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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Guest Post from Sage Cohen, Author of The Productive Writer

Readers of my blog know that I'm all about making more money in less time--selling as much work to clients and working as efficiently as I can. I'm always trolling for new ideas to boost my productivity, and that means keeping up on the latest writing- and freelancing-related books.

Last year, Sage Cohen asked me to write a blurb for her book, The Productive Writer, and I was happy to do so. The Productive Writer is aimed at writers of all stripes--not just freelancers--but Cohen has plenty of great tips, strategies, and suggestions for boosting your output regardless of what kind of work you do.

She also graciously provided this guest post:

Practice Deliberately (And Hit Your Target)
A guest post by author Sage Cohen

“The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call ‘deliberate practice.’ It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron three hundred times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day—that’s deliberate practice.”—Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large, Fortune Magazine

Have you ever gotten halfway through a piece of writing and found yourself floundering about what you were actually trying to accomplish in the first place? This is where the concept of deliberate practice comes in. When you set your sights on specific goals for a piece of writing, then you’ll know exactly how close you come to achieving your goal.

Try writing out as many of these details at the top of your piece, or on a Post-It note that you attach to your computer screen or your working file folder. For example, I wrote this at the top of a recent piece I’d been contracted to write:

• Target word count: 1,500
• To appear in: Poet’s Market 2012
• Audience: Aspiring poets with varying levels of publishing experience
• Topic: Why Poets Need Platforms and How to Create One

I challenge you to name and claim the key objectives of every piece of writing, even a blog post, short story, essay, or poem, regardless of whether you’ve been hired to write it or if you ever intend to share it. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Choose a listener When you know the audience you are writing for, you can start to imagine their needs, questions, objections, and level of interest. The simplest way to define this audience is by choosing a single person who is representative of this group, and write it “for them.” Maybe this person can even be available to read and give feedback about your work, to help you learn if it was received as you intended.

2. Name the objective of what you are writing If you are writing on assignment or for a client, this is where you’d articulate exactly what goals you’ve been hired to accomplish. If you are writing something for a themed contest or publication, define the topic or parameters within which you must perform. And if you are writing creative nonfiction, poetry, or fiction that is not driven by particular submission requirements, try setting your own standard for what you expect this piece to do/be/accomplish and then observe if this makes a difference in your writing and revising experience.

3. Write! You know everything you need to know about this, already! [This is the sound of me shaking my pom-poms.]

4. Revise! Anyone who’s ever spent years revising a single piece of writing knows all too well what hitting an eight-iron three hundred times might be like. Now, get out there and start swinging.

5. Evaluate whether you have achieved your objective When your piece feels finished, revisit the goals articulated in numbers one and two, and see how your writing measures up. If there are discrepancies, return to number four, and then repeat. If you didn’t hit the mark the first time, don’t worry. Remember, this is all practice. And the only way we improve is through repetition. Practice shapes us, so we can most effectively give shape to our writing.

[Excerpted from The Productive Writer by Sage Cohen]

About Sage Cohen
Sage Cohen is the author of two nonfiction books, The Productive Writer and Writing the Life Poetic, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs at, where you can download a free "Productivity Power Tools" workbook companion to The Productive Writer and sign up for the free, 10-week email series, "10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity."

**Thanks so much to Sage for this blog post. I agree that practice makes, if not perfect, at least a lot better. My early queries were tragic and rarely sold, but with time I mastered the form and started getting more assignments. Same goes for articles, book proposals, essays, even novels--the more you write, and the more practice you accumulate, the stronger your work becomes. Readers, do you agree?


  1. I agree. Along the lines of #1, sometimes I listen to music when I write and I change what I'm listening to based on the market/audience.

  2. That's a great idea...when I used to write for a mag aimed at 20-something women, I would put my hair in a high pony and try to channel my "Omigod! My thighs are like, so fat! Oh no!" (Hmm, apparently my readers were Valley Girls.) But I agree with your technique. :)

  3. I recently finished Sage's book (It was a Mother's Day present to myself!), and gleaned so many great tips from it!

    Love the title of this post -- when you "practice deliberately" it's so much easier to reach specific goals.

  4. I agree, Amanda! Thanks for your comment.