Think you need talent to be a great writer? In working on my VCFA WCYA Graduate lecture on how to believe in yourself as a writer, I came upon a game-changing book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. It blew away my ideas about what it takes to excel at anything.
Myth: You Need Talent to Be Great
Truth: Deliberate Practice is the Only Path to Greatness
Common Sense and the Talent to Be a Great Writer
Recently, when I shared the title of Colvin’s book with an art student of mine, he made a “You crazy!” face at me. He was sure the only thing he needed as an artist was talent, and without it, he was sunk. I don’t think he is alone. It seems to be common sense that only talented people succeed as artists, as writers, as cyclists, as chess masters, as business moguls, as great leaders, as anything. So many people believe this. Maybe you had a teacher who told you to give up on your dream because you didn’t have the talent. Everyone knows getting good takes talent.
Turns Out, Everyone is Wrong
Don’t you wish people trusted science more than they trust common sense? I do. Look around. Watch the news. I really wish… but, anyways….
In Talent is Overrated, Colvin, building on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, debunks the role of talent. He says that even Mozart, that poster child for the power of talent and divine inspiration, got great through something called “Deliberate Practice.” After all, Mozart started making music at the age of three, and his father was not only a highly respected musician and composer in his own right, but a taskmaster with crazy high standards, and an astute teacher.
In the world of psychology and business, there is a field of study called the “Science of Expertise.” It has already upended the eminence of inborn talent. Experts in this field have studied not only sports figures and chess masters, but musicians, artists, and writers. What they found is that early ability did not yield greatness.
What did? Deliberate Practice.
What is Deliberate Practice?
People say “Practice makes perfect,” but it’s not just practice that yields great work. (Plus, there’s no such thing as perfection, and I think it is a damaging concept for artists. I’ll probably do a future post on this.)
Art teachers like me say you have to make a thousand bad drawings before you can start making good ones. But it isn’t just making a ton of crappy work, or playing the same set of scales every day that does the trick. It’s a particular kind of practice. Colvin describes these key characteristics of Deliberate Practice:
It is focused specifically on improving performance. This means working on the stuff you don’t do well. You need feedback to figure out your particular weak spots . If you’re playing tennis, you may already know the forecourt backhand is your Kryptonite. But as a writer, you need a critique from a trusted source to know that dialogue or character development, or plotting, or sentence structure is not your strong suit. Designing your practice to improve your performance also means breaking down skills into their component parts. Only by breaking it down can you improve. For example, if my main characters are weak, I have to go micro to figure out what isn’t working. Is it my POV voice that doesn’t feel specific enough? Is it that my character is always reacting instead of taking action? Does their dialogue sound wishy washy, or like every other’s dialogue? Does my word choice make the reader feel patronized, or is my tone too distant, creating a big psychic gap between protagonist and reader? Do I have the real sense of what the character is feeling, all of it, in all its complexity? Once I know what isn’t working, I have to design a repeatable practice that improves those skills. More on that below.
It must be done repeatedly. This is the part where the Carnegie Hall cliché is correct. Where it’s about putting in the work and stacking up the hours. O, Grit, why is there no substitute for you? There just isn’t. We know it instinctively as storytelling creatures. A tale with a hero who doesn’t have to learn, to try repeatedly and fail, well, that story doesn’t feel real to us; it lacks gravitas. We know anything worth getting takes work.
It requires continuously-available feedback. Feedback can come from a teacher, or from a source that is easy to interpret. Benjamin Franklin, seeking to improve his essay writing, studied a publication called “The Spectator. ” He read an essay from it, then put it aside, summarized the main points, rewrote them in his own style, then compared his version to the essay, noticing specific aspects of his writing that needed improvement. Franklin used “The Spectator” as his master teacher, and his own well-honed objectivity. Not all writers, I find, have that objectivity. Franklin was also a scientist. Personally, I love having a mentor. I also love having feedback from other writers whose work and opinions I respect. And there are particular craft books that I keep rereading.
It is highly challenging mentally. Learning builds new neural connections in your little gray cells, which means it is mentally taxing. Therefore, most people can’t do Deliberate Practice for more than 5 hours per day. Often, they do it in sessions around an hour to ninety minutes, say the scientists. For writers, who often need day jobs to stay solvent, this is good news. Five hours per day is a lot, but it’s doable with a day job, or with a family (probably not both).
It isn’t fun. This is the bad news, but it’s an important point, because if a skill is fun for you to practice, it means you are in your comfort zone. And you don’t learn in your comfort zone. You also don’t learn in the panic zone, where the task is hard enough to strike fear. You learn in a special zone where the task is difficult, but still doable, with a bit of work and grit. This is called the Learning Zone by Professor Noel Tichy. I’ve heard it called the Growth Zone, but whatever you call it, you know you’re there when you are more satisfied having done it than you were while you did it.
Nobody Said it Was Easy
Maybe the reason people persist in believing in the myth of talent is because hard work is hard. If getting great were really all about talent, then you either got it or you ain’t. Done and done. Go watch Game of Thrones and pop a cold one.
Deliberate practice is difficult. But the hugely good news is, it can be done. And, since it is hard to do Deliberate Practice, not everyone will do it. That gives those willing to do it a competitive edge.
Deliberate Practice for Writers
So what would deliberate practice look like for a fiction writer? Veteran writing teacher Barbara Baig has an incredible set of lessons on her blog. She has based them on the precepts of expert performance studies like Ericsson’s. Definitely check out her lessons, and her books. They can help you build your own writing Deliberate Practice regimen.
Here is my brief summary of the Deliberate Practice steps I am testing out as a writer. Try them for yourself, and see what you think:
- What do you need to improve? Get feedback on your work from a trusted source: a mentor, an editor or author who is willing to read your work critically and give you details. I don’t think there is any substitute for experience here. Find a master, if you can. It’s worth it. That is part A. Part B is being able to take that sage advice. Taking feedback is a special skill in and of itself, and it’s worth a post on its own. For now make a list of the skills you want to improve.
- Design your practice. My practice has a warm-up, which I do every day, and when do it, I put a sparkly sticker on that day in my wall calendar. I kid you not. Rewards are important, and my Inner Child enjoys sparkly stuff. The warm-up is the morning pages, which is 3 pages of free-writing. Morning Pages come from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be creative. After the warmup, I work on exercises focused on improving my character development. I do side writing, in which I speak directly with my characters. I ask them pointed questions. I ask them about what I need to do next. I brainstorm ideas with them. I also hang out and ask them about the meaning of life. Really. I have this one vampire character who is so wise about many things. I do all this in addition to getting words on the page that are meant for my draft. Cool things can happen. Sometimes I’m writing scenes in my morning pages. I let it happen. I type them into my side writing in Scrivener. Or they might even end up in my draft. Why not?
- Make a schedule, commit to it, set up rewards, and do it! Since talent doesn’t matter, why should inspiration? Life is unpredictable, so I get my writing done first thing in the morning. Every day, with very few exceptions. I get up, grab coffee, and start my morning pages.
- Get feedback. I review my work critically a few days after I have drafted it. I know my weaknesses by now because I’m getting expert feedback in my MFA program. Once I graduate, I will be in a weekly critique group. I take the feedback, cry if I need to, give myself a bit of time to recover, then try again.
This is how I do it. How do you make sure you are improving? Comment and share below.
Also, next time your inner critic tells you you don’t have the talent to do this, tell them that Barbara Baig, Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, and I said they’re full of it. Because you don’t need talent to do this, or anything, with excellence!
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