Three ways experts differ from the rest of us

People become experts in three ways
People become experts in three ways
It’s Always Possible to Get Better

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?

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5 thoughts on “Three ways experts differ from the rest of us”

  1. I believe in both, actually. I think that you need *some* level of innate feeling for language to be a good writer, but I think that you need to put in the hard work of craft as well.

    I always think of the animator Chuck Jones, who said he was very comforted to be told in art school that he would have to do 10,000 drawings before he made a good one, because he had already made at least that many drawings. And, of course, he made many thousands *more* drawings throughout his long career.

    I think there is something innate that causes someone to be interested in writing, or drawing, or basketball, but it’s the hard work and practice that actually makes someone GOOD at it.

    1. You know they say you have to write a million words of crap before you write something good. I used to write Tolkien fanfiction, and one site I posted on had a word counter. I went and looked and I’d written my million words, so I said, hey, time to write my own stuff.

      I like the idea of the innate quality making someone interested.

  2. There’s a lot of stuff that They Say™ about writing but the one thing everybody seems to agree on is that you mostly get better by doing it.

    I find huge parallels between software development and writing, and this is one of them. There isn’t even widespread agreement on whether you need a degree to be a good programmer, but you sure as shit need to sit down and program.

    Stephen King is not my idea of a brilliant writer, but he’s a very workmanly one, and he says in his writing book that the whole reason he wrote it the way he did is, you can’t *make* a person into a *brilliant* writer, but you *can* make a *competent* writer into a *good* one, with practice and training.

    1. Can’t argue with any of that.

      I think you also need a certain amount of ability to reflect on your own performance. Otherwise, you can do the same stupid thing over and over. That’s where I find feedback to be very useful. Maybe in programming, the feedback comes from the way the program works or doesn’t.

      1. At an immediate level, yes, but the more helpful form of feedback happens when you’re integrating your changes into the group project (assuming you’re not working entirely alone, which you almost never are). The parallel falls apart in many ways, and that is one of them.

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