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

Lesson 3. How I Discovered 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.

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