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

Lesson 8: Learning Through Practice

Practice puts brains in your muscles —legendary golfer Sam Snead

Athletes and musicians who want to become great devote countless hours to what the expertise researchers call “deliberate practice.” This is not just fooling around, or playing a game with a friend. Deliberate practice is highly focused and intentional. It’s designed in such a way that we can learn a new skill or improve one we already have. Anders Ericsson, an expert in skills acquisition, says deliberate practice “entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.” It’s deliberate practice, not innate talent, that makes some people great at what they do.

How does this happen? The answer lies in what neuroscientists refer to as “brain plasticity.” That means that our brains respond to the demands made upon them, and that they actually change in response to those demands. After thousands of hours of practicing a certain move, the brain of an athlete has changed so that, when the move is called for in a game, he can make it without even thinking about it. The same process occurs when musicians put themselves into training.

And the same thing can happen for writers. When we train our skills through practice, our brains change, so that what at first may have seemed difficult is now easy. And now, when we’re in the midst of writing a piece, we have trained faculties to depend on: to give us ideas and material, to come up with powerful words and sentences.

This may sound like magic, but it really isn’t; it’s simply how the human brain works. This approach to learning through practice has not typically been made available to writers—but we can use it just as athletes and musicians do.

Here’s one way to get started: first, try to let go of the idea that if you’re not producing pages and drafts you’re not a writer. Model yourself on athletes and musicians who spend much more time developing their skills through practice than they do performing.

Then, as you begin to practice, think of what you’re doing as play. Let your practice sessions become opportunities to experiment with some mental faculties you may not have used very often. Don’t criticize your efforts; just notice what happens. And, most of all, enjoy the practicing!

Once you find yourself wanting to practice, because it’s so much fun (for one thing, you never know what’s going to happen), perhaps you will want to get a little more disciplined about your practicing so you can move beyond waking up your skills: you can develop and train them. This requires that you be organized about what you want to practice, and that you repeat practices many times. For the key to learning through deliberate practice is repetition, with intention. (If you just repeat a practice mindlessly, you won’t get much out of it.) Anders Ericsson says that deliberate practice “is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.” After a while you’ll find that you’ve mastered certain practices and don’t need to do them as often; now you can turn to new ones. In the process, you’ll build your confidence. Trying out the skills you’re learning in a piece of writing will also show you how far you’ve come.

As you develop your skills, you’ll see that they open up for you a whole world of writing choices. Developing your content faculties will give you material for your writing you never dreamed you could come up with. Developing your craft skills will give you a large repertoire of sentence-construction techniques, so you can write powerful sentences with ease.

Naturally, it takes a lot of time and effort to build your skills to expert level. So, start small. Find ways to incorporate practice into your writing life: five minutes here, ten minutes there—that’s enough to begin with. The important thing is not how much time you spend on any one practice session; it’s how often you repeat the practice. Only through repetition, with awareness, do you develop the “mental muscles” you need to write well.

Practice: Making a Practice List
Take a few minutes to make a list of the things you want to practice, and put your list someplace where you can easily find it. Now, when you sit down to practice, you can choose what to focus on. As you learn new practices, add them to your list. Remember that you can always make up your own practices!

Practice: Making Time to Practice
Experiment with finding a practice routine that will work for you. Do you want to practice at the same time every day? Do you have time to practice only once a week? I encourage you to put your practice time in your datebook: think of it as an appointment with your writer-self! You'll get a lot more out of practicing if you can do it on some kind of regular basis, rather than just when you're in the mood.

Practice: Take Time to Reflect
If you can manage it, take a few minutes after you've finished practicing to reflect on what happened during this practice session, what you learned. You may want to make a note reminding yourself of something to pay attention to during your next session.

Athletes and musicians have coaches who watch and listen to them during practice and help them adjust what they're doing. Although I can't be right there with you as you practice, you're welcome to post questions and I will do my best to answer.

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