I’ve been thinking about the idea of deliberate practice, and it seems to me that while the idea is certainly a good one, the way it’s described in Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated doesn’t really help writers. Colvin describes deliberate practice as a way of breaking down and working intensely on the components of a particular activity. He goes specifically into how deliberate practice can work for musicians and chess players. But I don’t think writing is similar to either of those activities. Music may be closer than chess, which seems to me rather like a mental sport. Music is an art, but it’s an art that involves interpretation rather than original creation. It’s more like acting than writing.
Writing is more like composing or being a visual artist. It involves the creation of something new. Writers are content producers rather than content interpreters.
Colvin does give us one model of a writer who used deliberate practice, but it’s Benjamin Franklin, whom I would not hold up as an example of a great creative writer. So does the idea of deliberate practice apply to writing? I think it does, but perhaps in a different way. I’m not sure there is a writerly equivalent to practicing a golf swing, except for the most inexperienced writers, who are actually helped by coming up with a series of first lines, or describing several characters, or just writing dialog for a while. But experienced writers, who are expected to produce genuinely creative work, are going to be way beyond, and not particularly helped by, those sorts of basics. At least not as daily exercises they certainly wouldn’t hurt, but they wouldn’t be enough. If we are to take the idea of deliberate practice seriously, it should work for the most experienced writers as well, although perhaps in a different form.
If I were to start to formulate a way to practice deliberately as a writer, I would probably focus on four things:
1. You need to write a lot.
2. You need to write different things.
3. You need to get feedback on your writing.
4. You need to study the work of other writers.
I find that I do this, even though I don’t do the sorts of simplistic exercises I described above, the equivalent of golf swings. As least, I write a lot now – there was a time when I didn’t write every day, and I can tell you that my writing was different. I had less confidence in it, and I think its quality was less consistent. So now I write at least 1000 words a day, every day. And I write different things: stories, essays, blog posts, facebook and twitter posts (which are an art form of their own, if you want to do them well). Soon, I will be working on a novel.
I think what has helped me the most, recently, has been writing this blog. I get feedback so quickly, whether through hits or comments. I know which of my posts people respond to. That has taught me a lot about writing. But of course I get feedback on everything I write – although I don’t have time for a writing group at the moment, I get constant feedback from editors.
And I study the work of other writers. Not just that, I study what they say about writing. I’ve just finished P.D. James’ Talking about Detective Fiction and I’ve just started Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist.
And following an interesting facebook post or tweet (I don’t remember which) the other day, I found the following videos of Kurt Vonnegut talking about how to write stories.
Here he is on the shapes of stories:
And here he is giving general short story advice:
I thought I would comment briefly on his suggestions.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Well, yes. At a minimum, the reader has to neither put your story down in the middle nor throw it across the room at the end.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Maybe. Franz Kafka didn’t. Neither did Albert Camus.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
I’m not so sure about this one either. I can see experimental fiction about a character who genuinely doesn’t want anything. But perhaps Vonnegut is talking about what will make your story appealing to readers, and yes, readers want characters to root for, and in order for readers to root for them, they must actually want something. Even if it’s only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
Ideally, every sentence should do both of those things at once, and should also be stylistically interesting.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
This is a bit of a cop out: “as possible.” Yes, as possible, meaning you don’t want material that is not important at the beginning of your story. But an inexperienced writer may take this advice as license to start in the middle of the action without taking the time to make readers care about the characters first. I know this sort of advice has mislead me in the past.
6. Be a sadist. (By which he means, torture your characters.)
He’s exaggerating here. Yes, your characters should go through trials and tribulations. But if you do nothing but torture them, put them through nothing but tribulations, your story won’t be much fun to read. I would say rather, be an authorial god. The gods meet out good and ill. That’s what you need to do. If there is only ill, what’s the point?
7. Write to please just one person. (By which he means – what?)
I’m not sure what he means by this, but I will say that when I write, I often have an imaginary reader in my head. That imaginary reader is a version of me. I write what I would like to read. (It occurs to me that I had a conversation about this once, with a friend who is also a writer. He told me the same thing, and I didn’t understand it at the time. I think I do now.)
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.
Again with the cop out: “as possible.” If you’re writing a murder mystery, you can’t reveal the identity of the murderer until the end. But you do need to make sure the reader doesn’t feel as though you’re holding information back. The story can’t depend on the reader not knowing something the characters know.
I think these are fairly simple rules, the sorts of rules I learned when I first started writing. Perhaps the greatest use of them for a more experienced writer is thinking them through, deciding what works and what doesn’t, and why. After all, I think one component of deliberate practice is continually going back to the basics. And that’s not a bad thing, for chess players or musicians or writers, even though they might do it differently.