Who is the greatest writer of all time?

It's a subjective question that has many answers, but a quick Google search will tell you that the average person and quite a few scholars would say William Shakespeare.  It makes sense; the Bard is king. 

Among writers, though, the votes would probably be more varied, everything from Chaucer to Cervantes to Capote, but I'd bet my lucky bunny that the majority of these greatest writers are...well...dead, and have probably been dead for decades if not centuries. 

This is true of the greatest books as well. According to The Greatest Books, a website that uses algorithms to create master book lists, the greatest book of all time is, ironically a book with time in the title: In Search of Lost Timea mammoth book (really a series of books) written by Marcel Proust at the turn of the 20th century.

Of course, there are great living authors, but when we mentally reach for the greatest works of fiction, dead guys dominant the top ten. Why?

Part of it is the prestige of the classics, and we have to admit-critics and writers both love some prestige. The other part is that those writers were really great and worth of the buzz.

But this isn't the case with music, sports, and other skills. Performance in all these areas have objectively improved over the years. Olympic records of a hundred years look amateurish compared to the feats of today's athletes.  Recordings of Alfred Cortot playing Chopin were held up as definitive in the 1930's, but are now considered shoddy compared with today's pianists. Even competitive eating has advanced with master munchers eating twice the number of hot dogs in Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest than they were ten years ago.

And it's all because the top performers in these areas use deliberate practice.

Granted, sports and music are not writing. Writing is subjective; you can't just measure the height of a jump or the correctness of a music note to determine whether one work is better than another, but the techniques of deliberate practice can be used to improve our words


Pioneered by psychologist/guy awesome Swedish guy, K. Anders Ericsson, deliberate practice is fundamentally different from what we think of as normal practice. It involves specific steps instead of just doing the same thing over and over again. This is the kind of practice that does make perfect. 

Deliberate practice involves a breakdown of the skills that lead to expertise, working on these and only these at the very edge of your ability, and then receiving feedback in the form of audience reaction or coaching.

Simple right?


Unfortunately, the experts tend to focus on things like sports and memory and leave those of us pursuing softer skills to our own devices, not because it doesn't work, but because it doesn't fit as neatly on their charts. I've broken down the process of writing into chunks.

Word & Grammar

Sentence & Syntax

Description & Narrative

There are tons of skills within each of these chunks, but these are the basic abilities every writer needs.