How do people become experts in any field, including writing?
I recently read Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. Colvin is an editor for Fortune magazine, so his main interest is in improving corporate performance. However, he writes about the research on the differences between expert and novice performances in areas ranging from sports to music. My focus, of course, was writing and how I might become a better writer.
I like his claim of talent being overrated. I’m not sure I even believe in the concept of inborn talent. Oh, some people do various things better than others. But how do they get to that level of performance?
According to the research Colvin cites, experts differ from the rest of us in three ways.
Experts analyze their performance
First, experts are better able to break down what they’re doing into specific skills. They’re technique oriented, meaning that rather than proceeding instinctively toward a goal they’ve set, they think about the process of getting to it. For writers, this means becoming aware of craft elements such as point of view, description, pace, characterization, voice, and so on. The awareness can come from classes, workshops, books on writing, or critique, but a good writer can think in terms of writing’s technical aspects. They work creatively, too, but every time I’m around good writers, I’m struck by how they see writing in craft terms.
Experts practice long and hard
Second, experts practice their skills deliberately and repeatedly, especially the ones they’re weakest at. They try to stretch themselves beyond what they can do, rather than repeatedly doing what’s easiest and thus most enjoyable for them. Interestingly, this kind of practice actually reduces the automaticity with which a task is performed. The expert is thinking all the time and brings automatic behavior into consciously alterable control.
Craft skills can be practiced not only in the writing, but also by analyzing other people’s writing, in revision passes aimed at separate skills, and in whatever exercises the writer finds useful. Colvin makes the point that this practice isn’t necessarily a lot of fun, because if you’re trying to get better, you spend your time struggling with what you can’t quite do yet, and that’s frustrating. Been there. Know the feeling.
Experts seek feedback
Third, experts seek and accept feedback on their performance. Good feedback on novels can be hard to get because it requires such a time commitment. That’s why I treasure my beta readers and critique groups. Ideally, critiquers are at or above my level and aren’t afraid to tell me that my pacing is off or a plot element doesn’t ring true. Then it’s my job to evaluate the criticism and decide how to revise. I value surface revisions but am most interested in deep revisions like changing plots or adding and tossing out characters. For me, trying to do those revisions is what really teaches me and makes me grow as a writer.
On average, it takes ten years
According to the research that holds true in a wide variety of areas, achieving expert status takes about ten years of sustained effort. Thank goodness. That means I haven’t peaked yet!
How about you? Do you believe in innate talent? How have you learned to be a better writer?