Who is the greatest writer of all time?
It's a subjective question sure, but a quick Google search tells me that the average person and quite a few scholars say it’s William Shakespeare. It makes sense; Willie is king.
Among writers, though, the votes would probably be more varied, 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 Time, a 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 prestige. The other part is that those writers were really great and worth of the buzz.
But this isn't the case with music, ballet, and other skills. Performance in these areas has improved over the years. Olympic records from a hundred years ago look amateurish compared to today's athletes. Recordings of Alfred Cortot playing Chopin were held up as definitive in the 1930's, but are now considered technically amateurish 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.
WHAT Is Deliberate Practice?
Pioneered by psychologist/awesome Swedish guy with a beard, K. Anders Ericsson, deliberate practice is 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 breaking down skills that lead to expertise, working on these and only these at the edge of your ability, and then receiving feedback in the form of audience reaction or coaching.
Below are the stand-out books on the subject.
How Do you Start?
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 writing into techniques similar to the ones used in the Montessori educational and Suzuki musical methods. These processes are incremental and lead to better writing, no matter your current skill level.
The first step is taking this assessment. It’ll help you determine the skills you need to work on today.