Practice Makes Perfect (the 10,000 hour countdown)

October 5, 2011 § 16 Comments

If you’ve spent any amount of time reading what authors, agents, and editors have to say about what it takes to be a good writer than you’ve probably heard that you need to write. A lot. Sometimes this feels like a diversionary tactic, but, not surprisingly, there’s a lot of truth to it.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a look at what he says is the misconception that natural talent is the determining factor of success.  It’s a great read and I would recommend it to anyone.  Gladwell talks about how everything the month you were born, your culture, and even the spelling of your name heavily influences who you are as a person.  What I want to talk about is what Gladwell says about practice.

Gladwell talks a lot about the 10,000 hour rule.  Basically it’s the idea that to master something, you need to invest 10,000 hours of practice into it.  The Beatles played 10,000 hours of music before they hit it big, Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming computers before he founded Microsoft, the best concert pianists in the world have all practiced 10,000 hours, etc.

So if you want to master writing (or anything else for that matter), the most important thing is to practice it.  It’s encouraging to think that random writing prompts I’m never going to revisit and short stories that crash and burn are all time spent improving my craft.  It’s a great encouragement to sit down and write something every single day, whether I like it or not.  Simultaneously, it’s the most depressing thing in the world to think about how many years it’s going to take me to hit that 10,000 hours at the current pace of 2 hours a day (12 more years).

Write as much as you can and continue looking for ways to improve your writing by reading more (both books in your genre and books on writing), joining critique groups, and continuing to take lessons from your experiences with storytelling and the writing process.

Moral of the story: if you’re eight years old and want to be an author, you should start now.

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§ 16 Responses to Practice Makes Perfect (the 10,000 hour countdown)

  • Geetanjali says:

    Feels like this post has been written for me! I also liked the last post you wrote with the link to good books on writing. Thank you!

  • kristapriya says:

    I’ve been meaning to read the book but haven’t yet found the time. I do agree with you and Gladwall on the notion of practice. Actually, the reason I created my account is to practice my writing. Admittedly, I just finished 3 posts before I got drowned with work and stuff. Looking forward to a turnaround though. Maybe you could suggest a site with a list of possible topics/subject I can explore? Nice post (by the way)!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      It’s funny, I find that I have the opposite problem. My blogging tends to eat into my writing time, not the other way around. When you say you’re looking for a site with a list of topics/subjects, do you mean for blogging?

      • kristapriya says:

        Yes. Exciting (and equally exhausting) times for the industry I’m in, so must work, work and work.

        • R. H. Culp says:

          It’s hard to choose just a few sites to explore for your blogging. Every blog is varies in post length, post frequency, how focused or scattered their subject matter is, whether it’s personal or factual, etc. I’d say surf a lot of blogs and see what you like that other people are doing and what you don’t like. One author blog that I really like for the balance it strikes between informative, entertaining, and personality is Justine Larbalestier’s. She’s on a blogging break, but there are still a ton of archives to look through for ideas. The most important thing in my mind is to choose subjects that you’re passionate about.

      • Jay Swanson says:

        I end up blogging about stuff that I can talk about. For me, writing is just talking with my fingers. I tend to have certain subjects that I can go on and on about forever. Usually it’s BS, but sometimes I have something valuable to say on a topic. Usually it’s not what I THINK is valuable, but hey – value is in the eye of the beholder.

        Take something that really irritates you and write a humorous rant. Or find something in someone you really admire and go on about it for a few paragraphs. Build someone up.

        As an example, I just wrote (and illustrated) a blog on ten reasons to hate moths. You may have never thought about moths this much, but there’s bound to be something you’ve raved or ranted about recently. Get it down on paper! http://vitalischronicles.com/2011/10/10-reasons-to-hate-moths

  • Jay Swanson says:

    It’s a comfort and a daunting task all at once. I tend to write in bursts, and then go on extended fasts (read bouts of laziness). I haven’t read the book yet, but I get the feeling natural talent has to figure into the length of time it takes to truly master something. And in the end I would imagine it affects the level of mastery itself.

    Someone who’s tone deaf (as an anecdotal and random example) may be able to learn to play the violin. They may master the timing and mathematics behind it but… I just remembered Beethoven and immediately rescind my argument.

    Get practicing!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      It really is a fascinating book and there are some crazy examples that indicate just how little “natural talent” matters after 10,000 hours. And there are so many other amazing points it makes. I quoted it so much that my wife told me she didn’t feel the need to read it because I’d told her everything in it twice already.

      • Adam says:

        I don’t believe in “natural talent.” I think that there are certain things that may come easier to some people than others, but that doesn’t mean that you are a natural at whatever the task is. Many seemingly inconsequential aspects of your life tend to be what leads you towards a particular direction.

        There is a series of videos you can find on youtube where Howard Tayler (the creator of the webcomic Schlock Mercenary) talks about talent. I agree wholeheartedly with his main point that saying that someone is talented is an insult because by saying they’re talented you are completely disregarding all of the hard work that they have done to get to their level of proficiency in whatever skill you’re referring to. His lecture is interesting and brings up many of the same points that Gladwell talks about in his book. I’d highly suggest it if you enjoyed Outliers.

  • sbmartin says:

    Thank you for bringing that book to my attention. I haven’t read it yet, but now it’s added to my reading list. I agree that the best way to master anything is through practice.

  • stoehrkr says:

    Interesting, Mr. Culp. So I read (somewhere I don’t have time to look it up now) that in order to truly know a person well enough to marry them you have to spend 1000 hours with them. Does that mean that it takes more to choose a career than to choose a life partner?

    P.S. The 10,000 hours thing might have something to it–I think that I would actually be a pretty good teacher after 3 years of 60 hour weeks.

  • itsokaytorant says:

    Once again, this post prompts me to write ..everyday!( at least)
    10,000 hour , if I would spend 12 hours a day, ( the other 12 hours for sleeping & activities of daily life) then that would require me 83 days to master the craft of writing ( and my frustration too) . That would also mean forgetting other things but just focusing on writing, to write every second of my life. I would love that but it would be unreasonable and not feasible right? Anyways,I’m always poor at calculations though.
    My point is I love this post , I would love to read the book too and yes I will practice writing everyday!
    Good work Mr. Culp!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Unfortunately, it would actually take you 833 days (about 27 months) and I think at that pace it would be easy to burn out long before then. In the end (at least for me) it’s an encouragement to chip off a few hours every day. Slow and steady wins the race.

  • I’ve actually been doing this over at the Gig! Nice post

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