Q. I need to improve my writing skills, but I’m too busy writing to take the time. My job is in marketing and I write position papers, sales materials, and product descriptions. My long-term goal is to write a nonfiction book, but I don’t have time to take a writing class. Being a better writer will launch my career and get me closer to achieving my dream. Help!
A. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing skills without enrolling in a regular class. The time it takes to become a better writer is not driven by the number of hours spent in a classroom, but by the number of hours spent in deliberate practice. Mounds of recent research shows the predictor of mastery of almost any skill you can imagine—surgery, writing, mountain unicycling, chess, public speaking—is not some genetic endowment but rather the number of hours you spend in a very specific kind of practice.
A classroom can be a useful place to get deliberate practice, but unfortunately, many teachers get in the way of this process as much as they enable it. So don’t despair that you can’t take the time to head to night class right now. You can still get started. Here’s what you have to do to use deliberate practice to accelerate your progress toward your dream.
1. Break the skill into small parts. In other words, don’t practice “writing,” practice a specific aspect of writing that you think is important to your advancement. For example, you may decide that your use of language is too dull and you want to spice it up. The subset of “writing” you want to work on is using more vivid language, metaphors, or engaging prose. Later, you could pick another sub-skill of writing, but find one place to begin.
2. Practice in short, intensive intervals. The great thing about deliberate practice is that it doesn’t take long periods of time. In fact, if you’re doing it right, you can’t really practice for more than an hour or so at a time. I once watched world-class dancers from the Royal Ballet in London working on some of the discrete parts of a particular dance. Rather than practice the entire performance, they worked on one 30-second segment that was giving them challenges over and over again. They also forced themselves to quit and take a break after about 20 minutes of very intense practice.
You should do the same by creating a small, structured practice opportunity. For example, decide that each day, you will write a one-page essay on something that happened at work. You’ll take some anecdote from your day and bring it to life such as: “Strategies I used to keep alert during a two-hour project review.”
3. Get feedback against a clear standard. In order to turn practice into deliberate practice, you need clear and immediate feedback. The Royal Ballet dancers didn’t simply go through their routines again and again, they had a coach—a master dancer—who literally stopped them after a single jump and gave immediate feedback about the angle of their head or the bending of a wrist. They immediately did the jump again and you could see instant progress. Far from being disruptive, this kind of real-time feedback allowed them to analyze and adjust their performance far more rapidly, resulting in substantial improvement.
You can do the same with your practice. I encourage you to get a coach—a trusted friend who is also a good judge of writing—who will read your one-page paper and be mercilessly honest with you about verbiage that is trite, clumsy, or uninteresting, and tell you when you have nailed it. After you receive feedback rewrite that single page—focusing on one specific aspect of your writing—and watch how quickly your skills improve. I had just this kind of coach early in my writing career. His name is Kerry Patterson, my long-time friend and coauthor. Go find your Kerry!
Many people want to be writers. The difference between those who become good writers and those who don’t is summed up by a sign a colleague kept in his office—Writers write.
Don’t wait for a sabbatical, a class, or until some other grand moment arrives. Just start deliberately practicing. Today!