“Deliberate Practice,” by Louise DeSalvo

April 12, 2010

“How many hours a day do you write?”

This is a question I’m asked most frequently when I address people who want to be writers, but who haven’t seriously committed to their writing practice.

It’s a tough question to answer.  Some days I write about ninety minutes; some days I write for several hours; some days, when I’m finishing a book, I work for much of the day; some days – most weekends – I don’t write at all.  Before I became I writer, I studied the writing practice of Virginia Woolf.  There was no one in my working class family who wrote, so the only way I thought I could learn how to write was by studying the work habits of one of the world’s most important writers.

What I learned shocked me.  I thought someone like Woolf would write, say, eight hours a day.  But she didn’t.  She wrote about three hours a day – mostly from 10 to 1.  But that’s deceptive, because she devoted several more hours a day to reading, note taking, journal writing.  According to her husband, Leonard Woolf, she was never not writing – that is, when she went on her walks on the Sussex South Downs, though she was not at her desk, she was making up sentences in her head that she would capture on paper once she returned to her study.  In other words, Woolf was writing, in one way or another, most of the time.  Like many other creative people, much of her inspiration came when she was away from the desk.  But at the desk she took time to plan her work either in the notebooks she prepared for writing her novels or in her journals.

In other words, Virginia Woolf devoted several hours a day, every day (except for Sunday, it seems, and holidays) to the deliberate practice of her art.  She didn’t just write.  She thought about – and wrote down – what she wanted to work on, and what she wanted to achieve in the work she was doing.

There were two articles in this past Saturday’s The New York Times with special relevance for us writers.  Both are related to the issue of the time it takes to do creative work and to the difference between simply writing and the deliberate practice of our art.

The first is Stephanie Clifford’s, “Teaching About the Web, and Its Troublesome Parts” (April 10, 2010, A15).  Prompted by the suicide of a teenager in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who was harassed by a group of teenagers, the article discusses what young people should know about the ramifications of certain online behaviors: how we present ourselves online; privacy; issues regarding plagiarism; credibility; interacting with others.  (For those of us with children or grandchildren, the article is essential reading).

But one of the most significant revelations in this article is that the average young person spends about “seven and a half hours a day with a computer, television or smart phone.”  This, from a January study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.  And that average is not far off the average for adults.

Hold that thought.

The other article, by Alina Tugend, “For the Best of the Best, Determination Outweighs Nature and Nurture” (April 10, 2010, B6), describes how “the best of the best” in any field devote some four hours a day to “deliberate practice” in their field.  “Deliberate practice” is defined as time spent in “highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weaknesses.”  That is, deliberate practice is not just writing in a journal; it’s not just writing; it’s engaging in – and here I repeat – “highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weaknesses.”

This means that we don’t only write; we assess our writing; we figure out what we need to do to improve our writing; we figure out what our weaknesses are and we set up deliberately structured activities to improve.

I recently read Susan Dick’s transcription of Virginia Woolf’s earliest draft of her landmark novel, To the Lighthouse.  Before Woolf began work on that novel, she devoted a few pages to planning what she wanted to do in that work.  She knew, before she set pen to paper, that, for example, many of the characters of the Ramsay children would be undifferentiated; that time would become almost a character in the work; that she wanted to achieve a far different effect here than in her previous novel, Mrs. Dalloway. So…she didn’t start out with a hazy, fuzzy sense of what she was about.  The writing of her novel was the deliberate practice of her art.  She was stretching the boundaries of her art.  The point is that she spent much time thinking about what she wanted to achieve.

We can do that – engage in deliberate practice – in our own work.  For example…. Let’s say that, in our memoir writing, we discover that we don’t let our readers know very much about where events happen.  We’ve assessed a weakness.  Then we can devise structured activities to improve our work in that area.  One would be to choose a memoir we believe is an excellent example of the genre, and go through, say, twenty pages, underlining every instance where the writer describes setting (where and when the events take place).  We could, too, copy what the writer wrote.  (Copying another writer’s work is an excellent structured device to improve our writing.)  Then we could analyze when that writer used setting, and how it affected the meaning of the memoir.  Next, we could turn to a few pages of our own memoir-in-progress and underline every instance where we describe where and when events take place.  We could go back to our analysis of that other writer and see whether any of her/his techniques might be incorporated into our own work.  Next, we could take, say, an hour and revise our pages-in-progress, making a deliberate attempt to write place and a deliberate attempt to let our readers know when this chunk of the work takes place.  Finally, we could spend some time researching that particular time we’re writing about – we could check what music was being played, what political events were occurring, what books were being published – to see whether that helps us illuminate the events we’re describing.

That’s an example of deliberate practice.

Turgend’s article suggests that it takes ten years of deliberate practice of four hours a day in a field to get to master that field.  Another writer I’ve read – Howard Gardner – says it takes seven years.  Which sounds just about right to me, thinking back over Virginia Woolf’s career.

So…what happens to kids – or grown-ups – who fritter their time by spending the seven and a half hours a day Clifford’s article indicates many young people spend online, watching television, or on smart phones?  And how much of our own time is misspent with these activities?

I once remarked half-jokingly that most of us could become brain surgeons if we devoted as much time to study as we did to watching television, talking on the telephone, communicating via email, texting, and so on.  Think about it.  If it only takes four hours a day of deliberate practice to become the best of the best at something, and if young people (and many older people too) are spending seven and a half hours frittering their time away, then we have a clear-cut choice to make.  Spend our time in activities that add up to nothing.  Or take some of that time and spend it in deliberate practice.

There’s a problem here, for sure.  How many of us have what Clifford’s article calls “the grit” to work four hours a day when the payoff is so many years away?  Not many of us.  And for one researcher – Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania – it’s the qualities of “grit, self-discipline and confidence” that unlock talent.  That is, we’re not born with talent; we find it through deliberate practice.

So….

Take a day, any day.  Write down what you do all day long.  Be honest.  Tote up the hours spent doing various tasks all day long.  Figure out how long your really spend online, answering email, looking at television, checking messages, writing texts, answering them.  I bet it’s far longer than you imagine.

Then think of Virginia Woolf, who remade the shape of the novel, working just about four hours a day.  And then you decide what you’d rather do.  Text your life away?  Answer every email that comes your way?  Walk down the street talking on the phone or texting?  Or hunkered down somewhere quiet in blissful deliberate practice?

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2 Responses to ““Deliberate Practice,” by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    For me, texting is a definite no-no! It presents an endless escape route to writers who already have a tendency to procrastinate. The social world can be quite alluring when faced with the isolation of the blank page.

    I read recently that three hours of sustained focus is what most people can handle before taking a slight break. A short break can help avoid burnout. Dickens was a writer and a walker. I think walks or other forms of exercise do help you “clear out” as well as “take in.”

    Personally, I used to be a purist about TV and gave it up completely for a while, which was probably useful when I was younger. Now I find that limited TV-watching of high-quality shows can help a writer learn plot since TV writers have to be ultra-sharp when it comes to holding viewers’ attention. However, it’s so important to pick the right programs when it comes to this issue and it’s my own belief that it helps to learn character development first & have this down before integrating good TV into your practice as a way of learning plot. I found “Six Feet Under” to be expertly written in both its construction of realistic characters and the ebb and flow of its plot. I watched the whole series last summer and learned a great deal.


  2. […] Take to heart Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I say this because my biggest newbie mistake was to focus on writing to my strength—which is characterization. I’d write good characters and then submit for publication. It wasn’t until I got tough-love feedback from objective readers that I realized—duh!—readers want the whole enchilada. That’s when I focused more on improving my plots. This newbie mistake is not uncommon. Many of us have heard that competency comes after 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice. And haven’t we been writing all our lives?  But it turns out that developing competency requires more than simple repetition. We must do the ugly work of identifying and working on our weaknesses. For more specifics on how writers can develop a more deliberate practice, I highly recommend Louise DeSalvo’s blog posting: (https://writingalife.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/deliberate-practice-by-louise-desalvo/). […]


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