Barbara Baig on Deliberate Practice & Why Hard Work Is More Important than Talent

Golden child of popular psychology Malcolm Gladwell once noted in his groundbreaking study of success, Outliers, that practice is “focused training with the intent of getting better.”  Barbara Baig, founding writing instructor at The Divinity School at Harvard and author of the superb Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, professes a similar philosophy.  Like a pianist who diligently practices his scales or a spelling bee champ who reliably reviews his vocabulary words, writers must dedicate painstaking hours of practice to their craft.  And here Baig makes a crucial distinction: practice isn’t meandering hours spent writing aimlessly; it’s a deliberate attempt to acquire certain skills:

“Practice demands hard work, but hard work by itself is not enough; you also have to know what to work on.  So deliberate practice, first of all, is highly focused.  As Dr. Ericsson explains, deliberate practice is deliberate because it is ‘specifically designed‘ to improve some aspect of an individual’s target performance.

Second, deliberate practice demands a change of attitude: no lackadaisical, ‘oh-whatever’ approach works here.  People engaged in deliberate practice are giving all their attention and energy-every brain cell, every muscle-to that practice.  As Ericsson points out, ‘For expert performers, there’s always effort.  Improvement is never effortless.’  At the same time, such people are not judging what they do; instead they’re noticing what’s working and what’s not working, and they are attempting to bridge the gap they perceive between what they can do and what they want to do.  They bridge this gap in two ways: by getting a clearer, more detailed understanding of the action, the sound, the kind of word they want; and by taking on even more focused practice.  In other words, they practice, not mindlessly or randomly, but strategically.”

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So what qualifies as practicing strategically?  Practicing strategically is seeking the guidance of “teachers”-our most beloved authors-who can instruct us in the mysterious magic of composition.  Practicing strategically is gathering models to emulate and dissecting stellar sentences to see how they work.  Practicing strategically is possessing a profound respect for how each unit contributes to the whole.  In the same way a mechanic learns how a car functions by examining its component parts, writers deepen their understanding of how a sentence operates by studying its most fundamental units.

The masterful writer, at heart, is nothing more than a diligent craftsman: someone who knows the nuts and bolts of his medium.  Like a medieval pilgrim who travels across many lands to behold an ancient relic, the skilled writer reveres language so much he’ll venture through many pages of Roget’s Thesaurus.  He doesn’t simply sit at his desk, day after day, harboring a vague hope of “getting better”; any time he sits at the page, he has a concrete goal: to write with more specificity and precision, to experiment with different kinds of sentence styles and tones.

For Baig, writing is a skill we learn through application, not a lofty theory confined to the academia of university hall.  In this way, the writer has more in common with the athlete than the philosopher: just as a basketball player refines his long-distance technique by actually shooting 3-pointers, a writer polishes his prose by writing, not much else.  Neither the athlete nor writer is born with exceptional talent: they develop their expertise through love and labor.  In fact, much of what we perceive as “talent” is the product of tireless effort alone.  In this indispensable guide to writing, Baig passionately argues there are no prodigies- just hard workers.

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