How to use deliberate practice to improve your writing



Last week, as one of my last duties as research fellow at RMIT before I take up my new role at ANU, I hosted two seminars – one from Prof Anthony Pare from McGill and the other from Prof Helen Sword, the writer of the wonderful “Stylish Academic Writing”.

Helen and Anthony had many interesting observations about the process of learning to write, but both made the same basic point: very few of us have formal instruction in how to write like an academic.

As Anthony Pare pointed out, when you write essays as an undergraduate you are ‘eavesdropping’ on expert conversation; as a PhD student you are expected to be a part of that conversation. Writing for a teacher is easier than writing for your peers because the expectations are clearer. This is why many PhD students experience what he calls the “J curve”: a rapid drop in confidence, but a long term upswing as this new kind of writing practice is mastered.

Helen Sword explained that we pick up most of what we know about academic writing informally, from our supervisors and from reading; this learning process is adhoc, idiosyncratic and individualised. Informal learning has benefits, but generally speaking it’s harder to reach expert level unless you really push yourself. Helen noted that many people don’t even consult writing books or take advantage of the free advice on the web and therefore never reach an expert level.

One of the ways to push yourself to become a better writer is to engage in deliberate practice, a term I encountered in Cal Newport’s recent book “So good they can’t ignore you” (an excellent read by the way). Deliberate practice is a way of consistently stretching yourself out of your comfort zone and thereby increasing your skill.

I thought I’d expand on some of the concepts of deliberate practice via my own recent experience with exercise. Like many academics I’m not very body conscious, but I do try to be active because I know I’m built to survive famines and easily put on weight. In the past I have been into swimming and lifting weights at the gym; solo exercise sessions where I can be alone with my pain.

The problem with solo exercise routines, as you probably know, is you are accountable to no one but yourself. Recognising we had a mutual problem in this area, my friend Joyce (@catspajamasnz) and I became exercise buddies.

The first thing Joyce suggested we try was a Zumba Fitness class. I’ll admit, I was not super enthusiastic. All I knew about Zumba was dance videos full of impossibly swelte people, wearing 80′s outfits and fluorescent shoes, swinging their dreadlocks around to Latin dance music. I told Joyce I didn’t like Latin dance music, mostly because of the accordions, but I went along with it.

Colour me surprised when I discovered that I LOVE Zumba. I don’t want you to get the impression I love Zumba because I am good at it, because I’m really not. I am so bad at it it’s laughable.

I laugh when I watch myself do awkward white girl dancing in the mirror and I laugh at the insanely silly accordian music. Laughing helps me stick with it because earning Zumba is not easy. According to the wikipedia entry, Zumba involves a mix of

“hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue, mambo, martial arts, and some Bollywood and belly dance moves”

In other words, it’s complicated. In case you’ve been under a rock for the last decade, this video gives you an idea of what it looks like:

The hardest part of Zumba, for me, is how unfamiliar the movements feel: I’ve danced before, but not like this. Writing like an academic used to unfamiliar too; both like and unlike any writing I had done before. Anthony Pare shared a quote from a PhD student who compared ‘academese’ to a foreign language. This is a nice description because part of the PhD process is learning to adopt a new kind of scholarly voice.

It takes time to be comfortable speaking ‘academese’ because it’s profoundly unnatural. The longer you persist at academic writing however, the more natural it will feel, so don’t wait until you are writing chapters or journal papers to start ‘speaking like an academic’. Practice this new academic voice as you take notes.

One way to do this is by paying close attention to the verbs. For example, if you were taking notes from this blog post, instead of writing:

“Learning Zumba is an example of deliberate practice in action”

You could write:

“Inger Mewburn argues that learning Zumba is an example of deliberate practice in action”

Including the verb ‘argues’ implies what Kamler and Thomson would call a ‘hands on hips’ stance. By pointing out that I am making an argument, as opposed to, for example, stating a fact, you are taking a position on what I am saying, rather than just copying it down.

If you were to take a deliberate practice approach, you would look to how you could extend this ‘positioning’ of yourself. For example, you could rewrite the note and include some of your own thoughts, like this:

“Inger (2012) claims that learning to do Zumba is an example of deliberate practice in action. While Zumba is difficult to master, and it may take time to get the basics down right, what Inger fails to realise is that learning Zumba is not at all like learning to write. For one thing, you need a computer, not fluorescent shoes.”

That’s pretty good – can you see what I just did? I just wrote a bit of a thesis in that note. I took a position on what Inger was saying about Zumba and I pointed out the tenuous, even ridiculous, connection between Zumba and writing.

In academic writing, how you say what you say is as important as what you say. By shifting the verb ‘argues’ (a neutral kind of verb) to the more aggressive ‘claims’ (a verb which implies I have not used enough evidence). Using verbs in knowing ways creates what you might call a ‘meta text‘: signalling to the reader what I think about Inger’s statements about Zumba, without directly saying it.

The verbs I used in the above example lent my writing a negative critical stance. Deliberate practice involves repeating the same activity over and over, but striving to be better each time. So you could try adjusting your stance to see if you can improve on it. For example, I could try again, keeping my note critical, but using my verbs in a kinder way, starting with a positive verb like this:

“Inger (2012) explains how Zumba can be thought of as an example of deliberate practice in action. Her comparison between writing and Zumba is tenuous, but her main point is clear: both are complicated and take a long time to learn. In addition, fluorescent shoes look great – on writers as well as Zumba lovers.”

Shifting backwards and forwards between positive and negative stances in your notes is like working on Zumba step technique: it helps you to move your thinking around and make it more flexible.

Using your notes as a place to deliberately practice academic writing has two main benefits. It’s ‘low stakes’ writing; since you are the only audience for your notes, you can try out different points of view and play with ideas. Secondly, taking notes with verbs helps you to form ‘mini chunks’ of text that can be cut and pasted into your thesis, saving you time.

Look for tools to support your deliberate practice. For example, I keep a list of verbs on my wall so that I make sure to use a wide variety of them in my writing and thereby produce more sophisticated metatext. I make a point of regularly looking up the precise meaning of verbs I use, even familiar ones, in order to keep my writing precise.

Deliberate practice can increase enjoyment along with skill. After months of deliberate Zumba practice I was shocked to discover I had over 2 hours of Zumba music in my iTunes library… many with incredibly silly accordion riffs. Apparently I no longer hate Latin music or accordions! If you find writing painful now, you might find with a bit of deliberate practice you will start enjoying it in a whole new way.

Is there a skill you have learned through deliberate practice, such as playing an instrument? Are there times you have failed to keep up a skill or never really progressed to expert? Why? I’d love to hear your own insights on deliberate practice in the comments.