for feedback. Otherwise, we will reach a plateau in our skill level without knowing how to level up more.


There are several ways you can get feedback:

  • Share pieces of your writing in writing groups. There are many of these online, or you could even create a WattPad account or something similar and post it there.

  • Hire an editor or writing coach for professional feedback. This option has a higher cost but will generally allow you to level up faster. If your budget allows it, you could ask for a plot critique, scene critique, manuscript critique, or a developmental edit on a specific part of your writing.


Once you’ve had your feedback, adjust your exercise. What did you need to improve on based on the feedback? Then add that to the exercise and repeat the process. At some point, you’ll have gotten as far as you could on a certain skill. Then you can move on to the next skill to improve your writing.

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