The Talent Myth: Deliberate Practice for Writers

When I talk to people about writers, artists, performers, and other creative professionals, I often hear them described as a “talented” individual or “genius”.

But is it really true that they are renowned simply because of their innate abilities? If talent is crucial to developing skill, that would be depressing news for people who are aspiring to improve. If it isn’t necessary, then why are some people so much better at a skill than the rest of us?

As I tried to find out the answer to these questions, I stumbled across Cal Newport’s article on how practicing can make people into experts, as well as books such as  The Talent Code, Outliers, and Talent is Overrated.

It  turned out that, contrary to popular beliefs, many successful people spent years honing their craft until they became renowned. They went beyond merely practicing for countless hours though–they practiced deliberately, completing specific targeted practice that allowed them to learn at an exponential rate and develop expertise.

What is Deliberate Practice?

According to Talent is Overrated, deliberate practice has these traits:

  1. It’s designed to improve performance.
  2. It’s repeated a lot. 
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. 
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally.
  5. It’s hard.
  6. It requires good goals. 

In other words, deliberate practice requires you to go beyond practicing repeatedly. You got to practice the right things, to focus on specific tasks, address weaknesses, take risks, and get feedback.

Examples of Deliberate Practice in Music, Art, and Athletics 

Traditionally, deliberate practice seems to work best in fields that value speed, accuracy, and measurable results.

1. Meadowmount

Photo Credit: Alex

  • A music school that produced some of the world’s best musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman
  • It has a reputation for teaching students a year’s material in 7 weeks
  • Deliberate practice: Students practice for 5 hours a day on top of participating in master classes, workshops, and concerts. When learning to perform a song, they cut sheets of music into tiny stripes each containing mere seconds of music, then play the short segments slowly and repeatedly until they master it.

2. Italian Renaissance

Photo Credit: Darren Krape

  • The Italian Renaissance, one of the greatest arts movement in history, produced artists ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Raphael to Michelangelo 
  • Deliberate practice: Aspiring artists around the age of seven began a decade-long apprenticeship with master artists . They started by completing manual tasks like sweeping floors, grinding pigments, running errands, and preparing canvases. As time went on, they observed others, learned techniques through copying, and finally proceeded to create their original works.

3. Spartak

Photo Credit: Lauren Paulsen

  • A Russian tennis club that trained dozens of top ranking tennis players
  • Deliberate practice: Players swing their rackets without balls, practicing repeatedly in slow motion and correcting their moves each time.  The coaches have an obsessive focus on technique and players cannot enter any competition until they practice for 3 years.

Deliberate Practice in the Field of Writing

In the field of writing, it can be more difficult to employ deliberate practice, because weaknesses are harder to spot and the results cannot be measured so easily. However, many writers have found excellent ways to develop skills.

1. Benjamin Franklin

  • One of the best-known polymaths, he was an exceptional author, inventor, politician, and scientist
  • Deliberate practice: To improve the structure of his writing, he read essays, took notes, and then practiced reconstructing each essay based on his notes. To improve his diction, he rewrote essays in verse and then again in prose, challenging himself to write clearly and creatively.
  • Charlotte’s Jane Eyre,  Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s The Tenant of  Wildfell Hall are must-read classics in the English language
  • Deliberate practice: As children, the Brontes practiced by working on dozens of little books. They imitated popular stories, which allowed them to learn the craft of writing as well as experiment with structure, style, and content.
Reading about deliberate practice has inspired me to apply it to my own academic studies and creative work. I’m planning to create some writing exercises to address my weaknesses and build skill, which I will start sharing in the new year. This is my last post for 2011. Happy holidays everyone and I’ll be back in 2012!
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Categories: Writing Craft | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “The Talent Myth: Deliberate Practice for Writers

  1. I have met people who had talent, but they never used it. No pain, no gain. To produce anything good, you have to work at it. Nothing comes easy; there are no free lunches.

  2. Reblogged this on Basil Wheel.

  3. Perfectly indited subject matter, Really enjoyed looking through.

  4. Real nice style and superb written content, nothing else we want :D.

  5. Pingback: How to Overcome Writer’s Block | Yilin Wang

  6. Plumage

    They used to have a kind of apprenticeship for Bards in ancient times in Britain. It was like a kind of Shamanic mystical training. It was believed that they could write a satire on a person that could literally kill him.
    In medieval times there was an intense training for poets who were usually monks which involved doing very difficult exercises. In comparison today’s writing courses don;t seem to really stretch their participants that much.

  7. As a psychology student, I have read a great deal on deliberate practice, but I’m still clueless on how writers can benefit from such strategies. For instance, I have tried to read really slowly and try to figure out how brilliant writers construct their sentences, and it was mentally very taxing (a hallmark of deliberate practice???)! Just wondering, how have you been applying it?

    • Thank you for your question, Hause. I think there are many ways to apply deliberate practice to writing. I’ve been coming up with writing exercises that can be considered the writing equivalent of shooting baskets or playing scales. For instance, I feel some of my stories lack a distinct character voice, so I turned to some of my favorite books to study passages narrated in a strong voice. I discovered that the voice comes from unique personality traits, thoughts, and worldviews. Thus, I brainstormed what made my own characters unique, then used my ideas to strengthen weak passages. I’m planning to share more details about applying deliberate practice in my future blog posts, as well as writing exercise ideas.

      • Thanks for the reply. I really look forward to your future blog posts!

  8. Pingback: Wayson Choy on Writing Craft and Voice | Yilin Wang

  9. Fun post! Thanks for posting.

    As part of his writing practice, I think Ben Franklin also would take an essay or piece of writing he admired, read it, set it aside for a few days, then he’d try to rewrite the piece exactly: language, themes, tone, etc. Once he finished, he’d go back and compare the two and see where he got it right, but most importantly, where he got it wrong, and then he’d make improvements.

  10. Pingback: 12 Lessons for Writers and Artists from Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Part 1) | Yilin Wang

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