The Path to Mastery: Deliberate Practice in Fiction Writing

If you know me, you probably know how many hobbies I have, how many things I am trying to not just be good at, but MASTER: seven different styles of Kung Fu, Fiction Writing, several different languages, sword fighting, being a good parent, etc.

Despite apparently being spread thin, I am damn good at all of them: I’ve got 28 medals in Kung Fu from various national and international tournaments, I’m an excellent sword fighter, I’ve got published short stories and am >this< close to having a major agent for my novel. What I have not mastered, I am slowly mastering.

And how do I do it? A little something called DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Deliberate Practice was first discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. If you’ve ever heard the “10,000 hours rule”, that mastery comes with 10,000 hours of practice it comes from this book. But people get that wrong all the time — it’s not 10,000 hours of practice. It’s 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

If you read “Outliers”, and I have, he talks at length about the difference between just practice and Deliberate Practice, and even theorizes that Professional Athletes are actually “geniuses”, geniuses at physical activity because of their constant Deliberate Practice, and that our culture could have geniuses in science or arts or writing or whatever just as easily, but, since we don’t monetarily incentivize those activities the way we do sports with multimillion dollar contracts, and since there are no training regimens designed for them, geniuses occur in mental fields much less often than in physical ones.

“So,” I hear you say, “If I want to be writing geniuses we need to do some Deliberate Practice, right?” Wrong. You need to do A LOT of deliberate practice.

“Fine,” you say, “I’ll write. A lot. And read. A lot. Problem solved.”

Wrong again. But don’t be discouraged, this is a common misunderstanding, made by people who are invested in the deliberate practice movement. An example:

Author Justine Musk has a very cogent article defining Deliberate Practice, here. It’s a really good summary. I recommend it. BUT… She then goes on to post her recommendations for Deliberate Practice, here… And they are pretty much what you came up with alone.

It’s almost surreal: if you read her practice recommenations and then you read the description of Deliberate Practice in “Outliers,” or even the definition she herself provides, her exercises don’t match up with the book. Why? Because here is the key piece of information she’s forgetting:

Engaging in Deliberate Practice is BASICALLY THE SAME THING as doing a drill in sports.

In sports, the smaller the drill, the more focused it is on ONE TINY PIECE of the mastery puzzle, the more effective it is when repeated. People training to be pro tennis stars spend hours and hours perfecting the JUMP on the serve. Not the swing, just the jump. They train the swing SEPARATELY and alone. They also spend hours and hours practicing their back hand at the net. Just the back hand. Quarterbacks in American football practice their snap, practice then throwing the ball through a tire, practice dodging linebackers. Hockey players practice puck handling skills, physical agility skills, shooting accuracy drills, and even a skill as small as getting back onto their feet as soon as they fall down on the ice (they fall down a lot!).

This is what Musk has missed — breaking the craft of writing (or, if you will, the “sport” of writing”) down into its tiniest components, so that each component can be consciously mastered and then folded back into the primary skillset.

You’re probably thinking: “Okay. That makes sense. But how do I do it? How do I apply Deliberate Practice to fiction writing?”

You design and complete drills. A lot. A whole hell of a lot. Repetition repetition repetition. And then you write stories, and you try to bring what you have learned to bear.

“But what drills? How do I design them? I’m confused!”

Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I have a lot of drills I already use that have worked for me, and I’ll share them. For each one, try it every other day for a week, and if you don’t like it, if you’re not learning anything or feeling mentally stronger, dump it and move on.

“But you mentioned designing my own drills too. That sounds scary!”

It’s not. Once you’ve got your feet under you, once you’ve been drilling and writing for a while, and you know what YOUR writing weaknesses are, think about what sort of drills you can do to make yourself stronger. Then try it, and share!

Other Deliberate Practice posts:

5 Replies to “The Path to Mastery: Deliberate Practice in Fiction Writing”

  1. What do you mean by the jump of the serve? Do you mean the throw? I’m 90% sure that it’s illegal to jump-serve in tennis.

    Otherwise, great stuff. Very helpful.

    1. Thank you. Regarding the jump serve in tennis, check out this video, with vids of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer:

      They both jump on their serve. The American Association rules do allow jumping, but you cannot walk or run before the jump. Both feet must be “at rest” before the service motion begins, but you may then jump straight up as part of the service.

      1. Ahh, okay. I really, really like the idea of “deliberately practicing” writing. I’m just worried that it doesn’t work like it does in other areas with more clearly defined rules, like tennis and chess and even music. Writing is something a little different. Good writing isn’t always technically “good” whereas “good” tennis is always good if it’s technically good. For example, I might write a sentence that makes no sense to someone but opens up a whole world of thought for someone else (see Shakespeare). But if I’m serving in tennis, the serve is good when the serve is good. The rules are clear.

        Writing, to me, is something different. That’s not to say that nobody can benefit from “practicing” writing. I’m just worried that it might not be the best course of action.

  2. Thank you. I’ve been googling writing practice for days, but no one gave examples on how to go about it. I know I have to practice but I’m not sure how. I’ve been looking for daily writing prompts to improve my stories but they are too general and I can’t see how it helps. Once I finish looking through your drills, I’ll see if I can come up with my own. You’d think someone would have written a workbook for this.

    1. Well, there’s a myth out there that to write you have to have talent. That you can’t ever become skilled if you don’t start out that way. They’ll say it in MFA programs. Even in Steven King’s ON WRITING, he says there’s a limit to how good you can get based on where you start from.

      While you do have to have a brain that works — that puts out thoughts in a logical, connected manner (some rare people do not have this) — and some way of getting your thoughts out on paper, the rest of it is just practice. Practice being literary, and you can be literary. Practice commercial fiction, and you’ll get good at that. Similarly, you can practice memoir, poetry, whatever.

      But you have to be smart about how you practice. Figure out what skills you need. Practice those.

      It’s quite possible to play chess for 20 years and never be a grandmaster, or to play it for 8 and to achieve that status. It’s about HOW you practice. Consistent, daily gains achieved through intelligently designed drills. It’s just never been applied to writing before because of the myths of talent surrounding it.

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