Task-specific dystonia is a movement disorder characterized by a painless loss of dexterity specific to a particular motor skill. This disorder is prevalent among writers, musicians, dancers and athletes. No current treatment is predictably effective, and the disorder generally ends the careers of affected individuals. Traditional disease models of dystonia have a number of limitations with regard to task-specific dystonia. We therefore discuss emerging evidence that the disorder has its origins within normal compensatory mechanisms of a healthy motor system in which the representation and reproduction of motor skill are disrupted. We describe how risk factors for task-specific dystonia can be stratified and translated into mechanisms of dysfunctional motor control. The proposed model aims to define new directions for experimental research and stimulate therapeutic advances for this highly disabling disorder.