Practice Makes Perfect?

No – No, It Really Doesn’t

'Муки творчества,' by Leonid Pasternak. {PD Russia}

‘Муки творчества,’ by Leonid Pasternak. {PD Russia}

This is what we tell our children. Practice makes perfect. In other words – don’t give up. Keep trying, and the world guarantees you’ll get somewhere. It may not be somewhere great, but it will at least be farther along the path to perfection than you were before.

That just isn’t true. I think you can hit a plateau, and be stuck there for a long while without getting any better. Why else do you have some authors that have written hundreds of books, with the last one just as clichéd as the first?

There are some authors who write long series of books, and I’ve picked up their first one and found it kind of intriguing – though with weak characterization, or some plotting flaw, or something. So I keep reading the series, sure the author has to get better. It was just their first book, right? But then they don’t, and I get bored with the terribly flawed writing, and I give up.

Why does this happen? I think it’s because the mere act of practice, all by itself, does not make you magically better at something. You have to, first, not think the skill you have is good enough, and second, have some higher goal in your path to getting better.

The first thing is very important, because – however much we tell ourselves to learn from failure – the truth is that humans learn far more from success. Recent studies have shown that success makes you feel good, and so you keep doing whatever the thing was that made your experience that success (lovely that science confirms these things for us, isn’t it?) Whereas, mistakes actually throws us off, and we tend to not do as well after making them. So, if you’re an author and you’re “successful” in that you’ve managed to get a book published – and more than that, a whole series of books published – then you might keep churning out books in the exact same way. Rather than write one of those nasty-feeling mistakes.

You need practice – maybe up to 10,000 hours of practice to get really skilled at something – but you also have to be brave enough to step outside the bounds of “good enough.” I mean, if you really want to keep moving along towards perfection, anyway (spoiler – you’ll never get there, but I hear the journey’s interesting).

As a writer, I’m scared of the plateau. I’m scared of writing thousands of pages of mediocre stuff, and never actually writing anything worth reading. It’s hard enough to fight the writer’s block and actually put words on paper. But to commit to keep improving? That’s something you have to grit your teeth, ignore your fear of failure, and fight to do. I hope I will always be brave enough to keep doing it.

So write on – and take the chance on getting better at it. You can do more than just not give up.

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2 Comments

Filed under On Writing

2 responses to “Practice Makes Perfect?

  1. Interesting thought! It made me think of J.K. Rowling. She wrote a different type of book and people were like “awwww! what is she doing? more Harry Potter!”. doing something different even if you’re well known for what you do is often questioned. ‘why are you doing something different from what you’re good at???”

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    • Definitely – and then she published her next book under a pen-name, because she wanted feedback without the baggage of being known as J.K. Rowling. It seems like being able to experiment is really important to artistic types of work, but experimentation is really hard when people only expect certain things from you.

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