The 10,000-hour Rule

I had two questions a while back from an aspiring writer. The first one was, “I’ve got thirty-thousand words written. Should I start looking for an agent?” I hate these kinds of questions because I can’t tell them what they want to hear. So after giving them what I figured was the correct answer, the follow up question was, “Okay, so once a writer finishes the book and gets an agent, how long before they can quit their day-job.” I admit, I was a bit dumb-struck and while my brain was going “Let me break out my divination toolkit” and refusing to come up with something encouraging, I finally settled on “I have no idea.”

I still don’t have an answer (that fortune-telling kit I bought is pure bunk; don’t waste your money), but I do have some thoughts on writers, writing, and their expectations.

So here goes…

Probably like most people, I was introduced to the 10,000-hour concept via Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. (If you haven’t read it, it’s a pretty quick read and well worth the time).

To condense it to its most basic form, the premise for the 10,000-hour rule is that it takes ten-thousand hours of work/practice to become an “expert.” The specifics of what constitutes “work” or “practice” or an “expert” seem to have inspired a bevy of criticisms since the book came out in 2008.

I ran a quick search on “ten thousand hours rule” this morning and was surprised to find the links “debunking” the concept preceded a link to the book itself. My understanding is that search results are ordered by popularity which suggests that people have been far more interested in the articles “debunking” the concept than not. To be honest, I’m not surprised. Who wants to be told they’ll have to put in 10,000 hours of work on anything.

Yet, the articles didn’t so much debunk as get into the nitty-gritty of what constituted practice, work, and expertise, as well as pointing out that there are physical traits and aptitude that will skew the results (No duh, experts, thank you. Honestly, where would we be without you.)

Ten years after the book came out, I still recall the example given, in that if you work a 40-hour week (and spend all 40 of those hours actually doing your job, rather than in meetings, travel, etc.) it would take 250 weeks, or FIVE years (50-week year) to become an expert at your job. I remember this because it paralleled my own work experience. It’s about how long it took to unlock that “expert” achievement level, and if you switched jobs you usually ended up resetting the clock or moving it back a bit.

Then Gladwell wrote about what it would take to get to the 10,000-hours in FOUR years: an extra ten hours per week (50 hours x 50 weeks x 4 years=10K). Again, these numbers stick with me because working as a salaried engineer, it seemed that we were always working 50- or 60-hour weeks. Problem was, of course, that those ten or twenty extra hours weren’t always “work” in the sense that we were doing our jobs. Mostly I’m casting the stink-eye at meetings that could have accomplished their goal by memo and various time-wasters like mandatory company training, i.e. HR meddling and getting in the way of doing work.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’m always stunned by the number of people who proclaim that they’ve been writers for N years, as if that means something. It’s a totally meaningless number, unless “year” in this case means 2000-work-hours, and each one of those work hours represents actual writing or something directly related to improving your writing skills.

It does not include research, except when you take said research and figure out how to use it in the actual writing process. It does not include marketing (which is promotion of your writing, but isn’t writing). I would argue that it includes editing, if we’re talking about editing that involves implementing editorial requests (in this case an editor NOT being a person YOU pay, but a person who your publisher pays). I would also say that includes any activity that goes towards developing your writing skillset, such as continuing education. This could include a class, a book related to the craft or skills of writing, taking a book you enjoyed and studying how that author did what he did.

Most writers are part-time writers. They have day-jobs. There’s nothing wrong with this. It does however mean that if you only have ten hours a week to devote to writing, that it’s going to take twenty years to get to that 10,000 hours. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, well-connected, or already in the industry in some other form, you’ve set yourself on a long, slow path to success.

There’s a faster track, a ten year one, if you double up to twenty hours a week, stick to it, and don’t veer off of it.

Most writers veer off the path at one point or another. Life gets in the way. Things happen.

You’ve won the lottery if you can devote forty to sixty hours a week to developing your writing skill set. You could actually achieve that four- or five-year plan as if you had a job. But it’s still a four- or five-year plan. It’s not a one-year plan. It’s not 30,000-words and “Should I start looking for an agent now?”

Hard work is key. So are realistic expectations. Becoming a writer is a marathon, not a spring, although sometimes it does feel like you’re sprinting the entire time.

 

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