The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 3. How I Discovered the Mastery Path

May 1, 2014

Tags: 1. The Mastery Path

Once, many decades ago, I was an ignorant and scared writing teacher facing my first classes. I knew little about writing, and still less about how to teach. But right from the start I loved teaching; right from the start I loved reading my students’ writing; right from the start I was fascinated by the seemingly impossible task of helping them become better writers.

When I began teaching, “writing process” was the main pedagogical approach, and I embraced it with great enthusiasm. But after a few years, my enthusiasm began to wane. Certainly writing process helped my students get ideas down on paper; it helped them be less frightened of the blank page. And yet…and yet…I had to admit that it wasn’t turning most of them into very good writers.Why was that? What did my students need that I wasn't providing? For years I thought— you might even say, obsessed— about these questions.

When answers arrived, they came, not from writing, but from two unexpected sources. One was music; the other, baseball. In my forties, I took up the piano, an instrument I hadn’t played since childhood, and I began to listen to the Red Sox games on the radio. And gradually it dawned on me: how do musicians learn to play an instrument? Through practice. How do baseball players learn to play the game well enough to get to the major leagues? Through practice.

And then I realized what is missing in the way we learn to write: we almost never get an opportunity to PRACTICE.

That’s because most of us learn how to write in school, and there writing takes place under what I’ve called “performance conditions”: it counts. It’s going to be read and judged and graded. The same thing is true in most creative writing workshops: we’re writing pieces that will be critiqued, pieces we want to make “good enough” to get published. But when we do something only under performance conditions, we’re not likely to be able to learn anything about how to do it well; performance conditions create anxiety and stress that block learning. After all, would an aspiring pianist decide to rent Carnegie Hall and give a concert, without ever practicing? Would the Red Sox play games without ever practicing? The notions seem absurd; yet, having to demonstrate our writing abilities in performance situations, without first having had a chance to practice, is the experience most people have had with writing in school.

And so I came to the conclusion that if we want to write, or to become better writers, what we most need is the opportunity to practice.

Learning through practice, after all, is how we humans learn how to do everything, from learning to walk to learning to fly a plane. So it made perfect sense to me that taking the time to develop our writing abilities through practice would make us better writers. Athletes and musicians spend much more time practicing than they do performing. I thought that writers should do the same thing. And so I developed a practice-based approach to learning to write, which I’ve been using in workshops and courses for a number of years, and which provides the foundation for my books and articles about writing. No more “workshopping” drafts; no more giving “feedback” to work-in-progress. Instead my students and I practice skills together, we talk about what happens when we do the practices, we try to do them better, with more concentration and focus.

And along the way, an amazing thing happened: I became a better writer—and so did my students.

I had always told my students: Talent is the assumptions we make about other people’s abilities that keep us from developing our own. But then, shortly after the publication of my first book, How To Be a Writer: building your skills through practice and play (Writer’s Digest, 2010), a man named K. Anders Ericsson, a leading scientist in the field of expertise studies, changed my understanding of talent—and, by extension, of teaching and learning—forever.


  1. December 22, 2014 6:28 AM EST
    I liked the quotation at the end: it all makes sense, everything needs practice and you can perfect anything through it.
    - Porsche
  2. August 7, 2015 6:04 AM EDT
    I love the music connection because I began organ/piano lessons at age five; I'm now 55. Parents would ask me to teach their child how to play and when I asked them if they could ensure that their kid would practice every day, I got the "you gotta be kidding me" look. When I said 'no can do,' they would get upset at the notion that I wasn't willing to waste my time or their child's. Without constant practice, I explained, it's not going to work. They just didn't get it. A search light just went off over my head, not a light bulb. THANKS!
    - MaryAnn
  3. August 18, 2015 9:02 PM EDT
    I'm not sure how I can become better at anything (especially writing) without "feedback". But I'm listening....
    - Meg
  4. September 11, 2016 8:05 PM EDT
    The notion of practice for writers, is completely sound yet sadly overlooked. Thank you for your insight and dedication to seek out solutions for developing writers like me. I do have your book, Spellbinding Sentences, its wonderful and it has been of great help.
    - James
  5. September 14, 2016 2:23 PM EDT
    MaryAnn and Meg: Apologies for my late response. I am not always getting notified of comments.

    I'm glad the music connection makes sense to you, Mary Ann. And Meg, you're right, it's difficult to improve without feedback. Unfortunately the feedback given in a writing workshop--at least those for beginners-- may not be helpful, because everyone in the group has very limited knowledge. What you need is feedback from someone who is an expert writer and writing coach/teacher.

    James, I'm very glad you like the approach and are finding the book helpful.
    - Barbara Baig
  6. July 9, 2017 9:12 PM EDT
    Your approach is consistent with The Talent Code, a wonderful book written by Daniel Coyle. Talent is created through practice, not some mysterious quality that we're endowed with.
    - Bill Honnold
  7. July 10, 2017 10:17 AM EDT
    Yes--and Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, and--best of all--Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson.If you haven't yet read Peak, I highly recommend it.
    - Barbara Baig