by Rafal Reyzer
You’ve heard that to become proficient at any specialized skill, you need at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This view has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell through his book The Outliers. The 10k rule has since been debunked, and we intuitively know that improvement doesn’t take so long. However, the meme still lingers in the popular consciousness.
To circumvent it, I recently studied the developments in the area of fast learning to see how they would apply to writing. Pursuing mastery over any matter is a lifelong task, but what if you could speed up your progress in as little as 20 hours? This is possible, and below you’ll find a couple of tips you can use to apply the principles of fast learning to become a better writer.
Learn and practice a writing-related skill for 20 hours
The thirty-day challenge sounds more appealing than toiling for years with the faint hope of noticing any progress. So at the beginning of the month resolve to spend 40 minutes each day, with an aim to get better in a specific area of writing (40 min x 30 days = 20 hours).
This kind of study marathon is more beneficial than a cram session because the things you learn will stay in your long-term memory. Sleep is crucial for information retention, so by stepping up every day and doing a short review, you’ll start seeing gradual improvements. In fact, research on the “curve of forgetting” shows that without an extra review you’ll forget 40% of new information over the first 24 hours, and 60% over 48 hours.
So let’s say you want to learn about writing witty dialogue. During your 40-minute session, you could analyze bits of dialogue from your favorite novelists and scriptwriters, and then try to emulate them. On the next day, you would come back to review what you did, and move from there.
Or maybe you want to absorb sophisticated vocabulary? You could focus on studying with flashcards, and then apply each new word in a sentence, while vocalizing it. This approach is beneficial because it lets you attack the task from different angles and immediately apply new knowledge. It’s also so much better than passively reading or watching instructional videos that quickly evaporate from your memory.
What other writing-related skills could you improve in this way?
Writing persuasive titles and headlines
Coming up with attention-grabbing hooks for your stories
Improving the readability score of your prose
Using speech-to-text software
Outlining your written work
There’s a lot of possibilities, and you can make dramatic improvements as long as you stay consistent.
Focus on deliberate practice
Passive engagement with any learning material may seem like a productive use of your time, but it’s really not. All top performers, including athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, and yes, writers, aim to get better with each rep.
It means that you approach your learning sessions with a specific intention in mind. Instead of stumbling around, you try to get 1% better at everything you do. That’s similar compound interest because, over time, your personal growth curve is not linear, but rather, almost exponential. In a way, by boosting your skills you’re a bit like Neo in Matrix – awakened to patterns of code permeating the fabric of reality.
Don’t forget about spaced repetition
Reading books, or watching video tutorials leaves you with a feeling that you’ve become better. But have you? Perhaps Emerson was right when he said: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
After finishing a book, there’s this poignant feeling that something has changed in your worldview or philosophy. But as time goes by, the new-found knowledge leaves your quick-access memory, and you’re left only with a vague idea about the topic.
To retain knowledge for longer, it’s worth employing the concept of spaced repetition. By reviewing what you’ve learned a couple of times over weeks and months, it will stick for longer.
This is easy to do with audiobooks. Pick up a book like The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, and resolve to listen to it three times. It may seem monotonous, but in the end, you’ll have a firm grip on the information included in the book. And if you take notes along the way, more power to you.
Reflect on what you’ve learned
When you finish reading a chapter of a style manual, or a memoir of your favorite author, take a moment to pause, and think about what you’ve just learned. You can try it now. What have you learned by reading this post?
Do you have any other fast learning tips that translate well into the world of writing? Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Rafal Reyzer is a blogger, freelance writer, editor and content manager. He started his blog RafalReyzer.com to equip readers with great tools and strategies they can use to achieve freedom from 9-5 through online creativity. His site is a source of knowledge for writers, bloggers, publishers, content enthusiasts and freelancers who want to start their own site, earn more money and create beautiful things.
This makes a lot of sense. I just write every day but I’m gonna be more conscious of learning as I go as well. The pandemic has given me great opportunities to study filmmaking from all the streaming I’ve been doing. It’s like I’m getting a free film-making degree! Mary Kennedy Eastham, author of The Shadow of A Dog I Can’t Forget – Poems & Prose, Squinting Over Water – Stories and my third book of flash fiction that is almost finished Little Earthquakes.
10,000 hours to Master a skill, I recall the theory goes. One can become proficient at maybe 30-40% of that. Expert at ~70%. But Master?
You focus on some great points, primarily the fact that to learn you must transfer your short term memories to long term.
One Writer’s Trick I like to employ is, as you suggest, to target individual aspects of writing well. What I find so hard about learning this craft it the overwhelming number of factors one must truly master to reach a level where one instinctively knows you’ve arrived. The tricks I have learned apply like triggers.
For instance, when writing dialog, I’d rarely focus on escalating the tension. Characters would dally along, adding minutely to the plot. Wrong-O. What I taught myself was that when I type a quote ‘ ” ‘, (the trigger) I would force myself to look for topics the characters could battle over.
Additionally, regarding dialog, I’ve taught myself to use an action verb rather than a tag. So when I would have written said, told, asked, or earlier in my learning — all the BAD DIALOG TAGS, instead I force myself to visualize the speaker and ask myself “what is this person /doing/ while they talk?”
Coming up with writer’s tricks for me is how I allow myself to incrementally elevate my craft.
I still expect the process to take 1,000,000 words @ 100 / hour = 10,000 hours.
I love how you present your ideas very precise, catchy and very easy to read. very difficult to pull off.
I’ve been trying exactly this! My character development and description is a sorry state, and I’ve vowed to keep an eye on this when drafting my future manuscripts. Love the details in this piece. Thanks for sharing!
Loved your post. A great insight in a life of a writer. Treasure trove for someone new like me. Thanks!
Another excellent skill for writers is proofreading. It’s so important to read over what we’ve written to search for typos. For example, had you been able to proofread your post a bit more closely, you would have noticed the missing word “to” above, just before “compound.” Heh, sorry! It jumped out at me because I’ve done a lot of proofreading! 🙂
Reblogged this on Kim's Musings.
This is a great post! Very encouraging. The 10,000 hours thing is pretty depressing because what if you start something in life after you turned 5? You might not even be alive by then 👀👀