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Wednesday Writing: 10,000 hours

I was reading an old Reader’s Digest Interview by Malcolm Gladwell, where he says: (emphasis mine)

An innate gift and a certain amount of intelligence are important, but what really pays is ordinary experience. Bill Gates is successful largely because he had the good fortune to attend a school that gave him the opportunity to spend an enormous amount of time programming computers-more than 10,000 hours, in fact, before he ever started his own company. He was also born at a time when that experience was extremely rare, which set him apart. The Beatles had a musical gift, but what made them the Beatles was a random invitation to play in Hamburg, Germany, where they performed live as much as five hours a night, seven days a week. That early opportunity for practice made them shine. Talented? Absolutely. But they also simply put in more hours than anyone else.

This set me thinking. Does this hold true for writing as well?

Of course, I went back and picked up his book Outliers that describes this 10,000 hour rule (which basically states that you can become an expert at anything provided you put in 10,000 hours of practice), and then did some digging on the research behind this theory (and it IS a theory, not proven fact), and found this article: What it takes to be great —

Turns out that it is not 10, 000 hours of blind slogging, it has to be ‘deliberate practice’:

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.

Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.”
Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

Continuous and consistent efforts at improvement, trying to learn something new each day, new skills, setting new goals —that is what deliberate practice is all about.

I sat back and thought about how many hours of ‘deliberate practice I’ve put in over the past 3 years of writing fiction, and I think it totals up to 2000 hours, at the most (and here I’m including all the time I read books on writing, or stared off into space trying to figure out a plot hit my head on the wall on empty days!)

So, if I want to write well, I have 8000 more hours of practice ahead of me, and of course it doesn’t stop there, because even experts need to keep updating themselves!

While this is daunting, it also reassures me. Even if I have zero talent (I hope not, but there is always that possibility lol), I have hope if I put in the hours of ‘deliberate practice’.

Have you finished your 10,000 hours? Do you think the theory makes sense?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Damyanti says:

    Rachna, glad to be of help.

    Isabella, you summed it up well: "get the writing boots on more often and with more mindfulness." I couldn't have said it better.

    John, I've heard of the million word rule too. But what I like about the 10,000 hours I describe here is "deliberate practice". We can keep writing without improving much if we're not mindful of where we can improve and how….so word counts and hours are important, but more important is how consciously we use them.

  • John Ling says:

    A successful writer once told me that he had a variation on the 10,000-hour rule, which is the million-word rule.

    According to him, you have to practice writing a million words before you can truly master your craft.

    A bit steep, perhaps, but it's doable when you consider that a million words divided by 10,000 hours equates to 100 words an hour.

    But, again, as he's careful to point out, 'Your mileage may vary.'

  • Sigh, I wrote a long comment and then lost it! Hate it when that happens… Lol never mind. I was just saying that this is an excellent post because though that 10,000 hrs theory is pretty well-known, not many of us (me included) know about the 'deliberate practice' bit. And that makes all the difference.

    If a person can make the effort to be deliberate at practising a craft for 10,000 hrs, apart from actually honing their craft, their efforts speak a lot about their level of dedication/commitment and willingness to learn – with these two elements alone, I suspect most of us would succeed at accomplishing our writing goals without compromising quality along the way.

    Good stuff. This is a timely reminder to get the writing boots on more often and with more mindfulness. Thank you for the post.

  • That's a great post, Damyanti. The book 'Writing down the bones' also abides by the same concept. Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and lots of others also hold steadfast to this rule! You inspired me…

  • Damyanti says:

    Which is what will make you a stupendous writer, Scott, never boring :). It will take me years to reach your discipline..but I'll get there. Eventually.

  • I shoot for 1,000 words a day, Monday-Friday. And every project has new and specific technical goals. "Why don't you just write?" people ask me. "I am," I say. "But if there's nothing new to learn about the craft, it's no fun." This is why I'm so boring at parties.

  • Damyanti says:

    Eric I don't know if networking counts for me as writing, but a big yes to all the rest.

    I believe in trying to learn whenever and wherever I can, making notes on what I've learnt ( I keep a writing journal) and polishing my skills through exercise…and in doing these as regularly as I can.

  • Damyanti says:

    Scott, Thanks for your long, well-considered comment. I agree that doing it Everyday matters, a lot of writing done sporadically does not improve the writing quality as much as writing a little everyday.

    I try to remember that, and on days that nothing productive happens, I still have my 3 pages of writing practice.

  • There's another saying about practice: Practice makes permanent.

    So as you pointed out, it's not about just practicing, but practicing ~well~.

    I have no idea how many hours I've put into writing. Do I count emails? Blogs? Books? Reading? Or only the hours I spend working on a manuscript?

    Manuscript-wise, I've put in thousands of hours, but lord, there's no way I've put in 10,000 hours of manuscript time.

    But I edit every email, every blog, every text, every post, every update.

    I analyze every word of every book I read.

    I listen. I network. I talk. I discuss. I write. I learn.

    It's about continuous improvement. You are spot-on right about that!

    – Eric

  • I'm pretty sure I've done my 10,000 hours by now and I'm also pretty sure that my writing is a lot better today than it was in 2004 or whenever I got serious about it.

    It's hard to deny that a lot of focused practice will help performance. Some caveats might be that some writers will not have good models and will practice bad writing, and that some writers will be more interested in entertaining or being published than in writing well, and we do get published books that have hooky high-concept premises but sort of marginal prose. But Virginia Woolf didn't become Virginia Woolf overnight and Shakespeare didn't become Shakespeare while writing his first play. And like you say, even experts need to keep updating themselves. Professional musicians have to practice as much as they can to stay in top shape.

    It's interesting that so many top performers have very regular practice regimens. I know that when I devote around two hours a day to writing (an hour at lunch, an hour in the evening), the work is better than when I write sporadically.

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