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Jay Lake
Date: 2006-10-23 16:56
Subject: What it takes to be great
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
The 10-year rule and deliberate practice. (Can you say "a million bad words"?) An interesting article on greatness that fell out of one of my mailing lists today.

I will say that pretty much any pro writer I've ever talked to about this aspect of craft has been able to tell me what they're trying to improve, right now. Some can tell me what they'll be working on next, and even two or three steps after that. That's deliberate practice. Writing consistently, be that daily or weekly -- the productivity meme I'm always hitting on -- is deliberate practice, not to mention the only way to power through the 10-year rule.

Ghu, I love my muse, but writing is a lot of hard work both before and after it's inspiration.
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Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2006-10-24 00:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist.

...Understand that talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well.

I sense a conflict here.

What they say about deliberate practice is great. The article really just needs to skip the first three paragraphs of fluffy nonsense.

I would love to see a study comparing the tasks that most children and adolescents seem to excel at with the games they play. I bet video, computer, and arcade games are the closest lots of kids get to deliberate practice.

Also, note that in most secondary school curricula these days, you have "learning modules" that very rarely involve focusing on a single specific skill or group of skills and practicing them over and over. (When this is done, it's called teaching to the test. Predictably, it leads to people getting very good at test-taking... without necessarily getting better at learning or critical thinking or other real-world skills.)

The question they ask at the end of the article--why some people decide to do this, and others don't--is a very interesting one. The best answer I can come up with, in my case, is that it took me a long time to find a skill that it felt good to practice. I used to be able to tell that I was sick because I would give in to my perpetual urge to skip work; when I was better, I was more able to talk myself into working because we needed the money. Now I can tell that I'm sick when I stop wanting to work; when I'm better, I'm eager to get back to it. Big, big difference. Maybe that's where innate talent comes in. It's not about something you're naturally good at, but something you naturally want to get good at.

Incidentally, the most tragic character in The Floating City is someone who knows what she wants to be good at, knows it with every fiber of her being, and practices endlessly... but is incapable of doing it, in a way that's invisible to her. It would be like someone with unusually small lungs trying to become a marathon runner. It's quite heartbreaking.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-24 01:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think I am 100% with you on this. Especially on the "wanting to practice" thing. Naturally wanting to be good is a great way to put it.

To comment further, talent does enter into it in some basic ways, and not just motivationally. I mean, I don't have the physique or the muscles to be a sprinter. With a modest amount of spring training I can hike all day, but I could practice deliberately from now until the heat death of the Universe and never be a 440 yard runner. I could motivate myself to be a satisified runner, if that were my desire, but not a competitive runner. Ditto any aspirations of mine toward musicianship, sadly, a lack which I feel far more strongly than I feel a lack of sprinting skills.

I have also noted in writing (and presumably other creative pursuits), people who manifest no apparent significant talent will sometimes bloom later on. It's one reason I long ago stopped making judgments based on obvious (to me) talent or lack thereof -- yes, some people fall out of the chute brilliant at this, but most have to work to get it, and I can't see into anyone's path. (Not even my own, all too often.)
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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2006-10-24 01:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hi, Jay. Interesting article. I've e-mailed the link to my writing group and English department. I also reposted at my LJ topic.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2006-10-24 17:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I blogged about this back in August. The premise for the article to which you linked is apparently the uncredited Scientific American article The Expert Mind, and the National Academy of Science's essay How Experts Differ From Novices.

Both essays have one central point: the question to ask yourself after each and every experience is this: What more can I learn? Distinguishing between "novice," "skilled," and "expert," what both articles point out is that it's easy to created a "skilled" person: in any endeavor (any endeavor) for which he or she is physically capable, an individual can practice until he reaches a perceived level of adequacy. (The example given is sport: one learns to golf until one is good enough to keep up with your social circle.) The "expert," on the other hand, ruthlessly examines each round for successes and failures, and stops practicing what has clearly been mastered, spending his time only reaching for more territory, more skill. To master any subject, your next exercise must be just outside your area of competence: you cannot improve by repeating what you have already mastered. (A counter-example to the one of sport is social opprobrium: ruthlessly trying to improve your game will quickly elevate you beyond your social peers which will discourage many from following that track. Fortunately, writing is a solitary exercise.)

The sad thing is that so few people actually believe all of that. They insist that there's always an issue of talent, of innateness, that is task-specific, and that they will never improve beyond their own current level of skill.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-25 03:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's a "magic bullet"/"secret handshake" myth which is nigh-universal among aspiring writers. I can't count the times I've been breathlessly asked, "How did you do it?", but when I say, "By writing a lot for many years," all interest vanishes.
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Mark Teppo
User: markteppo
Date: 2006-10-24 23:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I did the math on the second page about the 20-year olds and the 10,000 hours. It comes out to approximately 1.5 hours a day (give or take when they first picked up the violin bow). Given your daily goal on Stemwinder, this certainly fits within the parameters of "steady practice."

Here's a question. Does more practice (i.e., 3 hours) equal more improvement or is two hours about the maximum one can do in a sitting before it's just idle movement? And I know that certain points in the writing process benefit from a concentrated blowout, so I'm thinking more about the rigor of daily practice.

If you had more time, would you goal your daily count for the book higher or is that the extent of the cache that's been filling in your head? (I'm wrestling with my own thoughts about how to best spend my time and am curious...)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-25 02:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Does more practice (i.e., 3 hours) equal more improvement or is two hours about the maximum one can do in a sitting before it's just idle movement?

Heck if I know. I do know there's a difference for me between short writing sessions and long ones, but that has more to do with the momentum of the project than immediate issues of craft, at least insofar as I'm aware.

If you had more time, would you goal your daily count for the book higher or is that the extent of the cache that's been filling in your head?

Also a good question, one I think I'll answer in a post of it's own. Because I'm not sure right now, and that's kind of weird for me...
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User: eclexys
Date: 2006-10-25 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm pretty sure that for musical practice, more practice (within reason) does help one improve more.

But another thing, that helps even more, is practicing intelligently, which means, directing your efforts mostly at what you can't do, and then, the rest of your efforts at keeping what you can do. You can play a sonata over and over, and get no better and keep messing up the hard bits every time. Or you learn how to break things down and focus on certain skills or tasks modularly, you can master them and then integrate them. I think that has a parallel to what Jay mentioned re: good writers always being able to tell you what they're working on these days.

(Horrible memories of trying to hit altissimo G, and altissimo Bb, on my old alto saxophone are flooding back horribly. Oh the horror.)

But anyway, from experience, I think there does come a point in musical practice where more practice just becomes useless. You get saturated and need a break. (It's also physically important to do so, as much as it is for writers.)
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