Writers’ corner: How long will it take?

Published May 21, 2013 by Jill London
Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule – but how useful is it for writers?

How do you make a genius? In his book Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell suggested that talent isn’t the decider but how many hours of practice you’re prepared to put into your chosen subject. In the above visualisation of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour principle the work of Bill Gates and The Beatles are used as an example of the successful ‘in action’.

Gladwell’s work was apparently based on the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. However, as some have noted, Ericsson never mentioned 10,000 hours and it’s important to remember that there’s more to attaining success than simply ‘putting in the hours’. The key therefore is not merely to repeat an action but to learn from it and build on it.

Read this article from Suw Charman-Anderson which puts the 10,000 hour principle under the microscope.

It has also been suggested that, where writers are concerned, the number of words are vital. “A writer’s apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin. That takes a while.” ~David Eddings. Again, you should reasonably expect to have the majority of your early writing rejected (rejection slips can be seen as the ‘jogger’s nipple’ of the writing world after all), but this doesn’t explain how some writers achieve success relatively quickly, much sooner than any million words tide-mark, whilst others can labour for many years producing millions of words without gaining any satisfying results.

Conditions for Successful Practice

Instead of focusing on the amount of hours needed to cultivate success think about the following 4 conditions to improve performance (Mastery teaching, M. Hunter, 2004):

1. The learner must be sufficiently motivated. They must want to improve performance.

2. The learner must have all the knowledge necessary to understand the different ways the new knowledge or skill can be applied.

3. The learner must understand how to apply the knowledge to deal with a particular situation.

4. The learner must be able to analyse the results of their study and know what needs to be changed to improve performance in the future.

In summary: Stay motivated, read up on the subject, think actively about what you’ve read and analyse personal progress. So forget the number of hours involved, don’t give another thought to wasted word counts, just get on with engaging in the process of learning your craft. Remember that ‘every step taken is a step well-lived’.  All of which leads us to consider that, as writers, while we may spend many hours writing it is vital to stay open to advice, to read widely, and to edit thoroughly.

13 comments on “Writers’ corner: How long will it take?

  • An interesting read. Thank you, Jill. Outliers made quite an impression upon me. So much so that I shared the book with colleagues. I found Gladwell’s birth dates hypothesis to be fascinating and compelling.

  • Thank you for writing this. I haven’t read Gladwell’s book, but the scrutiny surprised me, to be honest. Why do people waste so much time and analysis in proving that the 10000-hour rule is wrong? From what I’ve seen on the info-graph, Gladwell himself doesn’t focus on the number of hours, but the “deliberate practice”, or does he?

    Anyway, I agree with Charman-Anderson that numbers don’t mean much in the writing world. But seriously, some people just need to focus on the more important stuff. I don’t think Bradbury, or Eddings, literally and precisely meant “one million words”. I take it that they just want to make sure we “fledgling writers” are ready to put in the hard work and the time required to be good at what we do.

    Imagine if they had simply said “one hundred thousand words”. Some writers might have underestimated the amount of work they needed to do. The number isn’t important, as long as it gets the job done, which is to get people started at doing what they love and work towards their goals.

    • I tend to post on all manner of things; “Diverging thoughts…considerately ordered” is how I describe it. I post about art-work I’ve discovered, pieces of music I love, even a post on my new-found love of porridge! All sorts of things come under my scrutiny, and I thought this one was an interesting subject for how much it seems to capture people’s attention. I tried to present the various ideas some have put forward on what it takes to ‘achieve success’ and especially on those ideas that seem to repeatedly come up for discussion. I hope that I presented each case as dispassionately as possible and to emphasise the importance of engaging with the writing process, to enjoy it, and to forget about taking those ideas at face value. Some people will always try to dissect ideas but if that leads to understanding, and maybe helps a few people along the way, then it is surely a good thing.

      • It’s definitely a good thing. I’m all for the pursuit of curiosity because it can lead anywhere. You’ve made it clear in your summary that writing is not about the hours you put in, and that writers should instead focus on the finer fundamentals of the process. And I agree, so don’t worry, I wasn’t implying that your curiosity led to “useless” discoveries, quite the opposite! After all, the “scrutiny”, as you put it, of even the simplest things can often, unexpectedly, help us understand the grander scheme of things.

  • I’d be really interested to understand the consensus on ‘success’. For me, writing serves two purposes. Firstly, to interogate and express the core of yourself – it can be suprising what you find and how you can cultivate it. Of course, it is also important to write something that reads well, and can hopefully connect with people and perhaps even inspire. But, again, the content must be driven from what you really want to say – which might not be popular. Still, it is you.

    • It can also be for the sheer love of invention and play, don’t forget! I think success will mean different things to different people at different times on their writing paths. For some it might be to write beyond 3 chapters, but later it might be to write a saleable article while someone else may be holding high hopes for an international best-seller! So success (as the Dalai Lama has surely mentioned) is a transitory and elusive thing because you will always be reaching for new levels of it.

  • Over to you (I love to hear from you)

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