The Secret to Making Bad Writing Good (Is Not What You Think)
Stephanie Fisher had come a long way from her hometown of Jamestown, New York, to Augusta, Georgia, but this was her dream and she wouldn’t give it up. The year was 2010, and it was her seventh time auditioning for American Idol.
She had never made it this far in the singing talent show, but this time, things were going to be different. This time, she would see the judges.
The twenty-three-year-old college graduate with degrees in biochemistry and communication studies was determined to make this audition a success and get invited to Hollywood Week, where dozens of contestants would compete for a chance at the finals.
Dressed in a silvery sequined top, donning pearls around her neck and fishnet stockings, Stephanie stepped onto the platform of America’s most popular talent show, smiling nervously before the judges.
“Wow,” a couple of them said, remarking on her outfit.
“I almost wore the same thing,” Randy joked.
Simon rolled his eyes, obviously annoyed.
“Okay,” Kara said, “let’s hear it.”
In her black and white oxfords, Stephanie spread her feet apart as if to ready herself, and she opened with Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”
At this point, Stephanie was snapping her fingers and provocatively staring down the judges, who were audibly groaning. Her rhythm was off, the notes were wrong, and everyone on the set knew it, including Stephanie. They told her to stop. She frowned.
“Thank you, Stephanie,” Simon said.
“What did you think?” Kara asked.
“Terrible. Honestly, you can’t sing, sweetheart.”
Stephanie admitted to being a little starstruck in the presence of Victoria Beckham, who was a guest judge that day. Later she told a reporter this was something the producers told her to say. Victoria offered to turn around in hopes that it would make the contestant feel more at ease. Stephanie accepted the offer, which felt forced and a little too theatrical for me.
The young grad student started again, a little more awkwardly, this time singing “Baby Love” by The Supremes. It wasn’t any better. After a measure or two, Victoria turned back around. This time Kara added to the critical jabs, saying it was better when she was looking. Another burst of laughter erupted from the judges.
“With the greatest respect,” Simon said in a proper British accent, pausing for dramatic effect, “you have a horrible voice.”
“Really?” Stephanie said, looking stunned but still smiling nervously. All the preparation, all those long years of dreaming, had led to this?
“Yeah,” Randy chimed sympathetically. “You ain’t got it goin’ on.”
“You can’t give me a few minutes to get un-nervous?” she pleaded.
“We’d need years, Stephanie,” Simon said, and the judges again all laughed in unison. And as I watched the YouTube video recounting this painful story years after the fact, I realized how true that was.
It’s Not Just About Trying
Our parents told us to try our best. Whether at school or Little League, we were encouraged to give it our all, and that was enough to make them proud.
But the truth is there are different kinds of trying. Anders Ericsson has been studying this for years and in his book Peak, he’s come to a surprising conclusion: not all effort is equal.
Stephanie Fisher had been practicing singing for years. She’d been trying. But the 10,000-hour rule, at least as far as she understood it, had not worked. What was she doing wrong?
The answer, according to Ericsson, lies in what he calls deliberate practice.
In his recent book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, he says that when you embrace the deliberate-practice mindset,
. . . anyone can improve, but it requires the right approach. If you are not improving, it’s not because you lack innate talent; it’s because you’re not practicing the right way.
So what is the right way to practice? Deliberate practice requires the following:
- You must push yourself past your comfort zone and attempt things that are not easy for you.
- You must get immediate feedback on the activity you are practicing and on what you can do to improve it.
- You must identify the best people in your field and find out what sets them apart, then practice like they do.
If you’re not doing these things, you’re not really practicing. At least, not in the way that is going to lead to excellence.
The Secrets to Writing Like Hemingway
When Ernest Hemingway was living in Paris in the 1920s, he received an exceptional education in writing, a unique opportunity he may not have even been aware of.
Every day, he would get up and go to a cafe, where he would write for a few hours. First, he’d edit the previous day’s work, a discipline he developed that influenced his style for the rest of his life. Unlike many other authors at the time, he was constantly tightening his prose, trying to make it cleaner, shorter, better.
In the afternoons, he would visit his friends in the Latin Quarter, people like Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. They would critique his writing, give him feedback on what he was doing right and what he was doing wrong. Then he would apply what he learned.
This was an incredible opportunity, but it wasn’t an accident. Hemingway was born in Chicago, and after a brief stint in the Red Cross during WWI, he wandered for a while, trying to find his way in life. It was author Sherwood Anderson who encouraged him to move to Paris where “the most interesting people in the world lived.”
So he did, and nearly seven years later, when his informal apprenticeship was over, he had learned the discipline of deliberate practice.
Challenge Yourself to Deliberate Practice
If you want to do the same, you must:
- Push yourself in your practice. In my book The Art of Work, I call this painful practice, because it might hurt a little. That’s what happens every time we go outside our comfort zone.
- Seek out critical feedback. We live in the age of inflated egos when most people are afraid to give their honest opinions. But in order to become a truly great writer, you will need people in your life to tell you, “you can do better.”
- Seek out the greats and learn their secrets. You don’t have to move to Paris, but you need to find prominent writers in your genre, living or dead, and find out how they do what they do.
The truth is natural born talent, if it exists at all, is incredibly rare. More and more, science is proving that what we used to call talent is really just hard work.
When was the last time you practiced something deliberately? What did you learn? Share in the comments!
For the next fifteen minutes, write about practice. Be it writing or something else, share what you learned and what you did. Try to copy a technique from “one of the greats.” Then, share your practice in the comments, ask for feedback, and be sure to leave some for others so we can all practice more deliberately.
Originally published at thewritepractice.com on June 9, 2016.