10,000 Hours

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Firstly, a belated welcome back to fellow blog mate Kathryn. I have only just got back on-line (why is it that free wi-fi at most places just means ‘it-doesn’t-work’ wi-fi???) and I was thrilled to see she posted this week. I am sending out good vibes from Moab, Utah, where my family and I are camped for the moment.

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on my iPad and have been musing over his proposition that it typically takes really successful people about 10,000 hours to master their expertise. In the book he does a pretty good job of dispelling the myth of most ‘overnight success’ stories, arguing that innate talent alone is not enough and that most truly outstanding people have a rare combination of talent, opportunity and support to get where they got. They also had to work damned hard – like 10,000 hours – to get that far.

That got me thinking about some of the most successful writers around and I would bet most of them would agree it took many, many years of honing their skills to get them where they are today. As for ‘instant success’ stories, JK Rowling always comes to mind but I have to confess I don’t know how long she toiled at writing before she found that one great idea for the Harry Potter series. I do know she was on the brink of poverty and wrote in a local cafe to keep warm, so things were clearly by no means easy. Is she an exception though to Gladwell’s outlier thesis? What about other so called ‘overnight success stories’ in the fiction writing world? Did they put in the 10,000 hours but we just don’t know it?

What combination goes in to creating the true ‘outlier’ writers? Talent obviously. Determination for sure. Hard work, of course…and luck, lots of luck. But what else? I wonder what Malcolm Gladwell would find if he studied the world of fiction writing…I suspect he would see a similar pattern to the other areas he examined. But do you think 10,000 hours sounds about right? What else do you think is needed to be an ‘outlier’ writer?

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13 thoughts on “10,000 Hours

  1. Off hand I don’t recall any specific timetables of “overnight sucess” writers, but I read somewhere that on average (barring the exceptions) authors write 5-6 books before they get published. It took me just shy of 2000 hours to complete my first manuscript, so based on that and the 5-6 book average, the 10,000 hours sounds about right. Of course I feel a lot slower at this gig than most everyone else I know personally.

    It’s not very likely, but I hope to be an outlier. LOL!

  2. I’ve read you need to do three things to develop a skill to master level.

    1. Educate yourself — for writers this is accomplished through workshops, how-to books, conference with other, more successful writers and editors, anything you can find to learn the business and the craft of writing.

    2 Focused, repetitive practice — here is were the 10,000 hours of practice come in for writers but more than just writing one must learn specific skills and work on them: dialogue, setting, tone, story structure, etc. and practice actually writing them.

    3 Feedback — this comes from mentors, workshops, critique groups, editor rejections (especially the rare ones with actual feedback) and then adjusting the learning and the practicing based on the feedback (if the feedback is reliable and you agree wit it)

    Simply, right?

  3. If 10,000 hours is an accurate, I have to wonder what constitutes that time frame. If everything is taken into account, I would guess that’s about right. But, I don’t think it necessarily takes 10,000 hours working strictly on novels to hone one’s craft. Other forms of writing should also be taken into account: some forms of blogging, writing short stories, magazine articles (online or print), and even unfinished manuscripts. I wonder how many “successful” authors have one or more unfinished novels laying around, either because their craft was not ready for the story or the story wasn’t working. Much of this is unpublished (or in today’s day and age it’s self published to the Web at large). Not all forms of writing count, of course. I doubt texting “LOL” via Twitter constitutes honing one’s craft. 🙂

  4. Just 10,000 hours? I suppose that means I’m poised to take the world by storm. Or perhaps not. 10,000 hours is one of those things that sounds like a good guess, but it’s impossible to measure accurately. Which hours do we count? The hours actually at the computer writing, obviously, but what about the hours spent daydreaming or reading books or watching television? These things impact how we write, so do we count them or not? Then there’s all that time we spent in school writing stories. I used to tell stories in show-and-tell. When I played with my friends, I made up stories. All of that was practice, if we want to count it. 10,000 hours? I passed up 10,000 hours a long time ago.

    So realistically, I think 10,000 hours is just a number that sounds good with very little actual meaning. I don’t think it matters how many hours successful writers put in before their success because there are a great many unsuccessful writers who have greatly exceeded whatever number it is.

  5. I don’t agree with a specific figure like 10,000 hours. It can take years and many unsold manuscripts to get published, or one can hit the right editor at the right time with a polished work. How long it takes the author to reach that level of professionalism can vary and will be enhanced if they belong to critique groups etc. Let’s just say the stars have to be in alignment. I advise writers to follow the 3 P’s: Practice, Professionalism, and Persistence.

  6. Hi Clare! Two examples that come to mind for writing are Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Both are reportedly workaholics who write constantly, and always have. On the other hand, talent must play a really important role. I have a copy of Stephen King’s book about his career called Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, and it contains some samples of his grade-school story writing. Even then, his style and ability were apparent, though in an embryonic form.

  7. The 10,000 hour figure has come up before, as a sort of rule of thumb regarding the preparation needed for success in one’s chosen field.

    I was a professional musician for 30 years. However, for 15 years before turning professional, I spent many hours practicing, and for that matter, many thousands of hours more after I made the jump. I didn’t really achieve any success until I’d been playing professionally for about ten years.

    You can be sure Bill Gates put in his 10,000 hours before becoming successful, as did Michael DeBakey, Jack Benny, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gotti, Jonas Salk, Meg Whitman, and many others.

  8. I think practice, practice, practice is a great motto but I also agree an arbitrary number is probably not all that helpful. I guess we just have to hope hard work eventually pays off!

  9. I believe that Gladwell picked the “10,000” hours as a re-envisioning of earlier research into Deliberate Practice by K. Anders Ericsson, et al, who put the amount of time that appeared to be needed to excel at ten years.

    In the study I read (dated 1993 from Psychological Review), the emphasis was on deliberate practice (also called ‘a regimen of effortful activities’), not just mindless rote repetition.

    That aspect sometimes gets lost when talking about the 10,000 hours.

    Ok, sliding off my pedantic footstool…

    I love this stuff. Whether it helps knowing about it, I’m not sure, but I agree with David’s list, especially the one where a writer actually writes.

    (And, yes, I read too much.)

  10. Practice, correction and repetition will definitely get us through to a next level at whatever you do. In Marine boot camp before we fired a single shot from our rifles we practiced “dry-firing” several hours a day for a week. We would literally lay, sit or stand in various positions and practice getting a site picture, centering the site post, breathing properly, staying calm and quiet for hours on end. Then after about 50 hours or so of repetitive practice we were taken to the range and expected to hit a bullseye 500 meters away. And we did.

    Writing I assume works the same way. Since I am now writing book #3, I guess that means I have 2-3 more practice books before I get it totally right and be ready.

  11. I read the Gladwell book some years ago and it’s always been a comfort to me in this writing business- when I get frustrated I tell myself I’m logging my 10,000 hours. I find it liberating that these statistics show there is more than raw talent involved. Persistence will out.

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