Reading time: About 5 minutes
You already know that writing takes time, but here’s what it takes to be a good writer….
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule, even if you know little more than the name.
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell is the person who popularized the notion that in order to be fantastic at something, you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it.
In his book Outliers, for example, he described how the Beatles 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 know today.
Introducing the real 10,000-hour expert
But, in fact, Gladwell wasn’t the person who did the research on the 10,000-hour theorem. Instead, it was the work of the brilliant Swedish psychology professor Anders Ericsson, pictured adjacent, who died in 2020.
And, interestingly, Ericsson argued against Gladwell’s interpretation.
I’ve read Ericsson’s 2016 book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise and I think you’ll find his suggestions compelling. Ericsson spells out his advice about how to become an expert at just about anything. His recommendations are useful not only for any frustrated writer, but also for any already good writer as well as for anyone who simply wants to become a better writer.
Here is what Ericsson advises:
You may not need 10,000 hours
Or you may need more. Way more. The phrase “10,000 hours” is simply a symbol to represent a lot of time. In a similar fashion, when we say someone “eats like a horse,” we don’t imagine them to be chowing down grass and hay. We’re simply suggesting that they’re eating a lot.
Accumulating 10,000 hours requires spending almost three hours doing your designated task each day, every day — with no time off for weekends and holidays — for 10 years. That’s a long of time, isn’t it?
Well, that’s Ericsson’s message. It’s a big commitment.
Talent is not enough
On the good news side of the equation, Ericssson suggests you can become an expert even if you aren’t awash in talent. But the bad news is you still need to spend the time, even if you’re lucky enough to be talented. And, what’s more, you need to spend this time 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. The next few points spell out these new ideas.
You 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 won’t 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.
I am a writing coach, but I also have my own business coach. Getting coaching has been central to my own success. As writer Junot Diaz puts it: “Colleagues are a wonderful thing – but mentors, that’s where the real work gets done.”
You need to approach your work differently
Doing something over and over again — carefully logging your 10,000 hours — is not enough. Not nearly. You need to focus on what you’re bad at doing.
This theory was initially proven in music, with studies of students at Berlin’s Academy of Music. Of course, a certain level of musical aptitude is required to even become a student at this famous school. But once enrolled, some students clearly rise above the others in terms of their musicianship. Researchers discovered that those who practiced their pieces from beginning to end were less successful than the students who focus primarily on passages that give them difficulty.
It turns out that practicing hard and difficult skills — particularly the ones that are the most challenging — leads to better performance.
It’s hard to become better at something. It may even make you feel bad, tired, stymied or frustrated in the short term. But the bonus is these efforts will help keep you mentally sharp.
‘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 why 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 hard work and must be sustained for 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.”
Nine steps for more effective writing
Here are nine simple steps you can take to make the 10,000 hours pass by in a flash:
1-Identify what you want to accomplish
Every writer will have their own unique goals. Do you want your style to be friendlier and more accessible? Or do you want to shine at formal, academic writing? Or perhaps the issue isn’t what you produce but how you feel about it. Maybe you’re tired of being stymied by writer’s block? Or possibly you want a more reasonable writing schedule that doesn’t leave you feeling guilty and depressed?
Articulate what it is you want to accomplish. If you don’t know the destination, how will you know when you get there?
2-Assess your current level of experience
Writers sometimes don’t have a realistic assessment of their own abilities. Some lacklustre writers think of themselves as successful writers while some successful writers still harbour doubts about their competence. Here, it can help you to get feedback from a third party. Just make sure this third party is trustworthy and reliable in evaluating the written word.
3-Develop some easy-to-learn habits
My favourite habit to teach new writers is the act of copying. Have you ever seen art students going into galleries around the world, copying the work of the masters? Writers can do the same thing, from the comfort of their own homes, by simply copying the work of literary masters. The practice needn’t take more than five minutes a day and it can change your life. Read about it here.
4-Break your skill into subskills
People sometimes make the mistake of declaring goals that are too big or too generic — such as: “become a great writer,” or, even, “become a better writer.” Instead, start much smaller. You’re far less likely to become discouraged or overwhelmed if you start small enough. And achieving success on these small writing goals today and tomorrow will put you in better shape for larger goals down the road. (Remember: You have 10 years!)
5-Focus mainly on quality
Are you familiar with the Pareto Principle? It says that 80% of the results will come from 20% of the work that you do. So, identify the 20% of effort that will give you the most results and focus primarily on that. You’ll be making a huge time commitment if you aim to get 10,000 hours. Make sure you get the most out of it.
6-Find a good mentor or coach
You can’t teach yourself everything. The 10,000-hour rule specifies that you need some outside support. This is not just for what the mentor or coach can teach you, but also for the support they can give you. It’s going to be hard spending 10,000 hours working on your writing. Get all the help you can with it.
7-Do most of your practice early in the day
I have worked with thousands of writers over the last 40 years and almost without exception, the most successful ones do their writing before they do anything else. I’m not saying you need to get up at 5 am, 6 am or even 7 am in order to write. I’m just saying you should do your writing first, before you do anything else. That’s the best way you have to protect your writing time.
8-Make sure your goals are manageable
When you start, begin with small steps. This may be hard to do when you know your ultimate goal is 10,000 hours. Two minutes might seem like a tiny drop in an enormous bucket. But having small goals will help you stay with the project, even on days when you might feel like quitting.
9-Be forgiving of yourself
We all mess up from time to time. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t let “great” be the enemy of the “good enough.” A 10-year plan requires long lenses. Look to the future. Imagine how great you’re going to feel when you’ve accumulated 2,000 hours, then, 5,000, then, at last 10,000. But you won’t be able to achieve 10,000 if you don’t learn how to forgive yourself for your inevitable mess-ups along the way.
Does the 10,000-hour rule sound too daunting?
Don’t take it as a rule.
Instead, focus on the small but difficult tasks you can accomplish every day. Becoming highly skilled at anything takes a lifetime for most people.
I recently saw a graphic summarizing the 10,000-hour rule in this way: talent + preparation + obsession/fanaticism + 10,000 hours of intense preoccupation/work/study/practice + persistence + repetition + play + keep your mouth shut.
I think that just about summarizes it.
This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on Jan. 17/17.
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Do you know what it takes to be a good writer? 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 Aug. 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!