How are writing skills developed?

“Practice makes perfect” is a formidable cliché because it seems to have empirical validation, or at least praise from Malcolm Gladwell, which is sufficient for professionals in tech, education, and many other industries. Gladwell is the author of folksy, “disruptive” books that are actually white-bread. I can’t improve on Steven Poole’s take on Gladwell:

“Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés.”

It’s fitting that peddler of clichés would create one of his own – the inescapable “10,000 hour rule.” If you’re not familiar with it, it stipulates that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed for anyone to become a master in a specific field, whether classical music performance or chess. Gladwell’s book Outliers is the source of this particular formulation of the theory, although the research was done in the 1990s by Swedish psychologists, demonstrating what Poole was talking about.

The 10,000 hour rule always seemed fragile to me. Cracks in it began to form with questions about high jumpers last year. Then this year there was the study that showed that deliberate practice accounted for but a sliver of the differences in performance in every field from sports (26 percent) to professions (1 percent!).

I was relieved that someone was willing to undermine the 10,000 hour rule’s stranglehold on our imaginations. The argument is romantic – if anyone practices enough, she can get ahead. Everything is in her control, ultimately. If she fails, it’s her fault – she didn’t want it enough, didn’t go out and get it or some such reductivist nonsense. This mentality is used by the elite to justify their position and by politicians to starve the welfare state. David Hambrick summed it up nicely for Slate:

“[The 10,000 hour mindset] perpetuates the myth that is at the root of much inaction in society—the myth that people can help themselves to the same degree if they just try hard enough. You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly. Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

For writers, the 10,000 hour shores up the foundation of fiercely competitive creative writing programs. They exist to make everyone believe that with the right coaching or group exercises can become a competent novelist or poet. But the 10,000 hour also seems like a particularly poor fit for writing, because…well, what constitutes “practice” for a writer?

Stream-of-consciousness rambling in iA Writer or MS Word? Editing poetry with cute line breaks? Being a grammar hound (eww)? Perhaps. But those techniques, even if done for years, can be hugely counterproductive, producing nothing that anyone could possibly wade through.

What about day job writing? Professional content writers can write millions of words in the course of a few years. These people toil in obscurity, cranking out volume on par with the King James Bible every 12 months. Does it give them the “practice” needed to become experts or to become luminaries? For many of them, no – the deliberate attention to construction, clarity, voice, etc. result in being able to play to someone’s expectations – here’s a keyword, here’s a voice-y section – and little else. Yet, content writing is the most demanding writing “practice” imaginable, at least in the classical conception – i.e., something with the long hours and toil of violin practicing or doing coding exercises.

I think the problem with the 10,000 hour rule as applied to writing is that so much of the actual “practice” of writing isn’t even writing – it’s reading.  Reading doesn’t seem like “practice” to American society, in which it is at best a leisure activity and at worst something that no one has time for because Facebook messages, email, and touching-base are too important. It’s passive, it’s quiet. Plus, it doesn’t further a “brand” or contribute “business value” in any obvious way, so it’s worthless for a wide swath of the population, at least the ones in charge.

What the writer reads is her world, in terms of what tools she has at her disposal, what references and mythic frameworks she can reach for as needed, and what styles she can feel competent channeling. It’s funny, though, to think of other artistic endeavors if they worked like writing – a musician would become proficient mostly through listening rather than playing, and an artist by viewing rather than painting or drawing.

Writing is labor-intensive and often unpleasant, but – to rely on a cliche, forgive me – it’s the tip of the iceberg. When I began reading R.L. Stine and J.R.R. Tolkien as an 11 year-old, my writing became exponentially better. It also helped that I started young. Had I become a a serious reader at 21 instead, my abilities would probably be much more limited. But what kind of 11 year-old has the will to read voraciously with the goal of becoming a “professional” writer someday? He probably does it because he enjoys it and that’s all. If someone encourages him and supports him, then he’s lucky.

And indeed “luck” is the source of many of our skills, the oft-denigrated word that nevertheless is like a secular term for God and a symbol for all the forces, paths, and pressures that we can’t control. Even practically, writers should embrace this conception of luck, since so much writing seems to come from not exactly knowing where something is going when you sit down. Will this character live? What if I interrupted this scene in the middle to cut to something else that I haven’t even planned out yet? For me, that’s so much of the thrill of writing. It’s having all that mental pollen from reading, waiting for the honeybee of inspiration to light.

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