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?
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?