Deliberate Practice and the Dan Plan – part 2

Last time I promised a look at how apply deliberate practice to writing fiction, and bit more details about why the Dan Plan failed. So here goes.

The often repeated writing advice out there is probably Write a lot. But if you listen to pro writers such as Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, or Dean Wesley Smith, then you won’t just hear them say that writers need to write a lot. They get more specific and say that you need to focus on trying one new thing or doing one new thing particularly well in each story. Which, surprise, surprise, sounds a bit like deliberate practice (focusing on a specific sub-skill, getting feedback from readers/beta reader, use feedback to improve, and then move on).

I think is an excellent idea, and I do this myself. However, it doesn’t fit perfectly with the methods of deliberate practice. Firstly, and this is especially true if you write novels, it can take a long time before you get any feedback on your work, and you’re spending a lot of time focusing on one skill (research shows you learn more by changing focus often within a training session , but more on that in a later post). Secondly, I personally find it difficult sometimes to focus on only one thing when I while writing can see that there are several things that need to be optimized in my story.

So what I do is I spend a lot of time on writing exercises and less time on stories. That doesn’t sound like much fun, I hear you say. No, not as much as writing stories at least, but real, beneficial practice isn’t always fun (see part 1). And I haven’t dropped writing stories entirely. I still use the stories to see how I’ve improved, to learn to combine the skills I’ve practiced, and to have fun of course. Because if you stop having fun completely, then your love for writing will die and you won’t stick with it.

That brings me back to the Dan Project. As mentioned, Dan never reached his goal of becoming a PGA tour golfer. Though, he made it damn far. One of the two things that stopped him was a back injury. That’s the kind of thing you can’t do anything about. No matter what your aspirations are in life, bad luck can always strike. Luckily, there’s few physical aspects that limit us as writers, but living somewhat healthily might not be a bad idea. It’ll give you the energy you need to keep practicing, keep writing when you feel like slumping on the couch watching TV instead.

The other thing that brought the Dan Project down was the mental aspect. He committed himself to the project wholeheartedly, but it was an experiment not something he did simply because he loved playing golf and wanted to do it for the rest of his life. He didn’t start with a love for the craft.

As he said himself, he could always walk away and do something else. And he did. He chose to spend more time with his family and find a job that could support them. Not a bad decision if you ask me, but if he really loved golf, then he would probably have found some time to practice anyway, just not full time.

Dan also chose to go at it alone. Yes, he had a coach, but there wasn’t a family (Dan met his girlfriend and her kids later in the project) or group of equally dedicated golfers to support him and help him through the rough times, which again made it easier to quit in the end. I can attest to how much it helps having a significant other who shares your passion for the craft and a group of people (in my case in the form of a writing group) who share your ambitions and dedication.

Speaking of coaches and writing groups, this leads me to my next post, which will give a more detailed view of how one can apply deliberate practice in writing, and also focus on the feedback aspect of deliberate practice.


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