Deliberate Practice and the Dan Plan – part 1

I’ve mentioned briefly in previous blog posts how important I think it is to practice the right way if you want to excel at your craft. And that was actually my primary reason for starting this blog. I wanted to use it as a way of documenting my own progress and set-backs and to show how excellence, hopefully, can be achieved by applying purposeful, deliberate practice. If you’ve heard about the Dan Plan, this is sort of the same thing only with writing and at a more commonly applicable scale.

The Dan plan was a one-man experiment conducted by Dan McLaughlin that aimed to show that with enough hours of practice and with the right kind of practice it was possible for anyone to achieve excellence. Dan’s goal was to become a professional golfer playing the PGA tour with 10.000 hours of deliberate practice. He’d barely played any golf prior to the experiment and wasn’t in good physical shape.

The project eventually failed in that Dan didn’t become a professional golfer but had to quit partly because of a back injury and partly because he decided to prioritize his family. But looking at the statistics here, you don’t have to be interested in golf to see that he made some serious progress during the years the project ran. At one point he hit a handicap of 2.6, putting him amongst the top 6 percent of golfers. That only took him two years!

He might’ve failed at reaching the end goal, but I’ll call that a pretty big success. As for why he didn’t reach his end goal and how I plan to avoid the same pit falls, I’ll discuss that in part 2.

So what is this deliberate practice? Well, it’s actually quite simply (but not easy) and quite intuitive too. First of all it requires breaking down the overall task, writing fiction in my case, into smaller sub-skills (like plotting, pacing, character development, descriptions, etc.). Then you practice by trying to improve one of those skills at the time. Afterwards you get feedback by a mentor who can tell you where and how to improve and then you apply the feedback and practice again, still with a focus on that one skill.

When you look at professional athletes and musicians, this is generally how they practice. They spend a much smaller percentage of their time combining all of the sub-skills by for example playing an entire basketball match or playing through an entire song than hobbyists. Instead they focus on the difficult parts of the game or the song, trying to turn their weaknesses into strengths.

It is of course one thing to apply this to sports and music where the training methods are well established, mentors in the form of teachers and trainers are usually available for a relatively small fee, and, in the case of sports, results are easily measurable. It’s another thing applying it something like writing, right? Many writers will probably think that way.

When I talk to fellow amateur writers about this, I often hear something like, Good writing is a matter of taste, you can’t put it into boxes like that; Writing is a complex skill; and You can’t measure good writing. And I agree that writing isn’t as easily measurable as sport usually is (you could measure sales, but when you practice you’re not selling, at least to begin with, and many people would argue that high sales numbers don’t necessarily equal quality writing). And, yes, writing is an art form and a complex skill, but so is music and painting, and in these areas the artists doesn’t seem to avoid rigid exercises focusing on a single sub-skill.

If you practice writing by simply focusing on making your stories as good as possible, then you’re not really focusing and you’re not improving a whole lot either. At least not once you’re past that initial early stage of learning where all progress comes easy.

If all of this sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. Practicing isn’t easy, and it’s rarely much fun. When asked, it’s not the practicing that professional musicians and athletes enjoy, it’s being able to perform when it counts and realizing they’re improving. And the joy that it brings is worth all the hard practice. It’s like going for a run and eating a salad instead of sitting on the couch going through a bag of chips. The latter is, to most people at least, probably more enjoyable in the moment, but afterwards when you have to run that half-marathon, you’ll be elated if you set a personal record and feel pretty down if you come in at a terrible time and is reminded that you’ve been eating junk food everyday.

So how do you apply deliberate practice to writing fiction? As mentioned, it’s not as easy as within sports, but it is durable, and I’ll explain more about how I do it in the next post.

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