Do you really need 10,000 hours to be a good writer?

writing and the 10,000 hour rule

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

You certainly know that writing takes time, but what do you know about writing and the 10,000-hour rule?

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that in order to be really good at something, you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. In his book Outliers, for example, he described how the Beatles had spent more than 10,000 hours in Hamburg, Northern Germany, staging concerts and honing their craft before they became the well-known band we all still know today.

But, in fact, Gladwell wasn’t the person who’d done the research on the 10,000-hour theorem. Instead, it was the work of psychology professor Anders Ericsson, from Florida State University. And he argues against Gladwell’s interpretation.

Now, I’ve read Ericsson’s new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise and I think you’ll find his suggestions interesting. In it, Ericsson spells out his advice for how to become an expert at just about anything. I think recommendations are useful to writers as well. Here is what he says:

You may not need 10,000 hours — or, you may need significantly more.  The phrase “10,000 hours” is simply a symbol to represent a lot of time. If you spend two hours doing something each day, every day — with no time off for weekends and holidays —  it will take you 10 years to accumulate 10,000 hours. That’s a lot of time, isn’t it?  Yes, and that’s Ericsson’s message. Even if you have buckets of talent, you still need to invest a lot of time and practice in order to become an expert. Furthermore, you need to do it in a very specific way. Just playing an instrument, just running, just writing, or just ________ (insert whatever other task you want to become really good at) for 10,000 hours is not nearly enough, even though it’s a lot.

You also need a mentor. As writers, you might think your best mentor would be an editor, but that depends.  Some editors simply take your text, mark it up and return it to you. That kind of utilitarian relationship will improve your final product but it might not be enough to turn you into a great writer. For a mentor, you need someone who can challenge you, identify your specific problems, and, most of all, help you identify what Ericsson calls the “mental representations” you need in order to become a better writer. A mental representation allows you to visualize in your mind’s eye specifically what you need to do in order to write well. Some editors can help you with that; others can focus only on the text. Remember that all great athletes and all great musicians have coaches; the idea only seems strange in other contexts.

You need to approach your work differently. Doing something over and over again — carefully logging your 10,000 hours — is not enough. Not nearly. This has been proven in music — Juilliard students who practice their pieces from beginning to end are less successful than the students who focus only on those passages that give them difficulty. It has also been proven in medicine — doctors who have been practicing for 20 or more years do worse in some objective measures of performance than those who are more recently out of school. Don’t expect your work to be fun. It’s hard to become better at something. It may even make you feel bad — “tired, stymied, frustrated” — according to a New York Times article on what’s known as superaging. But the bonus is these efforts will help keep you mentally sharp into old age.

You need to understand that ‘knowing’ is not the same as ‘doing’. You may have theoretical knowledge, but do you have skills?  To be an expert at something, you need both. For writers, here is where an effective editor can make a big difference. You need the feedback to know what you’ve done in a less than ideal way and you need the chance to fix it. (This is where I disagree with a great many editors who simply impose their own “fixes” on writers. To me, it’s far more effective to identify problems and let the writers fix them themselves, with guidance if necessary.)

You need to limit your practice. I know this sounds counterintuitive — especially with all the talk of 10,000 hours — but consider the kind of investment involved. This effort to improve is very hard work and must be sustained over a very long time (at least 10 years). Don’t burn yourself out by doing too much at once. Says Ericsson: “when you’re really attending 100% and stretching yourself to really change, that time is actually limited.”

I know the 10,000-hour rule sounds daunting, but don’t take it as a rule. Instead, focus on the small but difficult tasks you can accomplish every day.  If you’re going to be spending a lot of hours doing something, it makes sense to make those hours as productive as possible.

How many hours do you think it’s necessary to devote to your writing in order to improve it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by Jan. 31/17 will be put in a draw for a copy of Authorisms, by Paul Dickson. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted January 17th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Jeannie

    What terrific, doable advice that reminds me of friendship as much as writing. Just yesterday, I heard from a friend I made in graduate school who taught with & walked with me for 10 years before she moved away. Yesterday she lamented about not finding a friendship like we had. Even though e-mail has shortened distance of time & space, your column reminded me of needing time to make, hone & keep a good friend!

    • I have kept a number of friends from my university days and they remain my most interesting, supportive friendships. We can always take up exactly where we left off. Invaluable!

  • Keri Collins Lewis

    I recently heard a rebroadcast of the Freakonomics podcasts that include this info. about Anders Ericsson disagreeing with Malcolm Gladwell. Interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing. http://freakonomics.com/podcast-tag/anders-ericsson/

  • Nicole

    Although I’ve been reading your emails and blog for a few years now, I have never considered the idea of a writing coach in the way you’ve described it here. I recognize that this is what you do, Daphne, but it was a light bulb moment for me. As a forty-something who has returned to school to finish my BA in sociology, I spend a lot of time engaged in academic writing. A writing coach would have saved me a lot of headaches. I really wish universities offered this (your) kind of service!

    • Rachel

      Hi Nicole, are you sure your university doesn’t offer this type of service? I worked as a writing tutor in college, meeting with students to identify and fix their writing issues. We even had a writing center with drop-in hours. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well advertised, so some students didn’t even realize it was available! Your school might offer something similar.

      • What an excellent suggestion, Rachel. Yes, many universities will offer writing tutoring.

      • Nicole

        Oh sure, my university has a writing center. But I’ve never found them to be of much help. I’ve submitted a couple of papers over the years, but the feedback was not useful. I’m a good writer. I consistently receive top marks and really nice comments from my instructors. (My passive stats hover around 15%, and I seem to have found a good balance between plain speaking and academic jargon.) But the writing process is agonizing. It was this sentence that stood out for me from Daphne’s post: “A mental representation allows you to visualize in your mind’s eye specifically what you need to do in order to write well.” Having a mentor or coach that can get into my head and figure out the the specific things that make writing so difficult for me would be incredibly helpful. I want to make the process easier, not necessarily better:)

        • Nicole, if the writing process is agonizing, have you tried mindmapping? You can see my video on the process here: http://www.publicationcoach.com/how-to-create-a-mindmap/ I think it would help you a lot.

          • Nicole

            Thank you Daphne. Yes, I have tried mind-mapping. I really, really dislike it:) I don’t think this way naturally. I’m a really text-oriented, linear thinker. Visual information written this way is helpful for me if I need to remember something; I can call that up in my mind’s eye. I use colour, white space, and placement of text on page to help me study. But to help me think, I need to write, a lot. So if I have a 2,500-word paper to write, I might write 1500 words or more of, essentially, free-writing, before I figure out a thesis. The struggle in my academic writing comes in the teasing out what I’m tasked to write about from all the reading I just finished.

          • Linear thinkers have the hardest time producing a first draft. I have sent you a private email about this.

    • Much academic writing is problematic: too much jargon, too much passive. Try to take some breaks from your academic reading to read really well written material. It’s important that you remain exposed to GOOD writing because we all tend to write as we read…

      • Nicole

        That’s one of my intentions this year–to read less academic work. I need some easy fiction palette cleansing!

  • Denise Bonin

    Your post reminds me of the book The Sports Gene by David Epstein. (spoiler alert…) He concluded that even though some athletes put in 10,000 hours, it did not necessarily make them better at their chosen sport. Maybe they just have the wrong body type. Maybe they are gifted with fast twitch muscles and would make a great sprinter, but they will never be an ultramarathoner. Maybe they have a small flexible body and would make a fabulous gymnast, but they will never be a sumo wrestler. There are some athletes who chose a sport that matches their body type, put in the 10,000 hours, but never achieve the success they desire. They are however, still so much better than those who never did put in the time. But, maybe those people need to focus on the small refinements to make them better.

    • Funny coincidence: I heard David Epstein interviewed on a podcast just last night. Had never heard of him before! His book sounds really interesting. Thanks for mentioning it, Denise.

  • Clarke Echols

    Well, let me be the old curmudgeon. First question: How much do I want to improve? A little, not so long. Major improvement? That’s a different story. First lesson in better writing? NEVER make your reader think! And the question distracted me from the topic by having to determine (or guess) what the writer actually means. [Yes, I have white hair, and I’m pushing 73 years old, so
    I’m a legitimate curmudgeon. 🙂 ]

    I was a senior technical writer at HP for 20 years. I probably have well over 20,000 hours. But when I went from technical writing to marketing writing, I quickly discovered I was comparatively really dumb, compared to masters like Clayton Makepeace, Bob Bly, and other A-list writers who’ve become great friends.

    I was a senior writer more than 10 years before my great-grankids’ parents were even born! (My attempt at saying I’ve been around the tree a few times.)

    And I’m STILL working at getting [a lot] better.

    Just realize you’re never done learning, so get to work and plan on a very long trip from where you are to where you want to be. But you don’t have to be a polished expert before you can stick your neck out and start. The first website I tried building was horrible, even though I thought I was pretty good. I wasn’t.

    But I got better, and now I’m a lot better, but still not done yet.

    Don’t give up. Just keep trying. You’ll be amazed how far you can go.

    • We’re all really dumb compared to other writers. That’s what makes life interesting!

  • cal

    Many writers have implied that reading, at least of worthwhile literature and poetry, should be included in that 10K.

    • I agree but only if it’s a very specific type of reading. Reading that feels like work, where you’re taking notes…

  • Warren

    The first 10,000 hours allows the apprentice to entertain the status of craftsman. If I have learned nothing else over a 30-year writing career with daily newspapers and magazines, it’s the long line of helpful editors, mentors, mentees, writing risks and mistakes that come in the ensuing 25,000 hours that truly makes a writer good.

    • Indeed! One of my first role models, 38-years ago, was the very fine editor Paul Grescoe, who kindly commented on the first magazine piece I’d written. He was extraordinarily helpful to me and I’ve never forgotten his efforts.

  • David Carlson

    I appreciate the links you provided. I added Peak:Secrets to my reading list. The NY Times article fits right in with my practices. Our neighborhood provides plenty of opportunities for those of us over age 70 to work our minds.

    • Note that it’s not just working your minds, though, it’s also feeling EFFORT while you do it. (I’m guessing that you apply lots of effort, Dave!)

  • Michael Tevlin

    Great post, Daphne. I’ve been a professional writer since 1981 and a freelancer for the past 20 years. Without doing the math, I’d say I’ve got my 10,000 hours in! As a freelancer, I don’t get editing unless I pay for it. So my learning, in addition to practice, has been by reading and emulating great writing, as well as by reading books about writing. I’m both a fiction writer and a copywriter, so I actively read (and write) in both areas. I’m also a guitar player. I completely agree that to become an expert, one must practice, and one must practice in a strategic way.

    • Hi Michael, I just want to encourage you to consider paying an editor from time to time. What you will learn is far greater than anything you can absorb from reading great writing or books about writing. I have learned SO MUCH from my own copy editor.

  • KSW

    Such an interesting column – merging some of the most compelling ideas together. Thank you for this great post.

  • mom2luke

    You just need grit if you’re writing on your own…I find it so much easier when I have a boss telling me when it’s due!!