My reviewing policy


These are books which, if I reviewed them for Amazon or Goodreads or whatever I’d give at least 4 stars to. They are books I’ve found helpful as a writer or just plain interesting and include both fiction and non-fiction.


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth


When Angela and her siblings were growing up her father would say to them, with a kind of tremulous anxiety, ‘You know, you’re no genius.’ As it happens, Angela is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, often called the ‘Genius Grant’, and her field of study is what predicts success in life. This predictor is not genius. The award went to her because she has the evidence to prove that what we eventually accomplish depends more on our passion and perseverance (i.e. grit) than on innate talent—and she has some insights derived from her research on how to grow grit.

This book is by turns amusing, moving and inspiring. It’s also a terrific example of how to write non-fiction. Just compare it with a paper she and her colleagues published called Personality Processes and Individual Differences. Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007. You need a fair amount of grit to get through that paper, but the book is so engaging it’s easy to absorb the science. My favourite quote:

For high achievers, ‘it was critically important—and not at all easy—to keep going after failure … High achievers described in these interviews really stuck it out: “This one guy, he wasn’t actually the best writer at the beginning. I mean, we used to read his stories and have a laugh because the writing was so, you know, clumsy and melodramatic. But he got better and better, and last year he won a Guggenheim.”’

As someone who, at the moment, is meeting rejection after rejection from publishers and agents, this is keeping me going.


Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool


I’ve been interested in the research on expert performers and geniuses done by Ericsson and his colleagues ever since I read about it in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent (if apparently not altogether accurate) book, Outliers. In this, Gladwell indicates that to excel in anything the research of Ericsson et al indicates that you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practise. Which, of course, many people have interpreted as saying that practically anyone can become an expert after 10,000 hours.

But as Ericsson and Pool say, all that the original study on music students ‘had shown was that among the students who had become good enough to be admitted to the Berlin music academy, the best students had put in, on average, significantly more hours of solitary practice than the better students, and the better and best students had put in more solitary practice than the music-education students.’

On the other hand, what they have found is that no one develops amazing abilities without putting in a lot of practice. And this includes so-called geniuses and savants. Mozart, for instance, only began composing his own compositions when he was fifteen or sixteen, after over a decade of intense practice under his father: the earliest compositions are in his father’s writing and the ones he was supposed to have composed when he was eleven are actually based on others’ comparatively unknown sonatas.

This practice then causes the brain to rewire itself and, depending on the ability, the body to change too, so that people become able to do amazing things.

However, this practice can’t just be any old practice, in which you just keep doing the same thing and make the same mistakes. It has to be what Ericsson calls ‘deliberate practice’. It has to include:

  • Feedback from someone (or someones) who know what they’re saying so that weaknesses are corrected. This means finding a good teacher or, with some skills (such as being a standup comedian) finding creative ways to get that feedback.
  • Focus and concentration. If your mind is wondering or you’re just having fun, you’re not going to improve.
  • Break the skill down into sub-skills so you can identify your weaknesses, figure out ways to improve, and then practise them.
  • Forming mental representations of what you’re trying to do
  • Getting enough sleep.

Now that I can do!

This book isn’t quite as engaging as Grit, but it is just as inspiring and easy to read.


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