One of the pleasures of blogging is meeting people who I might not have met otherwise, and such a person is Barbara Baig, a hugely experienced writer and teacher of writing in the US. Her new book How to be a Writer is a fascinating how-to book which can guide anyone to become a better and more interesting writer than they are, and therefore also an exploration of the practice of writing, in all senses of the word: the kind of thing which I think of as yoga for writers. So when Barbara told me about the research which suggests that expertise - craftsmanship - comes about not from innate talent but from practice, I asked her to do a guest blog explaining what, on the face of it, is the exact opposite of what most of us believe. Over to Barbara.
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What makes certain people really good writers? Most of us are sure we know the answer to that question: innate talent. Some people have it; others don’t. If we have it, writing will be always be easy for us, and success will naturally come our way. If we don’t have it—even if we love to write—we will struggle; we will feel we don’t know what we are doing as writers; success will probably elude us; we are doomed to spend our lives envying those fortunate ones, gifted at birth with writing talent.
This view of talent in writing—or in any other field—is part of our world-view, reinforced by Hollywood movies about great artists, the content of literature courses (only “great writers” need apply), and Aunt Ermyntrude, who never fails to remind us that, if we were really talented as writers, we would know it by now, so why don’t we give up this writing nonsense and settle down to something sensible?
This view of talent is so prevalent, it’s no wonder most of us take it to heart. There’s just one problem, though: it’s not true. For several decades, scientific researchers in the field of expertise studies have been trying to figure out what makes certain people really great at what they do. What they have learned has shown, conclusively, that what we think we know about talent is wrong. They have studied chess players and writers, artists and firefighters, tennis players and violinists and nurses, and people in many other fields—and in none of these studies did they find evidence of ANYONE who was “born great” at something. Three British researchers in this field of expertise studies have concluded: “The evidence we have surveyed…does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.” To put this another way: Talent, that innate natural gift, that ability to achieve great results without effort, is a myth.
So, if it’s not talent that makes some people outstanding in their field, what is it?
The expertise researchers have the answer: deliberate practice.
I’m not an expertise researcher; I’m a writer who specializes in the teaching of writing, something I’ve been doing for almost thirty years. For most of that time I taught “writing process,” an approach that many of you are probably familiar with. After a while, though, I lost my initial enthusiasm for this approach; I felt it wasn’t doing enough to help my students become better writers. What was missing? I spent a lot of time thinking about that question, which then led me to others: How do we really learn how to write? And what, exactly, should we be learning, anyway? For years I thought—you might even say, obsessed— about these questions.
When answers came, they arrived, not from writing, but from two unexpected sources. One was music; the other, baseball. In my forties, I took up the piano, an instrument I hadn’t played since childhood, and I began to listen to the Boston Red Sox baseball games on the radio. (At that time I was living in Massachusetts.) And gradually it dawned on me: how do musicians learn to play an instrument? Through practice. How do baseball players learn to play the game well enough to get to the major leagues? Through practice. I thought about Ted Williams, the legendary Red Sox hitter, who, as a kid, went to a neighborhood park every day after school and hit baseballs until it was too dark to see. I thought about Vladimir Horowitz, the world-famous pianist, who said, “If I don’t practice for one day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.”
And then I realized what is missing in the way we learn to write: we almost never get an opportunity to practice.
That’s because in school, where most people learn to write, writing takes place under what I call “performance conditions”: it counts. It’s going to be read and judged and graded. The same thing is true in most creative writing workshops: we’re writing pieces that will be critiqued, pieces we want to make “good enough” to get published. But when we do something only under performance conditions, we’re not likely to be able to learn anything about how to do it well; performance conditions create anxiety and stress that block learning.
And so I came to the conclusion that if we want to write, or to become better writers, what we most need is the opportunity to practice.
That’s because practice is the way we humans learn our skills, from learning to walk to learning to drive a car. No one is born with an innate ability to be great at something; she or he has to LEARN those skills. And the more we practice, the more our skills improve. It’s certainly true that some people are more fortunate than others in the opportunities that come their way to learn and practice. Take Mozart, for instance. In popular imagination, he’s the “divine genius” from whom masterpieces simply poured forth. The truth is that Mozart was lucky enough to be born to an ambitious musician, who was also a skilled teacher, and who put his son into training as a musician and composer from the age of three. When we look at other people who have achieved great success, we see the same pattern: the golfer Tiger Woods was also taught by his father from an early age; the Bronte sisters spent their childhood writing small books; the Beatles had the opportunity to play for thousands of hours in Hamburg clubs.
The expertise researchers have even come up with a formula for outstanding performance: if you want to be really great at some activity, you have to put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. (That’s about three hours a day for ten years.)
Now, realistically, most of us don’t have the time for that kind of practice. But what stands out for me in the findings of the expertise researchers is not what they say about how some people become great, but what they tell us about how we can all learn.
Take someone who wants to play baseball. A good coach will help him (or her) break down the activity of hitting a pitched ball down into its component parts and demonstrate how to practice each part separately. A good music teacher will do the same thing with her students, taking the work of performance and breaking it down into particular skills, which can then be practiced separately.
This breaking down of an activity into component skills, and then practicing each one separately, is the key to learning to do anything well. K. Anders Ericsson, perhaps the most prominent of the expertise researchers, has explained that deliberate practice consists of “training activities that have been specifically designed to improve some aspect of an individual’s target performance.” Deliberate practice activities are designed, also, to be repeated—not just a couple of times, but over and over and over. It’s through this repetition that skills that first feel awkward—like swinging a baseball bat or writing a declarative sentence—become so automatic that we can rely upon them to serve us well in performance situations.
If we want to apply the deliberate practice approach to becoming better writers, we can. To do that, it’s helpful to distinguish in our minds between performance writing (writing we want to make good enough to get published) and practice writing. Then, when we sit down to write, we need to give ourselves time to practice, so we can learn and develop our skills.
But what, exactly, should we be practicing?
Here we writers aren’t as fortunate as aspiring baseball players and musicians. The teaching of skills through practice is traditional in sports and music, so coaches and teachers in those fields have an established repertoire of practices to make use of. But writing isn’t typically taught in this way. For the past several years I’ve been developing a practice-based approach to help writers learn their skills. Here’s the general framework I’ve come up with:
When we write, we need two main categories of skills: I call them “content skills” and “craft skills.” Content skills are the ones we need in order to come up with ideas and material for pieces of writing; we need, for instance to have well-trained faculties of observation, imagination, curiosity, and others. We also need the skill of establishing a natural relationship with readers, so we can communicate our content to them. Craft skills include “large craft”—that is, an understanding of how one’s chosen genre works—and “small craft”: the ability to use language to communicate and to move our readers (that is, skills in diction and syntax), and a solid foundation in English grammar.
Like aspiring baseball players and pianists, we can’t learn our skills all at once. We have to practice them separately. I have devised a number of foundational practices which I teach in my workshops, in my book, and online (www.wherewriterslearn.com). I also believe that every writer can identify for herself the skills she needs to learn; in effect, to create an individual learning plan. One of the things the expertise researchers have discovered is that people who become great in a field ultimately become their own teachers.
Deliberate practice is not easy. It’s not just hacking around—doing endless amounts of freewriting, for example; and it’s not doing things you already know how to do. Deliberate practice is highly focused and intentional—you’re engaging in a particular activity, and doing it over and over and over, because you are trying to build one particular skill. When you feel comfortable with that activity, you challenge yourself to begin again with an activity you’re not so good at. So, for instance, if you’re not good at collecting material for writing, you practice that; if you’re not good at getting characters in and out of rooms, you practice that; if you’re not good at writing complex sentences, you practice that. You can decide what you need to be practicing at any given time.
Anders Ericsson and other expertise researchers have conducted hundreds of studies on what makes people really good at an activity, and they have concluded that deliberate practice really works. Not only does it build skills, which we can then count on to serve us when we return to the realm of “performance writing,” it also develops in us the habit of focused attention so necessary to the producing of excellent work, as well as to our everyday well-being. Deliberate practice also quite literally builds our brains, establishing new connections and increasing an important substance called myelin. Most of all, perhaps, deliberate practice builds our confidence. When we have trained our skills, then we know what we are doing when we write. We no longer need to spend time wishing we had innate talent. We can, instead, focus our trained skills on producing the best writing we can.