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. Verbs are judgmental. 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) I created 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.

Related Posts

Developing your inner  Yoda, er – scholar

Why you might be ‘stuck’

49 thoughts on “How to use deliberate practice to improve your writing

  1. Thank you so much for the suggestions on writing. This is my first attempt at writing and I’m very rusty. I haven’t written since college. I will take your advice and pickup Deliberate practice and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Thanks again for the wonderful input.

  2. This was a great post. I particularly liked what you said about taking notes with verbs to form “mini chunks” to cut and paste into the thesis. I did just that. From very early on in my thesis, before I began to even think about writing, I took copious notes that might have been a page or two long or even just a sentence or paragraph. I then saved them all as individual Word documents. I found these “chunks” incredibly helpful as I wrote the thesis as I could intersperse my writing with these sentences or paragraphs of “brilliance” that I might have written two years earlier! Thanks for the great suggestions!

  3. Really useful posting – thank you! In the examples you give each time you lead with the author’s name. Is it always a good idea to this?

  4. It’s a style thing. If the idea is clearly someone elses, I like to lead with their name. If the idea is one which is floating around and I am citing someone commenting on it, I pull the name back to half way through the sentence. Generally however, in note taking, I put the person’s name first so I don’t forget who said it.

  5. A big, resounding “YES!” to this blog post! You have articulated what I have been hazily trying to figure out for a while. The seminar Helen Sword presented last week on the habits of highly successful writers really helped to demystify why I personally struggled with the concept of thesis or academic ‘writing.’ A lack of formalised process knowledge and confidence in creating content. The advice to ‘just write everyday’ is not helpful when you don’t know what to write, and becomes a burdensome mantra. However, to practice and play with the knowledge gained over the period of developing a thesis works better for me. As with your exercise analogy, with more practice the better and fitter you get. The more flexible and courageous you become. One small step at a time…

      • Yes!! And I think it’s an issue all the way from undergrad. I try and tell students in class/tutorials that reading for tutes requires engagement, academic reading is -active- reading, you have to take notes, summarise positions, think!, relate it to other concepts from the course. I take time to do it with tutorials i take, at ab earlyish stage of the semester and it’s something I’ve been given really positive feedback on.

        Not the same as phd/academic note taking exactly, but I definitely feel the skills are often assumed and not taught, and it’s a problem that persists all the way.

        Would love to read your thoughts in a post at some point Inger!

  6. Loved this post, it was so helpful and I will be posting verbs near computer from tomorrow. I had been using some of these verbs but not that consciously. Bizarrely I’m going to my first zumba class tomorrow! And I liked hearing your idea about citing people earlier in sentences too.

  7. I never had a problem with structuring things (be it chapters, paragraphs or sentences). What was the biggest struggle for me in writing my PhD was the style. And more so because I was/am part of an English speaking graduate programme but am writing my PhD in German (as its on German literature and the programme is actually situated at a German university) but wow. The style of academic writing are so very different. German academic writing tends to be a lot more formal, like a LOT more formal. So I had to learn to seperate the two dialects within academese. ;) Oh, and I’m still trying to learn to not built sentences that are so long and complicated nobody but me (and as luck would have it my supervisors) gets them. Ooops.

  8. Thanks for the wonderful posts – please keep them coming. The only thing I can associate with ‘deliberate practice’ is with maths skills during school time. I second Yvonne’s metaphor on ‘mantra burdensome’. Not only that, we are always told to write ‘critically’ – but how the hell of actually doing that? When do we actually trained in doing that? I guess it’s a personal game here, again, as for the journey of PhD.

  9. Always great to see explicit discussion about language – Inger, do you see academic literacies as part of the story for Research Training at ANU?

  10. This post clarifies much of the angst I have with my colleagues who are confused about what we do, particularly in relation to claim -> argue -> explain.

    Technical writing is similar but different. We are constantly admonished about passive voice – we should take a view by the end, but it’s hazardous to have a strong view until the facts are in. We evaluate the claims made by the developers, then express ourselves with absolute clarity on what we found, and then form an opinion on those facts. I like to express recommendations in an active voice.

    Academic voice seems to embrace passive to a large degree that would not be acceptable in our writing or our clients.

    Do you think that many of science’s great communicators, such as Tyson or Sagan, deliberately break the academic voice mould to reach a greater audience? I’d love to track down their academic papers and see if they were any more clear (i.e. less academic) than the average bear.

    • Academics prefer good writing to bad writing too, they just don’t know how to achieve it most of the time. Research shows that academic papers which have clear voice are the most cited. If you are interested in following up I recommend Helen Sword’s ‘Stylish academic writing’ which has great concrete suggestions for improving any non fiction writer’s practise.

  11. Inger, you have reached a new level of blogging awesomeness! This is, by far, your best post yet. Being a PhD Candidate who also has an unlikely love affair with Zumba, this post really resounded with me. Thanks for starting my day with a smile, and clearing up a few more academic writing fuzzies along the way. :D

  12. Thanks for the post – I totally agree with the learning to write in an ad hoc fashion. When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members made a similar point. He recommended Gerald Graffe and Cathy Birkenstein’s book “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing” (2006) which provides a number of verbs/phrases, etc. that help move your writing along…

  13. Thank you for an amazing post! The way you describe the process now makes things much clearer for me and will help me immensely.

  14. Inger, I wanted to buy the Cal Newport book via your link (gotta keep supporting you and your awesome work) but it only offers me the book as a book and not the kindle option. Can you help at all?

  15. Many many thanks for this post! This is really good, simple advise that all PhD students should get right at the start of their academic journey. I’ve learned more about academic writing from this than I ever did from my supervisors!

  16. Thank you for this post. I too am an uncoordinated Zumba-ite, despite the fact that I can ballroom brilliantly. Perhaps this is one of the difficulties of academic writing, we are deeply engrained into the other patterns of writing and we need to retrain our writing styles as we do our bodies to new dance steps. Ballroom really is the dancing metaphor for academic writing.

  17. I have English as a Second Language and I realized some time ago that I needed to improve my scientific writing. For that, I created my blog and force myself to write articles about probability and statistics in English.

    Also, I have a technique ( to read every day some formal articles in statistic, or any subject, to improve my style.

    Thanks for your advices and keep posting. You have a great blog.

  18. Newbury (2012) offers advice interwoven with humour on thesis writing. This mode of teaching is quite effective as it makes difficult subjects easy to digest.
    Thanks for your insightful offering.

  19. i’ve been comparing the writing style of different sciences – natural sciences (biology, genetics, chemistry etc), technological sciences (IT, engineering, biotech etc) and social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology etc). i must say, the linguistic pattern that u have accentuated is most prevalent for social sciences. they tend to be most argumentative in their writing.

    • indeed. Although verbs are still important in science, they tend to be ‘flatter’ – but you can still practice science writing in your note taking I’m sure – perhaps you would like to write a companion post showing how it might be done?

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  21. Now it all makes sense! I’m currently stuck at the nadir of the dreaded J-curve. It’s a relief to know that the only way from these depths is onward and upward.

    I do have a question though – the supervisor I had for my MA encouraged me to experiment with my writing style and to be a bit less ‘academic’, and as a result I wrote a kick-arse thesis. Now I have a different supervisor for my PhD who wants to harness me to strict academese and ditch the style I developed. My less-academic style lets my ideas flow more freely and it makes me feel more competent. Do I roll over and do as my current supervisor wants? Or do I resist and do it my way? I think my prolonged wallowing at the bottom of the curve all relates to not being happy with what I’m being pressed to do :(

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  26. I attended your lecture at Heriot-Watt a little while back and bookmarked your webpage (during the lecture – sorry if you were offended by a participant staring at their phone! ;)) and, as is my nature, promptly forgot about it until I stumbled across my bookmark today.

    This post in particular tickled my fancy, and I really enjoyed the read. I have two reactions to it:

    1) I can’t wait to read more of your stuff, especially if you talk about sexy things like how to use verbs.
    2) Have you considered a section (or separate entity) for undergraduate students? I’m attempting one which is mainly for the use of my own students, but I’m nowhere near as qualified as you. It would be a delight if I could simply link to you, rather than write it! Hehe.

    Again, thank you for the read. The lecture was good too, by the way! Present company not included, I know for a fact that you inspired at least 2 other academics to “take control” of their own name on google.

    All the best!

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