There is a point in the learning of a skill that smart people call a plateau. This is when your skill levels out and you don’t seem to get any better. This is true with every skill you have ever and will ever learn (including cartwheeling, tightrope walking and cleaning under your nails). Once you reach the plateau, you become competent with it and able to do it without much trouble.
This is a good thing in many cases. It allows you to put something on autopilot so that you can concentrate on something else. However, this also stops you from overcoming mediocrity and achieving excellence.
To break this plateau, you’re going to have to put in some effort. One way is to practice deliberately. Say you want to be a better cook. By constantly making food to improve your skill will not help you overcome your plateau. What you have to do is focus on specific things that need improving. Say, your heat control. You must have a goal that you are trying to reach, a specific point you’re trying to improve, rather than just mindlessly repeating the same activity.
Also, you have to take risks. If you’re trying to practice for your mission of paddling across the English Channel with a canoe, doing it in your swimming pool won’t help your efforts much. If you’re doing what you can already do (very well) you’re just wasting your time. Don’t fear the failure that inherently comes with risk. You might get an odd tasting lasagne every now and then, but it is completely worth it.
You can often get by using only mediocre skills and even make money off it. But if you want to reach excellence, you have to better the small stuff. To find a solution, you must first identify the problem. Practising what you’re good at won’t make you better.
Here is a list of problem areas of mine in my writing that I think could use some deliberate practice:
Dialogue – It works and it delivers the speech, but it is often sounds like a bad advertisement.
Description – It works and lets the reader know what certain things look like, but it often reads like a workshop manual.
Characters – They follow events and make decisions, but they are often weakly motivated or just plain uninteresting.
Events – They pull the plot forward, but I mostly rush past them, making them seem like news headlines.
While I might occasionally end up with a character that fights a bad guy to rescue his family, get money to save his farm, take revenge for the death of his brother and do a good deed to redeem his soul all in one, the experience will teach me something and hopefully drive to towards excellence (instead of alcohol).
What are some of the problem areas in your writing? Are you working to improving them?