Stretching Your Attention and Ability: Deliberate Practice Part 2/3

Read Part 1: Public Health Writing as Deliberate Practice

So what differentiates deliberate practice from other types of practice? In a 2007 Harvard Review article called “The Making of an Expert,” K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, explain: “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well — or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

This quote may have you thinking that deliberate practice doesn’t apply to the writing you do for your public health classes or your job. That thought ran through my head too. I know how to write. I can form sentences and paragraphs and generally convey ideas in a way that other people understand. I write 40+ emails every day. Isn’t that practice enough?

Here’s how I answered the question for myself. When I write and respond to email, write comments on student papers, or text my friends, I am not writing for myself. I am engaging in daily life. My overwhelming inbox may challenge every aspect of daily professional life and my mental health (that’s another story). But it is the antithesis of something I do deliberately, to improve my clarity of thinking and expression, to revel in words and syntax. I may spend 45 minutes crafting a particular email because I want it to be kind, clear, nuanced, and concise. But that isn’t feeding my sense of myself as a writer. It just feeds the rapacious information machine of day-to-day professional life.

When it comes to engaging in deliberate practice to develop your public health writing skills, the idea of stretching your ability is key. This makes me think of my colleague, David Ozonoff (Professor Emeritus of Environmental Health at BUSPH), who has been doing mathematics for an hour every day for the last 30 years. He started working his way through a mathematics textbook to brush up on his skills. Then he kept going. He has never missed a day.

In the last few months, Professor Ozonoff has switched from doing math to writing a book about it. Now he devotes his daily hour to writing. He’s pushing his deliberate practice in a new direction. As a successful academic, he certainly knows how to write. He has scores of articles in peer-reviewed journals and he wrote daily blog posts for over four years (totaling some 3,400 posts). The difference now is that he is writing about mathematics in a way that is new for him and will advance the field.

Math every day for 30 years, 4,200 blog posts. Dave’s example may seem overwhelming, impossible to match. But remember that he started small one day and he kept going. You don’t need to write for an hour or write every day to engage in deliberate practice. Start with something small and realistic. Find a way to make it enjoyable. Build your practice as you go.

Read Part 3: How Public Health Students Can Develop a Deliberate Writing Practice

Author: Jennifer Beard

Director of the Public Health Writing Program

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