Purposeful practice is a term I picked up from Anders Ericsson, who is a Swedish psychologist who has, for many years, studied expertise and human performance. He recently came out with a book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which detailed how anyone can become an expert at anything they want.
One of the most important things we can do to become an expert is to engage regularly in purposeful practice.
Whenever we start talking about expertise, there’s this one number that has become really popular in detailing how long it takes to become an expert. It’s the rule of 10,000 hours, in case you haven’t heard this. But that 10,000 hours varies greatly among experts. Some have to put in far more than 10,000 hours and some far less. It all depends on how you practice. If you put in purposeful practice (as opposed to just practice), you’ll be able to master something at a faster rate than someone else who only practices the same thing every day.
So what is purposeful practice, and how can we, as writers, make sure we’re doing it?
Here’s one of the best ways to become an expert writer: choose one aspect of writing that you consider a weakness—such as dialogue or the ability to craft a realistic setting or your ability to craft funny one-liners in your essays—and once you have only one thing, work on it over and over and over again, until you see a marked improvement.
Now, obviously, there’s more to this than just choosing something and working on it over and over. But before you begin a plan of action, you first have to know what you want to work on, which means you have to know your weaknesses.
I know that one of my writing weaknesses is crafting good descriptions. So this year, I’m working on descriptions. I’m carrying around a description journal so I can make sure that I’m paying close attention to the world around me, which is only the beginning of becoming a great describer of the world. I also set aside fifteen minutes every day where I can work on this specific writing process. I copy down great descriptions from books and try my hand at recreating them. I evaluate all of my progress. This is all purposeful practice.
Writing is hard to quantify, so this might seem a little abstract to you. But we also intuitively know when something feels hard and when it feels easy during the writing process. So the first step in purposeful practice is to evaluate what our strengths and weaknesses are. If we never explore our weaknesses, they become limits instead of potential.
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I’ll talk more about this next week, but that’s all you need to know for now.
Once you have explored your weaknesses, it’s time to make a plan for turning them into strengths. Here’s how you do that:
1. Make a goal.
State how, specifically, you would like to improve. Something like “Write a description of a mountain range so effectively that someone who has never seen it can envision it in his mind” is a good, specific goal to have for a practice session. You can use your kids to test whether or not you’ve succeeded.
You’ll want to have larger goals, of course, but purposeful practice works best if you take those larger goals (one like “Write descriptions like Jonathan Stroud”) and break it down into smaller, more doable goals.
Ericsson says, “The key is to take a general goal—get better—and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation for improvement.”
I know a writer who is crippled by the backspace key. So I made him commit to writing with touching the backspace key for a whole six weeks. He’s in his third week now and has already seen improvement.
In order to improve anything, you have to focus on it. Eliminate distractions, and give the practice session your full attention. Take just fifteen minutes a day and practice on your specific goal. If you do it for the entire fifteen minutes, you’ll find that not only will your focus improve, but your skill will improve exponentially.
3. Solicit feedback.
You can assess your own practice writing, or you can get someone else to do it—whether a group or a teacher or even your children, if you write children’s books.
To assess it yourself, pay attention to what parts of your purposeful practice cause you problems. Make notes on it. Some of my notes include things like, “This one felt hard” and “My word count here was atrocious, because I couldn’t get it going.” Those notes tell me how I can further improve—continue working on what feels hard.
I have set up a feedback loop for myself, because it’s often difficult to get out of the house or talk with another person, because kids. Here’s what the feedback loop looks like:
At the end of every week, I ask myself questions like:
What is working in these practice sessions?
What is not working?
What has been effective when I’ve tried it?
What did I do well in my writing?
What can I still improve?
What is one specific thing I will do next week to make sure that I continue improving?
These are usually questions that I answer for the business side of things, but they would also work wonders with the writing side. When we take a step back from our writing, we can look at it with impartial eyes. Don’t be afraid to admit it’s really bad. We all start somewhere.
You can also set up a feedback loop by identifying the experts in your field (I usually study the award winners), marking down passages that strike you as particularly good, and trying to rewrite them in the same way they do—not so you plagiarize or absorb the voice of another writer but so you understand where your weaknesses lie.
4. Challenge yourself.
Ericsson says this is probably the most important part of purposeful practice.
In order to see improvement in any part of our lives, we have to first be willing to step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves. Our goals can’t be simple things that we’ll reach in a week or two. Make your goals big, something that will take a year, at least, preferably longer. One of my lifetime goals is to win a Newbery Award. In order to do that, I have to learn how to write like a Newbery Award winner, which means I have to practice the skills that are weak, and, as I talked about in the last several weeks, I have to study and read and constantly learn.
I have to step outside boxes and try new things and fail at them, too, because it’s all a road to improvement. We think of failure like it says something about us, but all failure can be used to improve. It’s always a learning experience.
I hope you have a wonderful week and some majorly productive writing sessions.
Write about something that was violent and disturbing, either in your life or in the life of someone you know (or one of your characters).