How Do You Master New Skills?

stepsLet’s assume you want to learn a new skill. I’ll choose fiction writing because I’m still learning. What do you do to master new skills? Here’s what I’ve done:

  1. Found successful people to learn from.
  2. Found a support system.
  3. Used deliberate practice with feedback to improve.

I’ll take each of these.

Learn from Successful People

Lots of people offer books and courses in fiction writing. How can I assess their value as a teacher? I’ve looked at the number of books and short stories they published. Too often, I discover they managed to publish one book or one short story.  That one publication allows them to call themselves experts.

I don’t buy it.

I’ve only published 18 non-fiction books, hundreds of paid nonfiction articles. I can share my nonfiction expertise—and I continue to experiment.

I started to write fiction in 2016, and to date, I’ve sold 6 (published) short fiction stories. (I’ve sold several others that are not yet published. So, maybe I can call it 10 short stories.)

I’m not yet a fiction expert for other people. I’m an expert in nonfiction for me. I know how I write—and I continue to experiment.

I learn from books, workshops, and yes, sometimes, discussions. I only need one idea from a book to get the value from that reading.

I learn from workshops because the workshop itself challenges me to organize my time. And, most workshops challenge me to write more and faster than I am “comfortable” with. For me, writing is a muscle and I need to exercise that muscle.

Even successful people might not be able to tell me everything I need to know for my writing. I can learn from them and I might need other help.

That’s where a support system comes in.

Find Your Support System

Support is not a critique.

Many writers join critique groups. I don’t. For me, support is about the process, not the work in progress. I feel so strongly about this that I hesitate to offer feedback about any work in progress. I might say, “I can’t see the thread that holds the work together.” Otherwise, I tend not to offer feedback about anything. I don’t care what the work is.

Criticizing a work in progress derails the writer.

Let me extend the analogy to code or tests. Imagine someone tells you “that code/test is wrong” and you explain, “I didn’t do that part over there,” and they say, “Oh, fine. Let me know when you’re done so I can see the whole thing.” What do you do? You don’t work according to your plan. You “fix” the thing over there, sub-optimizing the work.

Writing anything and getting criticism is just like that. You sub-optimize the work, instead of seeing the whole.

Support systems help you with your process. My support system suggested I use a short timebox in the morning to write fiction. I tried 15 minutes. Too long. (!!) I decided to try 7 minutes. That’s working better.

My support system helps me rethink my process. With a reasonable process, I can then use deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice with Feedback

Deliberate practice means I finish something and get feedback on it. While writing feels a lot like programming/testing to me, it’s not the same. I can get feedback on a product as I finish it. I have to wait to finish the writing to get feedback on it.

And, feedback can be tricky. People might not like the topic, or my writing style, or even my character names. That’s why I practice a lot.

If I want to master new skills, I need to finish something, get some feedback on it, and use that feedback to improve. That’s why I’m writing short stories.

When I learned to write nonfiction, I started with articles, not books. I’m using that same idea for fiction.

We’ll see.

I use this approach to learn a lot: see who’s successful and learn from them; develop a support system; and use deliberate practice.

That’s the question this week: How do you master new skills?

2 thoughts on “How Do You Master New Skills?”

  1. Hi Johanna, thanks for the post!

    I have a question for 7 minute writing timebox? Could you please elaborate how that works?

    How many timeboxes do you have per morning?
    What happens if your creativity is at pick at 7th minute? Do you still stop?


    Regards, Karlo.

    1. Hi Karlo, here’s my process:
      – I open the document I want to progress on.
      – I set the timer on my phone to 7 minutes.
      – I start writing. I’m not allowed to stop. I can write blah blah until I get going. Or, if I get stuck. I can always delete the blah blah.
      – If the timer goes off and I’m in the groove (which happened this morning), I turn off the timer and keep going until I’m “done” or I realize it’s been 20 minutes and I need to do something about food or exercise. This morning, I managed to keep going for 15 minutes and then I don’t know what happens.

      I’m still new enough to fiction that I often get stuck around 10-15 minutes. I don’t know where the story will go. I need to throw in something interesting or exciting. That’s different from my non-fiction writing. I can write for hours for nonfiction because I can make progress in all kinds of places.

      That’s how I do it. I’m sure other people use their timeboxes differently.

      I cycle in my writing, fiction or nonfiction. I always think I start at the top and write to the bottom, but I realize I missed details. I cycle back to fill in those details, all before editing.

      I edit at the very end when I think I have no more details to fill in. I take writing classes from Dean Wesley Smith. He also talks about cycling.

      Hope this helps.

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