Tuesday, 26 October 2010

10, 000 Hours

How many hours of writing do you think you’ve done in your life?

There’s a rule that says that to become a master of any field requires 10,000 hours of practice. The true greats, the best at what they do, the people driven to succeed, will put in this practice time. That’s what separates the truly great from the merely... talented.

The rule is based on studies by psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. The remarkable thing about the rule is that it seems to apply everywhere, for people who are experts in all sorts of different fields. Boris Becker started playing tennis at age six, and 10,000 hours of practice later was playing in Wimbledon at age 17. Maxim Vengerov picked up a violin at age four and 10,000 hours of practice later won his first international violin prize at age 15. Studies find that the story is repeated over and over.

What’s magic about 10,000 hours? Nobody seems to know. 10,000 hours breaks down to approximately three hours of practice every day for about 10 years. Many people who are truly dedicated to a craft (such as athletes and musicians) will start around age five, practice three hours a day every day of their lives, and begin to gain recognition in their late teens – 10,000 hours later.

Does this apply to writers? Sure, why not? If you want to be a great writer, practice writing for three hours a day every day of your life for ten years.

Whoa, wait a minute. Three hours a day? Every single day?

I can see you looking down at your keyboard with trepidation. I mean, three solid hours sitting at your screen every night? After you’ve already put in a full day of work (or school), you come home, you’ve got chores to do, you have to eat dinner, maybe have a bath... even if you cut out every other leisure activity, how are you going to find three hours of spare time every night?

(And that’s every night, remember. No holidays. No sick leave.)

Wait a minute, I answer in return, you mean you’re not already writing for at least three hours a day every day? And what’s your keyboard got to do with anything?

You see, writers are really lucky. Violinists need a violin to practice on. Tennis players need a racquet and court. Writers only need their heads to practice writing. And by a useful coincidence, we carry those everywhere with us!

Yes, it’s true, writing has very little to do with typing words on a page. Writing is the act of creation, and that all takes place [taps forehead] in here. And if you’re serious about writing, it takes place every minute of the day.

What did you do while you were cooking dinner tonight? I was wrestling with the plotline for “The Hell of Green Mist”. While walking at lunchtime, I outlined the backgrounds and goals of a team of super-villains for a comic story. The other morning a cute girl wearing a really cool coat got on the bus. By the end of the journey, I had a reasonable start on the series bible for “The Girl in the Really Cool Coat” (working title, subject to change). None of these things are written down. Probably none of them ever will be. But it’s still writing. In my head I’m sifting out what works and what doesn’t, learning from what doesn’t, and filling my head with ideas that might be useful somewhere someday. Isn’t that the definition of “practice”? I might not be typing anything, but still I’m practicing the craft of plot, characterization, world building. And I’ve easily racked up 10,000 hours doing it.

Oh, and this thing about starting at age four or five? Don’t worry, you did. At least, you did if you were a normal child. Even before you learned the rules of grammar, if you picked up a toy and imagined what it was doing... you were writing stories. That’s what children do.

So, now how many hours of writing do you think you’ve done in your life?

David Meadows lives with a large number of books on the North East coast of England. He makes his living writing rather tedious technical documents but his ambitions are to rescue a beautiful princess, have his fiction published, and become a grumpy old man. So far, he has realised all but one of those ambitions. When he remembers, he puts up some random writing on his website.

(He's also my favourite writer. And David, going by the title alone, you'd better write the Hell of Green Mist).


  1. Notwithstanding all that thinking, forcing oneself to actually write all that thinking down for three hours every day will have more practical applications.

  2. I'm not denying that actually writing things down would also be a good thing! But I think it's too easy to focus on getting your 2000 words a day down on paper (particularly at a time of the year when thoughts turn to a certain novel-writing competition...) and overlook the other aspects of writing.

    Thanks to Chris for inviting me here, by the way. And for the flattery, even though I don't *really* believe I'm anybody's favourite writer!

  3. That's certainly true about focusing on word count focus. I think a better measure would be "story count" or "character development count". Anything that matters to the reader as opposed to the writer.