The Art of Deliberate Practice

Practice makes… supposedly it makes perfect. Jury is still out, if you ask me.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom floating around that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill, be it writing or drawing or running or whatever (all three things I’ve been practicing, including the latest, drawing, which you see above).

New research has put a damper on that, though. In Top Dog, Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman say, “practicing the piano may develop finger dexterity, but that alone won’t remedy the sick twisting feeling in your stomach the first time you are in front of an audience.”

True. It turns out that amateurs and seasoned pros experience the same stress responses when faced with critical performance, like at a recital or a dance competition. In those situations, how you handle stress is as important as how much you’ve practiced.

The thing is, the more you’ve practiced, in my experience, the more equipped you are to handle stress because you know your automatic processes will take over — your mastery of the skill is so ingrained it’s harder for you to screw it up than it is to not do it correctly.

There’s a catch though, and it brings us back to that 10,000 hours — not just any 10,000 hours will do.

Your practice has to be deliberate. Running a mile every day for 10 years will probably not prepare you well for a marathon. Writing in spurts every couple weeks is not going to give you the fortitude you need to see a novel through to completion.

Simply: if you want to become and expert, you have to practice like an expert. You need deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice = Expert Level Practice

Those sketches above are from an amazing drawing course by Riven Phoenix I found, and it’s so affordable I’m almost afraid to share it. This course could be priced at 100x what Riven is charging for it and still be worth it.

I latched on to it because I realized sketching now and then from drawing books or even the occasional anatomy book wasn’t cutting it. I wasn’t getting any better at figure drawing (I may have gotten worse). There was no understanding, my practice was amateur-level and it was producing amateur results.

Riven’s course, though, is expert level practice, it’s deliberate practice — everything he has us do, from drawing chins to shoulder blades, has a point to make. It lays a foundation for what’s to come. It’s highly structured, with the goal of getting better. The best part is that it started at my skill level, which was nil.

What’s deliberate, expert level writing practice? Writing every day. Every day. No exceptions. You need that repetition. Then, share what you’ve written and get feedback. You need that, too.

But maybe you’re not ready for expert level practice. That’s okay! You can still be deliberate, just aim for your skill level when you start. Beginning runners don’t start training for marathons, they train for 3ks and 5ks. Not ready for short stories? Start with blog posts. I love NaNoWriMo because it helps you to understand what it’s like to hit a daily word count, but it might not be right for you if you’ve never written more than the 100-word screed on tumblr now and then. If you’re having trouble managing and finding time to write, then maybe a daily schedule isn’t for you — yet. At the very least, you can find a schedule that works and stick to it.

What writing skills I have were forged in the fires of being a beat reporter at a daily newspaper. I truly hated that job, but I don’t think I would’ve traded the expert-level practice it gave me. Do writing exercises. I’ve got tons of prompts, if you need them.

If you want to delve deeper into what deliberate practice means, have a look at this article at Expert Enough.