How to get better at things

Recently I read a book called Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things, which looks at the different methods top performers use to improve. In particular, it looks at chess players, musicians, and athletes. It got me thinking about how to apply those principles to writing. Professional athletes and musicians don’t learn their sport or craft then stop developing. They have coaches, teachers, training plans. They isolate certain skills – a piece they want to play, a movement they want to perfect –and work at those until they have it down. This is called ‘deliberate practice’; that is, you don’t just do the same thing over and over, you actively try to achieve something new each time (fewer wrong notes, a faster time, etc.). Above all they develop what the author calls ‘mental representations’ – actual neural pathways that help them perform a certain task or skill in the best way possible.

I don’t know any writers who work like this.

We all surely try to get better with each book, and we might consciously try to improve aspects of our work –like I’m not that good at planning or plotting – but once you’re published there seems to be no expectation that you carry on taking classes, hiring teachers, or consciously reflecting on what you can do better each time. What seems to be expected is ‘more of the same, but a bit different’.

Maybe this is because ‘better’ is such a vague concept in writing, and even if you do write what you feel is your best work, there’s no guarantee it will get a bigger advance or sell more than your previous books. If anything you’re most likely to ‘succeed’ in financial terms with your debut. This seems a bit of a flawed system. We have to have the space to get better, make mistakes, try new things. Or maybe it’s because a lot of writers are shy about their work and will only share it with their agents before it’s ready and polished. And as I’ve said before on here, a certain furtiveness about your work is not a bad thing. But still, I want to get better, so how can I do this?

For the past few months I’ve been working with a writing mentor to help me learn about scripts. I baulked at the cost at first but it’s been invaluable – before this, I was just writing into a void with no sense of whether I was getting somewhere or not. Now, I have someone to bounce against, and goals to aim for within a certain time frame. I also started reading a lot of scripts, because I’d never actually seen one before! (You don’t, do you, in the course of normal life? It’s not like books.) This gives me something to benchmark against and an awareness of where I need to be. Also really helpful. I went to classes and workshops and even the London Screenwriters’ Festival. I read books and entered competitions. All this has cost money, but at least I have a sense of how far away the dream is and what I might need to do to get there. I still haven’t become a screenwriter but I’m tentatively hopeful of getting somewhere. Maybe.

So here’s some tips I took away from reading Peak.

  1. Get a teacher or mentor and get feedback. Yes this will probably cost money but it’s REALLY going to pay off, even just in terms of accountability and deadlines. I’ve started working with some private clients on top of my usual teaching, and am fascinated by the way people learn, and how we can overcome barriers both in our skill level and (even more than that) in our attitudes and confidence. Any tips?
  2. Set yourself goals. E.g., in my next book I want to come up with an amazing twist, or I want the dialogue to really zing. Just saying ‘I want to get better’ doesn’t work, it has to be something specific. The aim is to keep getting out of your comfort zone and pushing a bit harder.
  3. Benchmark against your peers. In writing I think this means you read a lot of other people’s work. I’ve even started taking notes on every book I read, noting what I admired and what I might have done differently myself.
  4. Put the time in. We’ve all heard the ‘ten thousand hours of practice’ rule, but according to ‘Peak’ this is an over-simplification. Yes, it will take time to get good at something, but how much time depends on the field, the person, and what type of practice you do. It’s also possible to backslide, once you get so used to doing something that you no longer think about it consciously. We shouldn’t expect to dash off a book or script and have it succeed. I actually find this idea comforting! I’m so impatient that it’s good sometimes to know rushing won’t help.


Anyway those are my thoughts from the book – I’d be fascinated to learn if I’m wrong and writers do consciously plan their improvements! I found this a strangely consoling book to read, perhaps because I put a lot of pressure on myself to just be innately good at things (I think our education system is often geared this way). The book also concludes that ‘talent’ is a slightly meaningless term too, by the way, and that we can all learn most things. Good news!



One Comment Add yours

  1. Dianne says:

    This is a really helpful and motivating post. “…get better, make mistakes, try new things” – absolutely true! I’ve been dithering over the idea of getting a mentor to address that issue of “writing into a void with no sense of whether I was getting somewhere or not”.- any tips on finding a good one?

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