Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect

3 Nov

by Susan Dennard


How many of you have heard variations of these phrases:

“Practice makes perfect: write everyday, and you’ll see your craft improve in no time.”

“If you just keep plugging away, one day, you’ll be good enough for publication.”

“To be a good writer, all you need to do is actually write. The rest will fall into place naturally.”

All sorts of people have shared that “sage” advice with me – from readers to published writers to my mom.

The things is, they’re all wrong. Like, reallyreallyreallyreally wrong.

It took me years to figure that out. Years to realize that no matter how often I wrote, I wasn’t getting any better. My stories were boring, my characters dull, and my syntax cliché.

I finally figured out last year what my problem was: I was practicing a ton, but I wasn’t practicing the right stuff.

I could spout out rules – “show don’t tell”, “write 3D characters”, “avoid clichés” – but I’d never actually learned how to apply those rules. I could even spot problems in other people’s stories, but not my own. What I lacked was:

Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate practice is a well-known concept, particularly in sports research. The idea is quite simple: to become the best-of-the-best, you must train frequently, train hard, and always focus on finding and honing your weakest skills. Seems obvious, right?

Except that it’s not. At least, not when it comes to writing…

A lot of us do it unconsciously when we’re training in sports or music or the like. We know we have to add one more mile each time we train if we want to run a marathon. We know we have to sing harder and harder sonatas if we want to perform in an opera.

So why is it that we forget all that when it comes to writing?

  • Because there’s a lot to learn
  • It’s intimidating
  • Writing is considered “art”, and art stems from talent and soul
  • Books and workshops on craft cost $$
  • Any of the above
  • All of the above

Well, okay, Sooz…  But how do we fix it – how do we deliberately practice our writing?

First, you need to identify the weakest aspects of your craft. Is there something in your stories that beta readers/crit partners are consistently pointing out to you as “bad”? Is there something you sense you don’t have the hang of? It could be as simple as switching tenses, or as advanced as stilted dialogue. Are you crud at character consistency? Do you write muddled middles?

Don’t worry if it takes you a long time to figure out. I’m constantly discovering areas that need work in my writing. The key is to know you make mistakes, and to be diligent about spotting them.

Next, you need to plan a method for honing the weakness. If you’re clueless with punctuation, then pick up The Elements of Style and refer to it constantly as you write. If you have a problem generating ideas, find articles or books on the subject – or try coming up with a new idea everyday. If your main character is a Mary Sue, read books on plotting from character.

It might take some time for you to sort out how to fix your weak area. I was really stubborn about fixing character inconsistencies (because I didn’t want to rewrite the whole darn story!). But once I hunkered down and focused on making each character behave appropriately, the new plot flowed naturally and the book was 100 times better.

Initiate attack. Practice, practice, practice that specific area until it’s no longer a problem. Write three act stories until inciting incidences, turning points, and black moments are ingrained in your brain. Find new ways to describe the same action until there’s not a single clichéd phrasing in your novel.  If you can, take workshops on various aspects of writing (for example, Savvy Authors offers cheap online courses that I highly recommend!  Plus, LTWF will be offering workshops in the near future. Yay!)

The key is to write with a direct goal in mind each time your fingers hit the keys or your pen hits the paper. If you practice your weakest skills long enough, not only will you learn how to fix them, but the “correct” way will become a natural part of your storytelling.

And above all, don’t be scared to leave your comfort zone behind!

So, you tell me: what are the weakest aspects of your writing?

How can you fix them?

Or, were you clever enough to have figured out this deliberate practice stuff ages ago?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She recently signed with Sara Kendall of NCLit. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.



18 Responses to “Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect”

  1. savannahjfoley November 3, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

    Fantastic article, Susan, and great advice!

    • sdennard November 3, 2010 at 10:54 AM #

      Thanks, Savannah… It seems sort of obvious, yet it took me sooooo long to figure out. ::Le sigh::

  2. Sarah J. Maas November 3, 2010 at 9:37 AM #

    SUCH a great article, Susan!!!! Really, really wonderful advice!

    • sdennard November 3, 2010 at 10:54 AM #

      🙂 Thanks, Sarah. I hope it helps some people — it sure helped my writing when I finally “figured” it out.

  3. Julie Eshbaugh November 3, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

    Wow, Susan, what a UNIQUE take on the old adage “practice makes perfect”! I NEVER would have come to a lot of these ideas on my own, even though, as you point out, you intuitively do this kind of focused practice when you work at other difficult tasks. THANKS SO MUCH for this article!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

  4. Rachel Harris November 3, 2010 at 11:44 AM #

    Great post. Absolutely write. Delibrate practice, honest evaluation and continuing education are the best ways to grow as a writer. Thanks!

    • sdennard November 3, 2010 at 12:29 PM #

      That’s a great way of summarizing deliberate practice: honest evaluation and continuing education. Right on, Rachel!

  5. Jess November 3, 2010 at 11:44 AM #

    Great article, Susan. For more reading on deliberate practice, try Justine Musk:

    • sdennard November 3, 2010 at 12:28 PM #

      Thanks for the link, Rockstar Jess. I hadn’t read that!

  6. Aurora Blackguard November 3, 2010 at 12:37 PM #

    This is a really good concept! Well, really good advice! Thanks Susan!

  7. TymCon November 3, 2010 at 1:46 PM #

    My weakest aspect is characters, character relations and keeping conflict between characters consistent.
    So I wrote basic dialogue between people at opposing ends (rascist VS non rascist, woman in power Vs man in poverty, vice versa, etc). Then I got bored and stopped…
    Oh well I guess i’ll start up again:P

    • sdennard November 3, 2010 at 1:54 PM #

      Don’t practice if you’re bored, TymCon! Then you’ll just start to hate writing, and that would be soooo awful! (I’d never forgive myself…)

      But since you know what your weak point is (and good job on that!), simply spend more time on those areas it when you’re working on your WIP. Try reading some books/articles on character conflict (I know Alicia Rasley has some great articles & blog posts about that exact topic) and see what people suggest doing…

      I’m still crap with that area too, but I find that the more time I focus on those specific scenes, the more comfortable I get (and adept!) with writing them.

      Good luck and keep me updated on how it goes!! 🙂

  8. Vanessa Di Gregorio November 3, 2010 at 1:50 PM #

    Susan, this was such a great article!!!!

  9. Chantal November 3, 2010 at 4:37 PM #

    Great post, very sage and important advice!

  10. Dida Shepard September 23, 2011 at 4:20 PM #

    This is AMAZING advice, something I’ve needed to hear pretty much my whole writing life. Thank you so much I’m book marking it and holding to close to my heart. Thanks 😀

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