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The 10,000 hour rule, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, says that:

the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours

Now, to be a good writer, you need to be a very good reader, writer and editor.

Most of us have been reading books since we were kids, and easily have tens of thousands of hours reading practice. Yet, most readers don't become good writers.

Similarly, everyone has written emails, formal documents, maybe even a few short stories. Yet most people still suck at writing.

So how does the 10,000 hour rule apply to writing? What do we need to practice, to become experts at writing?

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10,000 hours is 5 years of 8 hour working days, working 5 days a week, with no annual leave, but observing holidays. If you 'practice' anything for that long you should be an expert in it. Also, I would say that it already varies wildly only on the approach to these 10,000 hours how effective they will be. –  Unreason Jul 1 '11 at 15:02
    
The key to mastering anything is knowing how to improve, learning from mistakes and seeking out knowledge from those people who are great at what they do. Putting in time is only part of the equation. –  Nick Bedford Oct 14 at 23:50

11 Answers 11

up vote 24 down vote accepted

As everyone has said already, writing is ultimately the key. The more you write the better you will be at it.

But I would like to also address the reading aspect of your question. You are right that most people, at some point in their lives, will have read 10,000 hours worth. But how many people think critically about it? How many people say, "Wow, I liked that, but why did I like that?" Most people get through their entire 10,000 hours of reading very passively. Even avid readers who are never without a book can often never take the active role and really digest what they are consuming.

Think about critics (literary or film (or food or software or mountain climbing equipment)). The longer someone has been reviewing widgets, the better they are going to be. But that's not just because they have seen a lot of widgets (though that helps); it's because they have thought critically about every single widget they have come across.

If you write a hundred emails a day, but don't really think about it, you won't improve. But if you write a hundred emails and make active decisions during each one, then you will become an email master.

One more thing: Just a quick quote from Stephen King's On Writing:

"If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write."

That is all.

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Easy answer: You need to practice writing.

Complex answer: You can try for decades to carve wood and assemble it to a table; if you are doing it wrong all the time, you'll never become a carpenter.

There is another saying: You have one million words of shit in your writing. Write them down and get rid of them, then you can become an expert.

The trick is not the "writing" part, it's the "get rid of them" part. You have to learn, you have to improve. Just reading a book is not enough. You have to read it in a way, so you can learn, what the author did right, what wrong.

It's the same with the stuff you write. You need to know what's good, what's bad. You have to learn techniques to improve your writing. All in all, hard work with no definite outcome. Ask a carpenter, he will tell you the same thing.

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Writing, of course. If you want to write fiction, then writing fiction. Anything else might be helpful, but it's not practicing the actual thing you want to be getting good at.

Reading might give you ideas, familiarity with structure and narrative convention, etc. etc. And writing emails and blogposts might give you some vocabulary, eloquence, clarity of expression perhaps - but writing needs to do much more, and entirely differently.

Note that Gladwell says a specific task. Writing's got a whole lot of parts to it, sure, but however you break it up, there's an awful lot of those parts that really don't get exercised by anything but doing actual, real, honest-to-goodness writing. Worldbuilding, character development, crafting resonant imagery, pacing, plotting - these are all necessary skills you're not going to get anywhere else. (And no, reading somebody else who's done them is not the same, just as you can't start composing merely by listening to 10,000 hours of Mozart.)

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Practicing reading to master writing is like practicing sprints to master tennis. It helps, but it's not the only thing you need to practice. –  Ralph Gallagher Jun 30 '11 at 14:26

John Smithers and I read the same proverb. :) In The Rivan Codex, which is the encyclopedia/slush book for David and Leigh Eddings's Belgariad/Malloreon series, Eddings says (I'm paraphrasing from memory) "You want to write? Good. Write at least one million words. Now throw all that away, because your first million words are terrible. Start writing again now that you have some practice."

Ten thousand hours (of writing), one million words (of writing) — the gist of it is that you must practice the craft to excel in it. Watching ten thousand hours of Star Trek doesn't make me qualified to be a starship captain.

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Clearly you haven't rewatched Galaxy Quest recently :P –  Standback Jun 30 '11 at 20:55
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No, the young fanboy was qualified to be the engineer (getting them blueprints and helping them through the timing of the piston chamber)... but not the captain. And Peter Q. Taggart clearly never watched ten thousand hours of his own show. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 1 '11 at 0:22

I haven't read Gladwell's original book on this, so I don't want to criticize him directly, but I think the 10 000 hour rule, as I've heard it summarized, is over-simplistic. You need to practice to get good at things, sure. But you also need to have some basic aptitude.

I could practice the skills required of an NFL linebacker for 10 000 hours and get much better at them, maybe even to the point that I could be considered an expert, but I still wouldn't make the NFL. I'm 5'8" tall and weigh 140 pounds. Similarly, I could put in my 10 000 hours of practice at being a gymnast and I still wouldn't make the Olympics - again, I'm 5'8" and 140 pounds!

I think most people accept this in regard to physical accomplishments, but many people seem to resist it when they look at intellectual or artistic achievements. In my opinion, though, it's equally true in both areas. Putting in 10 000 hours of conscientious, directed practice writing will absolutely make you a better writer, but it may not make you a good enough writer to achieve your goals (of publication, or writing the great American novel, or whatever else).

I wonder what the totals would look like if we compared the number of people making a living from professional sports to the number making a living from professional writing. I wouldn't be surprised if they were roughly equivalent. Most people agree that one needs to be physically gifted AND to work hard in order to excel at sports; I would argue that one needs to be mentally gifted to succeed at writing. Practice is necessary, but not sufficient.

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I don't think Gladwell's contending that. It's not that 10,000 hours makes anybody a prodigy; it's simply one requirement (often, a very difficult one). Here's Mette Harrison: "The part people are misunderstanding is Gladwell's insistence that there must still be inborn talent for the 10,000 hours to make any difference. He's trying to counteract the idea that if you're not a genius at first, then you'll never be one. And also the excuse that people give to themselves when they say they just didn't have the genius to begin with." –  Standback Jun 30 '11 at 20:26
    
@ Standback - Glad to hear it. As I said, I haven't read the original Gladwell, so I'm just responding to the misconception as Mette Harrison outlined it. –  Kate Sherwood Jul 1 '11 at 1:45
    
While Gladwell popularised the concept, a better explanation is in the book "Talent Is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin. Colvin uses scientific studies to show that what passes for "talent" is merely focussed practice. But Colvin says it has to be directed practice that works on aspects of your weakness, not general practice. So he gives the example of NBA stars who spend 10-12 hours continuously throwing the ball in the hoop from one fixed location, till they can do so with their eyes closed. Next day they move to another location and start again. –  Shantnu Tiwari Jul 1 '11 at 7:42
    
I think it's dangerous to compare success and talent. While I'm sure it helps to have it (no matter what the field), it's not always required. Especially in things like writing, success can be related as much to luck to as to raw talent. For every [fill in name of your favorite author], there is a [fill in name of author you think is overrated]. –  Joel Shea Jul 1 '11 at 15:29
    
@ Joel - I agree that there isn't a perfect correlation, but I think it's naive to pretend that everyone has equal potential to succeed. Have you ever been in a writing group with somebody who just... can't write? They've read a lot, they've practiced endlessly, and it's still just not there. I guess there are a million different definitions of success, and if these people are enjoying their work and finding it personally meaningful, I guess that can count as success. But if we're talking about success by external standards, I don't think these people are ever going to experience any. –  Kate Sherwood Jul 2 '11 at 0:29

Assuming one is trying the best the only possible improvement will come if there is feedback in the process.

You can try to provide the feedback yourself by comparing what you write with classics or any author you consider good enough to be the target of your skill development, but for more precise and objective comparison you will have to publish or simply share your writing in the context that will allow you to evaluate yourself.

This rule will work regarding the style, but for inspiration, the learning or exploratory process consist of enabling oneself to be inspired, and that is almost ultimately individual endeavor, for which I doubt that any commonalities exist. Except the fact that you should initially, eventually or temporary, but really honestly and deeply, care about what you write.

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I don't think it does. Sure, in music and sports, public speaking and race car driving, practice makes perfect. But in many things, such as cooking and painting and writing, passion and talent shine through more than practice. Art is more beauty than math. Writers struggle to craft their work but some of the more well-written and renowned works took no time at all to create. While some were labors of love. It can be a coin toss when it comes to art and creation as to what it takes to create it. So for writing, I don't believe that the 10,000 hours idea can be applied because everyone writes differently and you just have to find what works for you and gets you to produce your best writing.

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Emily, this is one of those myths that destroys writers. deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5143 –  Shantnu Tiwari Aug 6 '12 at 8:25
    
Let me clarify, practice to me doesn't need a set number, it means effort and for each person that differs. Inspiration plays a parts but usually it does come down to hard work. Yet thinking that putting in 10,000 hours for anything automatically makes you a professional or an expert isn't always the case. Like one person answered, if you do it wrong that whole time, then you learned the wrong way to do it. –  Emily Alinder Flynn Aug 7 '12 at 10:53

I'll say it for what it's worth...

The best way 10,000 hours of work translate into 'writing-work' is by getting at least 10,000 strangers that only know your work (ie. not you personally) to like one of your original works... With the rest not trailing far behind!

Alternatively: You can try to get 10,000 unique reading hours (with different readers reading different parts of the work to the very last word). That might be easier...

I know, that's strange and harsh (and kind of funny) but I felt the urge to tell it!

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I have found it interesting to think in terms of words written probably 1-2 million words for most writers (note this isn't necessarily the amount you will need to get published- but to be good. But it is important that you do 'deliberate practice' as part of this otherwise you will just become a prolific hack. It is an even older adage that it takes 10 years of writing to make a master (sorry folks). But I'm sure that depends on how many hours you put in and how hard you work on improving your craft. You could well be published long before you become a master- you just have to make sure that you don;t become complacent when you reach a certain level. But I think there are no guarantees of anything. after all Barbara Cartland wrote about 700 novels I believe but she was never a literary genius. Most writers don;t have personal trainers and don't push themselves as hard as Olympic athletes, but perhaps that means there is more scope for the diligent writer to excel

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The thing is that people tend to confuse writing with writing.

Think, for a moment, of winning a marathon or singing an opera. Everyone can hurry along to a degree or sing under the shower, yet no one who has been hurrying to work for fifty years or singing under the shower every morning for decades would expect to win the NY Marathon or to be hired to perform in Mozart's Figaro.

Now, returning to writing, you must certainly realize that writing, in the sense of drawing letters, is not the same as writing in the sense of having an interesting story idea, understanding human psychology enough to create believable characters, knowing genre conventions to be able to create a suspenseful and satisfying plot, and finally being able to step outside your own head and tell the story in a way that is intriguing to a sizable market share. Oh, and let's not forget a mastery of language that includes a feeling for syntactic rhythm and a general ability to form pleasant and understandable sentences.

Writing, in the sense of crafting narratives, can no more be learned by writing shopping lists, emails or academic journal articles than walking to the bus is adequate training for a marathon.

Why people tend to confuse the two is a complete mystery to me.

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Mark twain said "Write what you know" If you are passionate about what you are writing then you are capable of producing brilliant art. It's still for the best to seek out as much knowledge as you can about whatever art you have chosen though.

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