Why This Practice Makes You A Better Writer

    Drayton Bird has wryly observed that some people have 20 years’ experience, and others have one year’s experience repeated twenty times.

    You probably know a few such people yourself, which is why the quip is funny—but the problem actually hits closer home than we might expect.

    It turns out that even thoughtful people who are proactive about their training end up doing a lot of practice that is not only pointless, but even harmful.

    If you’re anything like me, you’re serious about learning, improving, and—dare I say it—perfecting your craft. The natural way we go about this is by repeatedly doing it.

    But there’s a good chance that doing this without a very careful plan is actually turning us into one of those people with one year’s experience repeated twenty times.

    Practice does not make perfect.

    The science is in

    Since the late nineteenth century, social scientists have debated whether great skill came from great practice, or just from great genes.

    By 1993, K. Anders Ericsson seemed to have put the question to rest, when he published in Psychological Review that his study of violinists concluded that the most elite practiced twice as much as the least accomplished.

    The figure of 10,000 hours popped out. His follow-up study on pianists laid all doubt aside; he discovered that the top pianists had practiced about 10,000 hours, in comparison to the weakest pianists’ 2,000 hours.

    Malcolm Gladwell popularized this 10,000-hour figure in the book Outliers, cementing into popular thinking the notion that expert status comes with simply repeating an activity for a little over one man-year.

    Other scientists were not so satisfied with these figures. How, they wondered, could simply repeating an activity for long enough make one an expert in it, given the phenomenon we all know—of people with one year’s experience repeated twenty times?

    If practice was the key to perfection, whence all these professional amateurs?

    Was it possible, perhaps, that Ericsson and Gladwell had gotten the wrong end of the stick—that lots of skill actually produced lots of practice, rather than lots of practice producing lots of skill?

    So they conducted new studies to investigate the correlation between practice and skill more deeply.

    And they discovered some things that are not very well known—and not terribly surprising either, when you think about it.

    Practice is a poor predictor of performance

    When assessing over 10,000 twins for musical ability—such as rhythm, melody, pitch discrimination—rather than instrumental skill, they found that “associations between music practice and music ability were predominantly genetic,” and “when genetic predisposition was controlled for, more practice was no longer associated with better music skills.”

    In terms of skills that do need to be learned, rather than more innate abilities, a 2014 meta-analysis concluded that practice could only account for one quarter of the differences in performance for games; one fifth for playing musical instruments; 18% for skill at sports; a mere 4% for education…and less than 1% for professions.

    Which means that, for professionals like writers, copywriters and marketers, practice has virtually nothing to do with skill.

    So practice is pointless?

    Actually, no.

    The fact is that traditional thinking about practice is simply wrong.

    The amount of raw time you put in has nothing much to do with how good you are.

    For example, in a study of chess players, reaching a master level of ability took just 728 hours for one player, but 16,120 hours for another. That’s one man-month versus nearly two man-years.

    Practice cannot predict performance.

    Traditional advice about practice making perfect is wrong. 

    That being the case, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about how we practice our craft—because there’s every chance it is not making us better at it.

    In the words of Kathy Sierra, author of Badass, what practice actually does is not make perfect, but permanent.

    That doesn’t sound too terrible until you remember all those professional amateurs with one year’s experience repeated twenty times. Why is it that they haven’t improved?

    It is because they have cemented mediocrity…

    … by practicing it.

    If you practice badly, eventually you get really, really good at being really, really bad.

    Obviously there are some skills that require a lot of effort to master. You have to try quite a bit before you get good at them.

    In other words, there are many skills—including writing, blogging, marketing and so on—that you must practice to hone.

    Some people are naturally talented. Others aren’t. And the naturally talented tend to be attracted to what they’re good at.

    But everyone needs practice to move beyond innate ability into the realm of reliable, consistently reproducible skill.

    How, then, should we practice?

    In her book Badass, Kathy Sierra talks about how people get to the point where they can reliably perform representative tasks better than their peers—how they can be badass.

    Practice is involved, but in very specific ways.

    One of those ways, especially, is easy for us to replicate. In fact, it is a method originally used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by pretty much all writers to learn their craft.

    Why This Practice Makes You a Better Writer

    If you practice copying truly excellent models, your writing will improve. Guaranteed!

    Many people try to learn by being told what to do.

    They try to learn the overarching strategies, principles and techniques of their craft by getting an expert to explain these to them.

    Then they go away and try to reproduce them.

    It seems like a logical way to go about learning and getting better at something—especially since certain education philosophies of the twentieth century have taken hold.

    Unfortunately, a lot of people who are most skilled at what they do have absolutely no idea how they got to be that good. Worse, they think they know—and are actually wrong.

    So when they try to teach it, what they tell their students ranges from pure guesswork to flagrant error.

    This is partly where the old saying comes from: those who can’t, teach.

    It’s not that teachers are necessarily bad at doing what they teach. Rather, they are often bad at making their students good.

    When that happens, students assume that the problem is that their teacher doesn’t know how to do it either. They are right—he doesn’t know how to do it, which is why he can’t tell them…and yet he can still be bloody amazing at it.

    The classic “that-shouldn’t-even-be-possible” example of this is chicken-sexing. Yes, you read that right. The art of telling what sex a baby chicken is. (What did you think I meant?)

    Knowing whether a chick is male or female is a very important skill—and a lucrative one for the egg and poultry industry.

    Unfortunately, it is impossible to teach this skill. Some people “just know” whether a chick will grow up to lay eggs or crow its head off—but they cannot tell you why or how they know it. And they cannot teach it.

    They have tried. It doesn’t work.

    So here’s what the experts do: they get someone who wants to learn the art of chicken-sexing, and give her a box of chicks. She picks out one chick at a time, and decides whether it feels like a boy or a girl. Then the expert tells her whether she’s right or wrong.

    As you’d expect, for the first few minutes, the number of correct guesses are pretty much equal to the number of wrong ones.

    But then something strange starts to happen. The percentages start to skew.

    Within a couple of hours, without gaining any intellectual knowledge, these newbies can accurately tell you whether a chick is male or female.

    They become experts simply by doing the task, even though they don’t know what it is that has changed, and even though they have not gained any knowledge they can even describe, let alone impart to another person.

    And this takes a relatively short time. It isn’t in the order of days or weeks—let alone months or years. It is hours.

    This is remarkably similar to what W. Timothy Gallwey discovered—that he could teach overweight, middle-aged women who had never exercised before to play a solid game of tennis in thirty minutes. How? Not by explaining what to do—but simply by having them watch and copy him.

    It is exactly how children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries learned to write—or perform any other craft, for that matter. By copying the work of existing writers or craftsmen.

    Come to think of it, it is also how we learn just about anything as children—from language to walking to social interaction.

    Creative expectations smother real skill-building

    The problem is that everyone thinks writing is creative.

    They think that, as Brett and Kate McKay put it, “only a truly ungifted writer—a real hack—would have to learn how to write by copying other people.”

    Yet that is exactly what one of the greatest, most respected copywriters of the twentieth century did. Gary Halbert offered exactly this advice to anyone who wanted to become a better copywriter than most pros in just 30 days.

    Write out great sales letters by hand.

    And just in case you’re thinking what you’re probably thinking, he added:

    ‘Don’t come to me and say, “O.K., Gary, I’ve got the idea. I know what you’re getting at. It really wasn’t necessary for me to do all that mechanical stuff as long as I understand what you’re driving at, right, Gary?”

    Sorry, Buckwheat; it doesn’t work that way. If you really want to know it, you’ve really got to do it.’

    The mechanical act of copying great models is the key to rapid improvement.

    Of course, there are other keys, other strategies you can use to accelerate up the skill curve even faster. 

    But the basic idea—of simply swallowing your creative pride and copying people who are already great—is the most important thing.

    Despite what Halbert believed, it doesn’t have to be by hand. That certainly helps some people, but it hasn’t worked for me any better than typing has.

    And it doesn’t have to be typing out whole blocks of copy either.

    If you want to work on your headline-writing skills, you can simply write out headlines. If you want to work on leads, you can write out leads. And in fact, you don’t have to copy verbatim either—at least not all the time.

    The important thing is that you aim to sound like a writer you already know is really good. Like a piece of writing that you already know worked really well.

    Transcend your influences

    It is only after you have internalized the basic sound and feel of good writing—which is something you must do by rote copying of excellent models—that you will have a base for building your own unique skill set.

    It is only after your writing looks like Halbert’s or Kipling’s or Hemingway’s that you will be able to start refining it into something more like your writing—and do so in a way that will still work.

    My greatest copywriting breakthrough came from aping Drayton Bird’s excellent emails until his style became second nature to me.

    Many of history’s greatest writers learned this way. Jack London copied Rudyard Kipling’s work longhand—pages and pages of it.

    Benjamin Franklin, describing his process for learning to write, relates:

    “I met with an odd volume of The Spectator—I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.

    With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

    But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.

    I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper.

    This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.”

    Practice what works

    In fact, when you see seemingly effortless ability with words, it is usually backed up by hard time copying, and then more hard time refining.

    This is the way writers learn how words fit together to form sentences, how the sentences should fit together into paragraphs, and how the paragraphs should fit together into a piece.

    It’s not that these people don’t have talent.

    They do—but they have developed it into a permanent excellent skill by practicing the right things, instead of just repeatedly writing whatever came into their heads.

    Now, think of a writer you particularly admire. Find some of their work, and start copying it, imitating it, playing with it in a way that works for you.

    And to help others do the same, why not share your favorite pieces of writing in the comments?

    About the author

      D Bnonn Tennant

      D Bnonn Tennant is a writing coach, and the creator of Learn Copywriting Backwards—a training program for solopreneurs who want to build a working funnel while learning "80/20" writing skills. The first module starts with the easiest, highest-leverage part of a page, and you can enrol free!

    • ethtimes says:

      interesting awesome post
      Baby Names for boys

    • I’ve heard similar advice but this is excellent.

    • Yeah, interesting take on it. I once heard a quote. “Practice doesn’t make perfect, Perfect practice makes perfect”

    • Vanessatan says:

      Have just discovered your website and felt satisfying when reading your post. I am also learning to become a professional writer but it seems hard for me to do so. I am making a few mistakes mentioned in this article. So, thank for your great information. Keep posting such information!

    • Hey, such an awesome post

    • Raman says:

      I believe writing things – using a pen and paper – enhances our understanding of whatever we’re writing.

    • An excellent post. The hypnotist Milton Erickson used language to astonishing effect, changing people’s perceptions and realities in order to help them overcome their problems in life.

      Erickson used an array of ‘language patterns’ (popularised, and watered down by NLP). He honed and refined them by writing them longhand, over and over again. This wasn’t just to commit them to memory, but rather to bring them to a point of near perfection.

      I believe writing things – using a pen and paper – enhances our understanding of whatever we’re writing. Thank you for sharing this excellent post.

    • Great advice. I’ve often thought about this, but I’ve never tried it. I will now.

      I taught my kids how to draw by tracing an image using tracing paper. They would then add details and tighten up their drawings. I guess this is the same thing: training your hand to create the art. We’re often told tracing is cheating, but I told my kids it was training.

    • Jackie says:

      Great post! I remember as a kid one of my favorite things to do was to sit at the dining room table and copy the text of my favorite books. I’m glad to hear that practice was beneficial! I’m inspired to try this now as an adult, and with intention. I vision the process also being an almost a meditative practice as it asks us to settle in, ground in our bodies and be present with the words.

    • Wonderful articles in this post it’s very beneficial for me. Thanks to share this post.

    • Suman says:

      This sure suited me (not in writing film stories though)

      Happy New Year 2016 HD Images for Lovers

      Happy New Year 2016 HD Images

    • Tirupati says:

      I would concentrate more on the presentation.This help me even more better.Big thanks for the advice.appreciated.

    • Kim Willis says:

      Fabulous post!

      Many will find your mini lesson very helpful, especially because you write in such an engaging way – I was hooked from the first sentence.

      It was great to see you mention Drayton Bird. I saw him many years ago in Sydney – he gave an entertaining and informative talk.

      Your core theme refers to the need to copy others so we can get better and ultimately develop our own style. This advice works in any field of human endeavor. Indeed when I was learning the guitar my teacher told me to copy the best riffs from some of the best guitarists.

      So that’s what i did – I learnt many of those riffs, and played them well. Soon enough I started experimenting with my own versions of those riffs. Finally, I was developing my own style!

      By losing ourselves in someone else’s words and phrases we will automatically get better. I look forward to using this technique during the Xmas break

      Thanks again

    • Love this post! Practicing poor style certainly won’t make it better. When I was writing my novel, my mentor had me copy out passages of novels I liked. She also had me analyze a scene and identify its arc. What emotion opens, what closes? What’s the change in the middle. Doing this really help me see the underlying structure of a powerful scene. It was a great combination that transformed my writing.

    • Thanks for this post. It’s not the usual kind of advice I get. I think I can understand that rewriting is one of the subconscious ways of learning. I’d be wise and give it a try

    • This is one hell of a good post, Dominic!

      Your topic reminded me of my first career as a professional flutist. For years I practiced for at least 4 hours a day. I always started with tone studies – which are very simple exercises – just one long note gliding into the next.

      If you just play them by rote, thinking of something else, your tone will get worse, not better. To practice tone studies well, you need to be to be mindful.

      You need to lose yourself in the tone. You need to become the tone.

      I think it’s the same when we practice writing. Attention alone isn’t enough. We need to lose ourselves in the rhythm and flow of words and phrases.

      The interesting point you make is that we have to lose ourselves in SOMEONE ELSE’S words and phrases in order to improve.

      I’m going to try it. It makes sense. I reckon mindfulness is going to be a key element of the process. Just letting the words flow into our mind and body without analyzing.

      Thanks for an excellent post!

    • Pat says:

      Ha, ha. Nice title.

      On the topic of rote copying, is it necessary to write long hand or type when copying? What about making an audio book.

      Speaking is much faster than writing and although I have experienced amazing success from copying long hand one of my favorite authors, the process is so much slower than speaking. I never finished. I wrote six out of a hundred pages and stopped. I got what I wanted but I wonder if just reading the words and making an audio recording of that would produce the same results faster?


      • There is definitely something about copying longhand that works especially well. I haven’t done a lot of research on this particular point, but I believe it is because you’re engaging more of your brain by going through the more physical process of handwriting, which means more mirror neurons are activated (iirc).

        I think to vary things up, speaking would be worth trying. But unless you’re an aural learner, I wouldn’t expect it to have quite the same effect. That said, it will have another effect which is equally valuable: teaching you about the sound of good language. This is incredibly important, and something I encourage in all my writing students: you need to do more than just see the words on the page. You must be able to hear them. This aural component has actually been one of the most important keys to refining my own writing ability.

    • First, some context.

      I use my middle name not to be pretentious but because there’s another Dr. Evan Stark who is THE guy on domestic abuse. In my field, we say one’s research topic is autobiographical, so…

      And I put Ph.D. in there because I’m a social-personality psychologist (not a therapist), and I was laying the foundation for an authoritative compliment.

      What a post. Well researched (I’m familiar with this issue) and so well written. It was a delight to read it. But the author left out one variable.

      Many virtuosos grew up in nurturing environments. Either nurturing from parents or nurturing by a mentor or someone who took great interest in them. The other folks were close to crazy people. Didn’t Picasso advise to steal another artist’s work, implying the central idea of this post? It’s the title of some book on Amazon. Now my experience stealing.

      When I was in grad school, I took a statistics course taught by a medium-famous psychologist Car Auerbach.

      He gave homework that I was either too tired to do or that I was too lazy to do. So I hacked into his mainframe (now dead) computer directory and found notes for the homework. It was then a matter of copying and slightly altering my computations. But Carl was smarter than I knew.

      He approached me after class with a smirk on his lips. He said, “You hacked into my account and copied my work. Good job!” I apologized and he told me I didn’t understand because copying is a great way to learn how to do it yourself. It took me years to determine if he was wise or a wiseguy. But looking at the citations above, all of which I read in grad school, settles the matter for me.

      Great choice, Mary.


    • Rudie says:

      I used this technique to pass the bar exam (twice).

    • Remi says:

      This is excellent advice. Serendipity must be at play here. As a young writer, a thought came to mind a couple of months ago that I may just copy word for word and with pen and paper famous writers’ works. Before starting, I googled the topic and found only one blogpost from http://www.TheArtofManliness.com (I’m not part of this organization, neither get paid for dropping their name here) that was thoroughly explaining how copywriting works.

      Now, I have to say that your article is as good, if not better in certain areas, at least complementary and a must read for any aspiring writer.

      Loved it. Thank you.

    • I’d say copying definitely works… especially if you take the time to write things out by hand. There’s something about taking the time to do things manually that helps your brain see patterns and learn from them easier than if you were just typing.

      I’ve used this technique to improve my writing in the past & after reading this, might pick it back up again for a few weeks.

    • Jan Mannino says:

      This is excellent information. Having retired from a wonderful career, I am moving on to my hidden passion of writing. Instinctively I have been following some of the ideas presented here and know that they work, at least for me. Looking forward to more on this topic. Thanks,

    • Thanks very much for this unique, insightful article! It’s really true that practice doesnt make perfect if you’re just repeating mediocrity. As someone who blogs about writing tips, this was a great eye-opener- something I will share with my readers! Thanks again.

    • Pamela says:

      I’m hoping you can clarify something for me. When you mention “copying expert writers” do you mean something akin to getting a notebook out and copying word for word the writing, or do you mean reading it over and over and writing down the basic gist, or what? I seem to be fairly confused, and would like the clarification. Thanks bunches!

      • Hey Pamela, I left it vague because actually great writers find their own way here. Some copy verbatim, long-hand. Some read the piece, then write down the gist and try to recreate it afterward from their notes. Melanie had a good suggestion above, as well, about pasting a piece into a document and then editing it down to its gist. Not quite copying, but it will definitely make you think about the words being used.

    • Melanie Hemingway says:

      A slight twist on this technique that is working for me: copy and paste a section of another writer’s words to a blank word document and condense it to crystalline form. Cut words that don’t add to the message, leaving the best to shine.

    • Rebecca says:

      This article is being used as bait for Write to Done to get readers to sign up fo their newsletter. I shared mine just so I could read more. I don’t normally read articles this long. It was so interesting, I was compelled to keep reading. I also plan to follow your advice. Obviously, you are a talented writer. With all that said, I hope you won’t mind if I poke a little fun at something. The term man-year threw me off. Is that related to dog-years? 🙂

      • Hey Rebecca, no, I was using “man-year” as an expansion of man-hours, which is just a measure of how much work can be done by one person in one hour 🙂

    • Evonne Biggins says:

      I’ve heard similar advice but this is excellent. I’m off to type and write-by-hand from fave authors. Thanks!

    • Elizabetth Ambielli says:

      I love insights, proverbs, one-line bits of wisdom. Why? Because such writing has to do with what this article is speaking about, between the lines of copy. Lengthy articles of wisdom are also ‘awesome’ also for same reason as the one line insights.

      Good writing makes a person THINK. That’s what makes a good writer, artist, cartoonist, copywriter writing sales copy.

      One particular insightful one liner I read recently; I was told came from Henry Ford (creator of the automobille) His quote, fits perfectly with this article, in my humble opinion. It goes: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t . . you will be right.” Ahhhh! and from that line, I came to an insightful line of my own, which I also believe fits with this article: “If you are doing a job perfectly, you may be doing it perfectly wrong.” Don’t quote this in your office workplace to the boss who is paying you to type letters over and over, data enter information, answer the phone umpteen times, or do endless ‘and routine’ everyday tasks that keep his business running.

      It is not the repetition of the job tasks that make such office professionals ‘perfect’ – the doing of same job over and over; makes us perfect and reliable office support to the business owner and he or she is happy with us. Unless we take ‘the job’ to our own selves and continue to learn and grown new skills either by asking ‘the boss’ for new opportunities of additional responsibility or moving on ‘out of the comfort zone’ to doing something new in new employ (shudder…why it matters what place of employ we first take on as new workers; practically speaking, it is not good to not work where opportunities to expand upon our ‘natural ability’ is not present.) No matter how much you love to ‘just type’ …you become the consummate office professional when you can not only type, but date enter, file, proofread, fix the copier when it jams, and answer the phone.

      By leaving the comfortable ‘innate’ skill and being versatile; one becomes PERFECT for secure in one’s own self.

      To be a better writer; learn to read well, which will expand upon one’s vocabulary, bring one to have experiences to draw upon (also getting out and talking and listening to others brings out
      ideas) The writing ability comes natural…the expanding upon that natural ability, as a typist must learn ‘all office skills’ to be consummate perfect office professional for his or her own self, that’s what is the tougher part of perfecting the craft of writing. It isn’t about repeating what comes naturally over and over; so one can … ‘YA-AAAAAAWWWWN’ do it in one’s sleep. That, by definition is a ‘robot’ / and probably why many businesses have gone the route of automation and computerization. They didn’t have ‘thinking people’ working for them…they had PERFECT ROBOTS (sorry if that offends a bit; but THINK about it) Businesses were paying more and more wages for a person to do same thing over and over and over …hey!! Let’s get a machine; they don’t take coffee breaks!

      I believe God wills man not only to work but to continue to learn, aka To THINK. (it is becoming a rare skill) A good writer is one who can form the sentences, paragraphs , and words into a single idea that makes others THINK. More than money itself; good writers get pleasure in knowing they could do that.

    • Charles Thomas says:

      A big thank-you for some really valuable advice. Will IMMEDIATELY be putting into practice!

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