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

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.