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Tag Archives: writer

How are writing skills developed?

“Practice makes perfect” is a formidable cliché because it seems to have empirical validation, or at least praise from Malcolm Gladwell, which is sufficient for professionals in tech, education, and many other industries. Gladwell is the author of folksy, “disruptive” books that are actually white-bread. I can’t improve on Steven Poole’s take on Gladwell:

“Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés.”

It’s fitting that peddler of clichés would create one of his own – the inescapable “10,000 hour rule.” If you’re not familiar with it, it stipulates that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed for anyone to become a master in a specific field, whether classical music performance or chess. Gladwell’s book Outliers is the source of this particular formulation of the theory, although the research was done in the 1990s by Swedish psychologists, demonstrating what Poole was talking about.

The 10,000 hour rule always seemed fragile to me. Cracks in it began to form with questions about high jumpers last year. Then this year there was the study that showed that deliberate practice accounted for but a sliver of the differences in performance in every field from sports (26 percent) to professions (1 percent!).

I was relieved that someone was willing to undermine the 10,000 hour rule’s stranglehold on our imaginations. The argument is romantic – if anyone practices enough, she can get ahead. Everything is in her control, ultimately. If she fails, it’s her fault – she didn’t want it enough, didn’t go out and get it or some such reductivist nonsense. This mentality is used by the elite to justify their position and by politicians to starve the welfare state. David Hambrick summed it up nicely for Slate:

“[The 10,000 hour mindset] perpetuates the myth that is at the root of much inaction in society—the myth that people can help themselves to the same degree if they just try hard enough. You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly. Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

For writers, the 10,000 hour shores up the foundation of fiercely competitive creative writing programs. They exist to make everyone believe that with the right coaching or group exercises can become a competent novelist or poet. But the 10,000 hour also seems like a particularly poor fit for writing, because…well, what constitutes “practice” for a writer?

Stream-of-consciousness rambling in iA Writer or MS Word? Editing poetry with cute line breaks? Being a grammar hound (eww)? Perhaps. But those techniques, even if done for years, can be hugely counterproductive, producing nothing that anyone could possibly wade through.

What about day job writing? Professional content writers can write millions of words in the course of a few years. These people toil in obscurity, cranking out volume on par with the King James Bible every 12 months. Does it give them the “practice” needed to become experts or to become luminaries? For many of them, no – the deliberate attention to construction, clarity, voice, etc. result in being able to play to someone’s expectations – here’s a keyword, here’s a voice-y section – and little else. Yet, content writing is the most demanding writing “practice” imaginable, at least in the classical conception – i.e., something with the long hours and toil of violin practicing or doing coding exercises.

I think the problem with the 10,000 hour rule as applied to writing is that so much of the actual “practice” of writing isn’t even writing – it’s reading.  Reading doesn’t seem like “practice” to American society, in which it is at best a leisure activity and at worst something that no one has time for because Facebook messages, email, and touching-base are too important. It’s passive, it’s quiet. Plus, it doesn’t further a “brand” or contribute “business value” in any obvious way, so it’s worthless for a wide swath of the population, at least the ones in charge.

What the writer reads is her world, in terms of what tools she has at her disposal, what references and mythic frameworks she can reach for as needed, and what styles she can feel competent channeling. It’s funny, though, to think of other artistic endeavors if they worked like writing – a musician would become proficient mostly through listening rather than playing, and an artist by viewing rather than painting or drawing.

Writing is labor-intensive and often unpleasant, but – to rely on a cliche, forgive me – it’s the tip of the iceberg. When I began reading R.L. Stine and J.R.R. Tolkien as an 11 year-old, my writing became exponentially better. It also helped that I started young. Had I become a a serious reader at 21 instead, my abilities would probably be much more limited. But what kind of 11 year-old has the will to read voraciously with the goal of becoming a “professional” writer someday? He probably does it because he enjoys it and that’s all. If someone encourages him and supports him, then he’s lucky.

And indeed “luck” is the source of many of our skills, the oft-denigrated word that nevertheless is like a secular term for God and a symbol for all the forces, paths, and pressures that we can’t control. Even practically, writers should embrace this conception of luck, since so much writing seems to come from not exactly knowing where something is going when you sit down. Will this character live? What if I interrupted this scene in the middle to cut to something else that I haven’t even planned out yet? For me, that’s so much of the thrill of writing. It’s having all that mental pollen from reading, waiting for the honeybee of inspiration to light.

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10 Useful Android Productivity Apps

Mobile productivity apps occupy a peculiar nexus, one between the efficiency and robustness we expect from desktop apps like Microsoft Office and the newer, more compact realities of mobile platforms.  It’s been nearly six years since the first iPhone was released, and in that time we haven’t seen Office itself ported to anything other than niche Windows Phone platform. Meanwhile, Apple’s also-ran iWork suite has become a core productivity tool for tens of millions of iOS users, while a host of new productivity apps have risen up to take advantage of touch interfaces and the tardiness of Microsoft, Adobe, and others.

iOS has most prominently given rise to cash cows like QuickOffice HD, Dropbox, and GoodReader, and it has also spawned enormous enterprise interest in iOS, resulting in custom secure apps and white label products. As the Android ecosystem begins to solidify more around the 4.0-4.2 versions, and around workhorses like the Galaxy Note 2 and the Nexus 10, Android devices are becoming more important to the enterprise, too. The apps that benefit from Android’s rise may have some overlap with their iOS counterparts, but it won’t be a straight repeat. For example, Dropbox is nowhere near as important on Android as it is on iOS, since Google Drive is baked-in to many newer Android devices, and so is Google+, which outdoes Dropbox’s automatic camera upload feature by offering unlimited storage and easy sharing.

Here are ten Android productivity apps that can help you start getting more done on your device.

Google Drive

This is arguably the centerpiece of Android productivity. It stores your documents and photos for a seamless cross-device experience, plus it now has Google Docs and the QuickOffice PDF viewer baked into it, too. As such, it can cannibalize almost anything that the casual user would ever need to do with a more robust Office solution, while also taking a bite out of some PDF readers, too. A clean user interface is the icing on the cake.

Evernote

Evernote’s use cases are myriad: grocery lists, favorite songs, things to do, quick notes, scraps gathered from the Internet, photos, articles. It’s the one app I’m always happy to have quick access to, plus its Android version has a fantastic, customizable widget which gives you even quicker access to features like camera snapshots and voice recording.

Writer

Writer is a no-frills writing app. It lets you write anything from a quick memo or email draft to a full-length novel (if you’re daring enough), with a super-lightweight interface and no distractions. Aside from text composition, it does nothing else other than give you info (word count, etc.) about your document and let you toggle how it lists your library of documents.

CamScanner

This is a nice tool for education clienteles in particular. It lets you scan documents and create PDFs. It also doubles as a fax machine (if you still need/use one) and can connect to printing services. It’s a nice bundle of tools and it’s free, which is more than enough for a recommendation from me, despite its slightly overbearing user interface.

Skitch

A companion to Evernote that can even be incorporated into Evernote’s widget, Skitch lets you do drawings from scratch or mark up an image/map. Its uses can vary from marking up an assignment on the fly (since it has a very unobtrusive interface and benefits from Android’s seamless sharing system) to just highlighting something amusing about a screenshot or photo you capture and sharing it with your friends.

Google Goggles

This app makes your camera a lot cooler. It scans any image you take or throw at it from another app, letting you know (to the best of its considerable ability) what it shows and where it was taken.  It also conveniently doubles as a QR reader and barcode scanner, hence eliminating the need for additional solutions and making Goggles a nice hybrid of fun and function.

ezPDF Reader (Pro)

ezPDF Reader (Pro) has PDF reflow, cloud syncing, and a rich suite of annotation tools, making its $3.99 price tag more than palatable.

Battery Widget? Reborn! Pro

A stylish but efficient way to keep tabs on your Android device’s battery and optimize its uses. It gives you better insight into background processes in particular, and lets you easily toggle bluetooth, wifi, cellular, etc. Its time-based airplane mode settings are also excellent, letting you put your phone into airplane mode at a certain time(s) each day to save juice. This app really shines on Android Jelly Bean, on which it is resizable and offers a greater range of toggles.

Sketchbook

Exactly what it sounds like: Sketchbook is a mobile solution for drawing/painting/sketching. Its uses as a productivity tool are underrated, however; I’vie found it to be a quick, efficient means of creating basic wire-frames or mock-ups for product design. Its interface, which revolves a single home button, takes a lot of getting used to, but its rich array of tools make the experience worth doing so.

Springpad

The “other Evernote,” in a way – it does many of the same things, right down to its widget functionality. But it offers a few other options, such as better contextualizing of information – it can provide you reviews/ratings to go with your list of movies, for example.

-The ScreenGrab Team