Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How to become a better, faster writer

If you are an academic, and you think you do not write very well or very fast, you are not alone. Most academics think this way. But, this blog is not about sharing gripes: it is about providing solutions. And, the problem of not writing well or fast has a solution. You can become a better, faster writer through deep practice.

The idea of deep or deliberate practice has been around for a few decades. Proponents of this idea argue that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice make an expert. This does not mean just spending 10,000 hours, or 2 hours a day for ten years, doing something, but doing it purposefully, always pushing your limits. Scholars and popular writers such as Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.) and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers: The Story of Success) have used this idea to explain chess prodigies, Olympic swimmers, and phenomenal musicians. The good news for us is that deliberate practice can be applied to a wide range of activities, including writing.

Helene Kirsova, ballerina, ca. 1947 / photographer unknown

You can become a better, faster writer through deliberate practice.

How do you improve your writing other than to just sit down and write, write, and write some more? Proponents of deliberate practice offer some suggestions. Daniel Coyle, for example, offers this advice to become an expert, using the acronym REPS.

R stands for Reaching/Repeating.
Element 1: Reaching and Repeating. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating? How many reaches are you making each minute? Each hour?

E stands for Engagement.
Element 2: Engagement. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?

P stands for Purposefulness
Element 3: Purposefulness. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?

S stands for Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback.
Element 4: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. In other words, the learner always knows how they’re doing — where they’re making mistakes, where they’re doing well — because the practice is telling them in real time. They don’t need anybody to explain that they need to do X or Y, because it’s clear as a bell.

As writers, we can use these suggestions for deep practice by testing out new waters in our writing, fully engaging in our writing, writing with purpose, and receiving consistent feedback. I can imagine these concepts being used in a wide variety of ways in terms of writing, and will offer a few examples to show how we can use this idea.

Deep Practice Element 1: Reaching and Repeating.

Writing is the process of conveying ideas through words. One way to “reach,” then, would be to use a new word every day. Just before you begin to write, pick up a journal article in your field and find a word you do not use very often. Not a jargonistic word, but one that is useful, like “complement” or “corroborate.” Try and use the word at least twice in your writing for the day.

Element 2: Engagement.

When you write, concentrate on what you are doing. When you edit, think about the extent to which every sentence in the piece you are writing is necessary towards your argument. Be engaged and passionate, and cut out anything that is excess.

Element 3: Purposefulness.

Purposefulness is about connecting tasks to your goals. Here, our goal is to become a better writer. Reading well-written books and articles can improve your writing, but this method works best when you pay attention not only to the content but to the style. Thus, when you read with an eye to improve your writing, pay attention to how the authors you admire construct their sentences and choose their words. Read with the purpose of becoming a better writer.

Element 4: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback.

Getting honest, critical feedback is essential for becoming a better writer. Getting strong, direct immediate feedback does not mean that you write an article in isolation and send it to a journal when you are finished, but that you get feedback at every stage of the article. Get a trusted friend to read early drafts, and ask experts in your field to read later versions. Get feedback early and often.

Worried you will never be a good writer? Well, worry no more, after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you will be among the best. And, if 10,000 hours sounds like a long time to wait, fret not. You probably already have quite a few hours of practice under your belt, and you will see immediate results once you begin to practice your writing on a daily basis.


  1. Great suggestions! Thank you. #1 is especially innovative, and I'll try it out starting today.

  2. Glad you found it useful, Clarissa! Let me know how it goes! I want to start actually trying to push the limits of this deep practice stuff, so wrote this blog entry to gather some thoughts about it.

  3. Love this--I want to cite it to give to grad students. Excellent--just printed it and posted it in my office!

  4. Thanks nikstagedoc! Let me know if you think of any other ways to improve writing skills through deep practice!

  5. great post, Tanya, precise and inspiring as usual. I've been using the technique of writing good pieces for a while. I find it useful to read well written novels or short stories before writing to get into a groove of good style. The arts are so useful to make good science.
    Manuela Picq

  6. I agree 100% that practice makes perfect when it comes to writing, and that 10,000 hours is a minimum threshold for achieving genuine expertise. However, my sad experience has been that people who have not devoted the 10,000 by the time they graduate from college never get any better at constructing good sentences. Anyone can get better at constructing paragraphs and larger structures, but I am convinced that there is a "critical period" for learning to write good sentences and that this critical period closes in the early twenties.

    1. This is utter rubbish that you can't learn to write good sentences after your early 20s. I started writing when I was in my 30s and I've improved immensely from when I started. I think the truth might be that most people go out and get jobs about the time of their early 20s and from then on they don't put in enough deep practice to get any better. I'd also never written a poem in my life and I taught myself from a book aged 35. When I took my first decent attempt to a local writing group a few months later, a famous poet visiting called it a major poem. My first poem though, you'll never see that- it was truly embarrassing. Having said that, it is true that feral children become incapable of learning to speak if they don't learn by the age of five.

  7. That is really interesting, CPP, and it would explain a lot.

  8. There is now a book out about this: Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing


  9. I've just ordered the book.

  10. Good post and good advice. Although I would like to ask you to extend some if you can. I have a problem with the basic, with identifying what is really good writing what is not. I know that feedback is the best assess my writing, but I can't really assess someone else writing. This is about point 3 in your post. I was told on some seminar to practice by finding one good sentence in this what I read every day. I simply can't identify them. Do you have any advise how to separate good text form bad?

    1. I highly recommend you check out this book by Patricia Goodson. She can help with that: