Talent, practice and doing the hard stuff

My latest Locus column, Shorter, is about the destructive myth of talent, which leads people to mistakenly believe that they're innately good at things, rather than having gotten good by practice.

I've known this for a long time, but it wasn't until I was forced to practice the parts of writing that I was worst at — rather than working on the enjoyable stuff that I already excelled at — that I really learned how powerful practice could be.

The best piece of writing advice I ever ignored was to write every day. Boy, did I ignore this advice. I heard it dozens of times, from writers I admired, but I didn't start doing it until I got to my second or third novel. Writing every day is fantastic, because it habituates you to writing. Habits are things you get for free. As anyone who's raised a child knows, there are a lot of boring things that we don't notice because they're such deep-grained habits that they happen as if by magic. I brush my teeth without having to think about it. My seven year old daughter practically needs to be arm-twisted to clean her teeth.

For years, I've been a repentant daily writing sinner, telling anyone who'll listen to ''write every day, until it becomes a habit, because habits are things you get for free.'' It's worked for me: despite a busy professional life involving a lot of activist work, freelance assignments, and several side-businesses, I have written or co-written about 20 books since 2000. I'm no Charlie Stross, but I'm hardly Harper Lee, either. When I have a book to write, I pick a schedule and a word-count – 1,000 words a day, five days a week, for six months, say – and get to it. There's rewriting at the end of course – reading the book aloud to find infelicities in the language, ''structural'' rewrites to meet my editor's requests, and fixing stuff the copyeditor, first readers, and proofers find.

Now I've had a revelation about prac­tice – practicing the kind of writing you're good at can make you better at it, but practicing the stuff you're bad at is even better.

Shorter [Locus Magazine]

(Image: UnderwoodKeyboard, public domain)