If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better?

Deliberate practice

Photo credit: thart2009 via Visualhunt / CC BY

Today’s guest post is from author Barbara Baig.


How do certain people become really great at what they do?

That’s the question psychology professor Anders Ericsson has been exploring for his entire career. Now, in his new book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, co-written with science writer Robert Pool, Ericsson reveals the answer.

If you’ve heard of Ericsson, it’s probably because his research and ideas have been featured in many articles and books, notably Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. In Peak, he finally gets to explain things his own way.

In very readable prose, Peak describes how Ericsson and his colleagues have studied top performers in many fields, and it shows how all of these performers use the same kind of training methods. Peak is not designed specifically for writers, but any aspiring writer who reads it and (even more important) makes use of the training principles the book explains
will find his or her abilities dramatically improved.

How can this be? How can a training approach used by top golfers, divers, ballet dancers, surgeons, and many other people possibly help writers?

The cover of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of ExpertiseThe answer is simple: it’s all in our brains.
When it comes to becoming better writers, most of us make three assumptions:

  1. Each of us is born with a certain innate potential for achievement: We call it talent. Getting better at what we do is simply a matter of fulfilling that inborn ability.
  2. To get better at what we do, we just need to keep doing it.
  3. Improvement depends on how much effort we put in. If we’re not improving, we’re just not trying hard enough.

These assumptions are so common you might not even realize you hold them. But they share something with many other widely held assumptions: they aren’t true.

  1. Even brain scientists used to believe that each person’s brain—and, therefore, his abilities—were fixed at birth. But since the 1990s brain scientists have discovered that the human brain, even the adult brain, is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined. They call this ability of the brain to change in response to challenges its plasticity, a quality that (barring injury or illness) everyone’s brain possesses. It’s the ability of our brains to change—not our innate talent—that allows us to learn and develop new skills.
  2. “Just keep writing, you’ll get better”: this piece of writing advice pervades the internet. Sadly, it’s completely wrong. In their studies of experts, Ericsson and his colleagues have shown that none of them achieved mastery simply by doing the same thing over and over.
  3. And while effort is certainly important, effort by itself will get us nowhere.
What we need, Ericsson explains, is the right kind of training, the kind of training that creates experts in any field. He and his colleagues named this kind of training deliberate practice. Well, sure: practice. We all know what that is. Or do we?

When most of us think about practice, we’re imagining what Ericsson calls naive practice, the kind of repetitive action we do to learn a skill and then put it on automatic pilot. We learn a lot of things this way—cooking dinner, for instance, or driving a car. The trouble with this kind of practice is that it will never help us improve our skills. For that, we need a different kind of practice, one Ericsson calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, he tells us, will harness “the adaptability of the human brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible.” With this kind of practice, we literally build areas of the brain involved in writing, thereby increasing our own “talent” and making ourselves better writers.

This particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—is not easy, and it’s not fun. It requires setting goals for our practice sessions, maintaining focus as we practice, getting feedback on our practice, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, developing effective mental representations of the skills we’re practicing, and learning from models of excellence. Peak provides details of all of these elements of deliberate practice, and lots more, giving us a totally new approach—new for writers, but well-proven in other fields—to developing our skills.

So, how might we use this approach? First, we have to consider our writing skills: Which ones do we have? Which ones do we lack?

Suppose, for instance, that we want to improve our sentences; suppose that we choose to work on prepositional phrases. First, we need to be sure we know what a prepositional phrase is (effective mental representation); we’ll probably have to look that up and provide ourselves with a list of prepositions to use in our practice. For our first practice session, perhaps our goal is to write a number of sentences and use every preposition on the list. Getting feedback on this practice is easy: we just compare the prepositions we’ve used with those on the list. (If we’re not sure we’ve used a preposition correctly, we’ll have to check that out.)

After we’ve done some more practices like this, we can push ourselves out of our comfort zone by setting stricter requirements, perhaps insisting on three prepositional phrases per sentence, or beginning and ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase. We can also turn to our best teachers, our favorite writers, and copy down sentences from their work that demonstrate a mastery of prepositional phrases. Then we imitate how our writers have used this technique and compare our efforts to the originals.

Is this kind of practice a lot of work? Yes, it sure is. But if you practice this way, with any writing technique, you will build your skills faster and more effectively than you can possibly imagine. And then, you will own those skills, you will be able to use them at will, and you will develop an unshakeable confidence in your ability to do whatever you want on the page.

I can speak from personal experience here. Some years ago, I taught myself all the techniques of diction and syntax I present in my latest book, Spellbinding Sentences. Even more important, all those months of practice, all that training, transformed me into a writer with skills she can depend on.

But don’t take my word for it. Get yourself a copy of Peak. Read it carefully and figure out how you can use the principles of expertise acquisition Ericsson describes. Then make practice an ongoing part of your writing routine. The The cover of Spellbinding Sentences by Barbara Baigright kind of practice, Ericsson tells us (along with perseverance and ongoing effort), can change our brains. It can turn us into the writers we’ve always wanted to be. It might even change our lives.


For more from Barbara Baig, check out Spellbinding Sentences: How to Achieve Excellence and Captivate Your Readers.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , .

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41 Comments on "If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better?"

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Richard Gilbert

Thanks for this excellent review, Barbara. So interesting, succinct, and helpful.

Barbara Baig

You’re very welcome, Richard.

jeffo
I haven’t read “Peak” yet, but it sounds pretty interesting. What I would have said before reading the post (based on title alone) is “No, you will not get better by just writing.” I would have said that it requires also taking the time to read what you’ve written, and get feedback from others, and really analyze what you’ve done and what others say. All the critiques in the world will not help if you refuse to acknowledge the weaknesses and areas of improvement in your writing. I will add that I have not considered practicing as laid out here,… Read more »
Barbara Baig

You’re absolutely right, jeffo. No one can improve who is convinced his or her writing needs no improvement!

Rachel Funk Heller

Love this post! I bought Barbara’s book, “Spellbinding Sentences” and my 2016 new years resolution was to complete at least one of her writing exercises every day. Last month I brought a new draft to my writers group meeting and they were all blown away, they all noted how much my writing has improved. Thank you Jane and Barbara.

Barbara Baig

Thanks, Rachel. And good for you for making that New Year’s resolution and sticking to it. Your story shows what’s possible when we devote time and energy to improving our skills.

Rachel Funk Heller

Aloha Barbara, so nice to hear from you! I can’t say enough good things about your book and I recommend it to all of my writer pals.

Barbara Baig

Thanks so much, Rachel. I do appreciate your recommendations.

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[…] que te impiden escribir. Si te comprometes, serán indispensables la paciencia, la práctica (deliberada) y el esfuerzo, así como aceptar que se trata de un proceso de mejora sujeto a críticas, en el […]

Kathryn Gossow

I heard Ericsson interviewed on the radio and did not make the connection with writing and yet it is so obvious. Thanks for making the connections for me Barbara.

Barbara Baig

You’re very welcome, Kathryn. I hope you can now move on to discovering what Ericsson’s methods can do for you.

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[…] If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? (Jane Friedman) How can this be? How can a training approach used by top golfers, divers, ballet dancers, surgeons, and many other people possibly help writers? The answer is simple: it’s all in our brains.
When it comes to becoming better writers, most of us make three assumptions. […]

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[…] Source: If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] There are many reasons to recommend Jane Friedman’s blog; but, today’s is to read the guest post, If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? […]

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[…] Author Barbara Baig discusses the idea of deliberate practice from Anders Ericsson's book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.  […]

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[…] Baig reminds us that not all writing practice is created equal, Isabel Costello explores writing about love, and James Scott Bell lists 5 pieces of writing advice […]

Victor
I think this is an excellent article, on a very interesting subject. However, and without having read this book we are talking about, I can’t agree entirely with Ericsson and Pool conclusions.. What about (good) spontaneous writing, from authors that have written from their gut, without any kind of practice and any kind of knowledge of techniques or structures or how to build sentences in a most ingenious way? What about writing that comes in bursts of necessity of expression without that need for practice or that seek for perfection? Can’t that be considered good writing too? Isn’t that coming… Read more »
Barbara Baig

You ask some good questions, Victor. In response, I think of two things. First, yes, sometimes we write simply from a need to get our feelings out on paper, and that writing can feel very powerful. Often (not always), however, this kind of writing is too private to have much effect on anyone other than the writer. Second, while inspiration is certainly real, it is wildly unpredictable. When we have trained skills, though, we can write well reliably, even when inspiration refuses to show up.

Victor

Thanks for the reply, very interesting indeed. I agree that in order to reach an steady flow of writing that can connect with a major audience, and overcome the occasional writer’s block or creative slowdown, we need a method of practice. This is no opposed to spontaneous expression that can achieve great quality but might be somewhat less profitable. It’s like a person that occasionally runs for fun in the forest and a person that trains hard everyday in order to win races.

Barbara Baig

Yes, that’s pretty much the difference.

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[…] Barbara Baig: If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better?  […]

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[…] Barbara Baig on Jane Friedman’s blog […]

Jonathan Brazee
This is an appropriate article for me to read right now. I’ve got about 4,000 hours of fiction writing over the last few years, and maybe 7-8,000 hours or professional and non-fiction writing before that. Most of my books sell well, but except for a few muse-inspired passages, I haven’t felt that I am getting better as a writer. At a conference last May, a well-established writer mentioned that talented indies can make a splash in the market, but most tended not to improve as writers. His reasoning was that indies do not have the support network of editors who… Read more »
Barbara Baig

Thank you so much for your insightful comments, Jonathan. I certainly agree that indie projects often don’t get the editing they should have. At the same time, I’m convinced that writers need to take responsibility for honing their skills, so I’m glad you’re going to try deliberate practice.

Jon Harrison
I have to disagree with the author in one sense. Obviously, if one just keeps “doing the same thing over and over” one probably won’t get better at it. But in fact if you learn as do, you will get better. It’s quite obvious that athletes (and writers) hone their skills by working on them — in other words, by repetition. The key is to keep learning new things as you goe along. I can attest to this, because I was an athlete as a young man, and I’m a published writer and a freelance editor now. Assuming one doesn’t… Read more »
BackpackerBill

You make some good points, Jon. I don’t know about learning skills from writing coaches. But I do know that I have earned a good living writing and never having had a writing coach. I learned by trial and error, imitating writing and re-writing the best in different areas — travel, food, ghosting for others, speeches, non-fiction books, etc. Lots of writing.

Barbara Baig

Apparently you were intuitively using the techniques of deliberate practice, Bill, and acting as your own coach.

BackpackerBill
I don’t know, Barbara. But somehow I think almost anything can be learned by trying to imitate what you consider to be the best. I’ve seen painters doing the same thing at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC as well as everywhere in Florence, Italy. I have a very successful artist daughter who does it for film. I would presume that this might be what you mean by “deliberate practice.” However, the example in your article, would not indicate this. It sounds like so much drudgery. And if anyone isn’t a writer and wants to become one, the only thing hard… Read more »
Jane Friedman
Somehow, the argument from PEAK (which is the real subject of Barbara’s piece) has been simplified and reduced to “writers need to focus on grammar/minutiae” in order to become better writers. That was not the argument. And neither PEAK (nor Barbara) suggested that writers should write LESS. That was Jon’s extrapolation, but it’s an incorrect one. Perhaps Barbara’s example of prepositional phrases was not the best chosen because I believe it has distracted from the real issue at hand. The argument is that doing the same thing over and over does not necessarily lead to improvement. “Naive practice” is the… Read more »
Barbara Baig

Thanks very much, Jane, for so clearly and gracefully articulating my own thoughts. One of the best things about writing is that we can always learn new things. Good teachers or coaches can, indeed, help–and if they are good, you’ll know, because under their guidance your skills will improve.

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[…] “ Author Barbara Baig discusses the idea of deliberate practice from Anders Ericsson's book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”  […]

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[…] If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? | Jane Friedman […]

ebooks2go

Amazing analysis, Barbara. Excellent tips and interesting guidance. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara Baig

You’re very welcome.

Kristen Steele

This is a great post. I hear that “just keep writing” advice all the time. The key is to just keep writing- but with a purpose. You need to be working towards improving that writing.

Barbara Baig

Thanks, Kristen. There are fads in writing advice, just as in any other area. With luck, this particular piece of advice will fade away soon.

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