I am now a writer and a writing coach. I wanted to reflect on the relationship between those two activities. Is writing unconscious? Does deconstructing it for coaching purposes make you self-conscious? Or does coaching help, not just the person coached, but the person doing the coaching?
When people are good at something — standup comedy, tennis, writing, singing — critics say the people have talent. I think that’s really the smallest factor. Admittedly, Rob Gronkowski is not going excel at ballet, and Misty Copeland would make a poor tight end. But my experience of how people develop skill is different.
How talent and skill develop
Here’s my concept of how people get good at something.
At some point, often at a young age, they try something and they like it. If you love writing, playing the piano, or math, you’ll do more of it — even if you’re no good.
Then you get better. Coaches tell you how to improve. You try different things — some work, some don’t. In a Darwinian process, your brain and your body do more of the things that work, and less of the things that don’t work.
Malcolm Gladwell says that you that you need 10,000 hours of practice to get great.
My view is that you won’t put in 10,000 hours unless you love something, you are improving, and you are getting positive feedback. It’s not the hours, it’s the progress that matters.
Notice how little difference “talent” makes when you think of it this way. Talent means you like something, and you learn quickly from experience. It’s 90% work, and 10% talent. No talent, and you’ll never get started. But the work, not the talent, is what gets you there.
Coaching and performing
Some people think they are natural writers (like Gladwell). They probably couldn’t tell you how they do it. They want to write, not teach.
Other people enjoy deconstructing what they do (like Stephen King). They are thoughtful about their process and technique. They want to share what got them there.
What distinguishes the Malcolm Gladwell-types from the Stephen King-types is not talent — they both have talent. It’s not skill either — they both have that, too. It’s introspection.
As I learned to write, I (apparently) took mental notes on what I was learning. I both internalized it, and externalized it. As I began to edit people, I took note of their challenges as well. They made different mistakes, and had different strengths, from me. I made note of their mistakes so I could teach, not only them, but others with similar problems. And I made note of their strengths, not just to praise them, but to spread them.
After 50 years or so of writing, getting edited, editing, and coaching, I find that I have amassed a huge mental collection of tips and techniques. Here’s why that matters.
- They’re all available to me, as I write.
- I can apply them exactly as needed, in a personal way, to each person that I edit or coach.
Every time I write, I learn more. Every time I edit, I learn more. Editing and coaching makes my writing better. Writing makes my editing and coaching better.
Now it’s really paying off.
It means I can crank out writing tips posts just by thinking about a topic and pulling tips from my mental library.
And it made “Writing Without Bullshit” the easiest book I ever wrote. All I had to do, basically, was organize several hundred tips into chapters.
I’m glad that introspection about my process makes me better, rather than disrupting my flow. I love writing. I love editing. I love coaching. It’s all good.