Working Towards 10,000 Hours
When I first heard of the (wildly debated) theory of the “10,000 Hours rule” I was immediately intrigued. Roughly summarized, it’s the belief that to master anything—piano, sailing, rock climbing, or say, writing—you have to spend at least 10,000 hours practicing it the “correct way.”
Lots and lots of people think this theory is crap, but setting aside it’s practical purposes, it offered me a bit of relief as an up-and-coming writer. I’m no newbie, but I’m also not a publishing veteran. When I queried my first manuscript, I would have self-identified as an intermediate writer. Definitely not a beginner or novice, since I had written a screenplay in college, completed an undergraduate creative writing class, attended multiple writers workshops, and published dozens of essays and articles online. But maybe not yet an expert, since the manuscript I was querying was my first complete one, my lone other novella abandoned when I needed to go back to 6th grade.
As an exercise, after learning about the rule, I sat down and calculated a rough estimate of the hours I’d spent, so far in my life, writing. After I totaled it all up I was flabbergasted, and redid the math three or four times, convinced I must have made a mistake. Because at the time I first counted, I had completed less than 1,000 hours of writing. And a good chunk of that probably could be disqualified for not being “correct.” (Side note: I’m not sure the correct clause really applies to mastering writing, since the only way to become a good writer is to first write a hell of a lot of crap.)
I remember furiously googling and finding comfort in all the articles claiming that the 10,000 Hours rule had no merit. Even though most of the people de-bunking the theory didn’t say that all that practice or time spent investing in your craft was unnecessary, but rather there was no guarantee that after 10,000 hours, you’d be the next Joan Didion.
I mostly forgot about the theory as the years went by, since I was so busy working on my next two manuscripts, that first one I queried having failed to land me an agent. I only was reminded of it recently because of some conversations I’ve had with aspiring writers, devastated at the idea that their first novel, which they spent so much time on, might not get representation. A lot of these writers felt like any completed novel that doesn’t get published is a failure. That’s what I thought too, before, so I completely understand why so many writers feel that now.
That’s not something I agree with anymore, having finally signed with a literary agent. I no longer view any of the time I spent writing or editing my previous (unpublished) manuscripts as a waste, because if it hadn’t been for that time, I wouldn’t have finished a manuscript that was publishable (fingers crossed.)
What the 10,000 hours theory can help writers be reminded of, is how long of a process it can be, if you want to be successful in the publishing industry. I have almost certainly spent at least 10,000 hours dreaming of being published (say, 4 hours a day over the seven years I spent working towards getting an agent) even if I, at my most recent calculations, have spent only a tenth of that time actually working towards my goal. It’s not fast. It’s tedious. Succeeding on the traditional publishing path is the kind of journey that while you’re on, you have to be willing to see a number like 10,000 hours and go, “psssh, more like 15,000.” 10,000 hours might be only the beginning for some writers.
But the good news (there is good news, I swear) is that writing is one of those things that, if you truly work harder at, you almost can’t fail at improving. There’s certainly some writers who will, for whatever reason, never quite capture the spark needed to inflame a readers attention, but for the vast majority of writers, that spark is still obtainable, if it can be whittled out of the mud. And I say that as someone who still has many, many hours ahead of me, and lots of mud to crawl through.
All that to say, don’t give up. I’m still slogging on, racking up hours of experience, and I hope to meet lots of other writers doing the same.
A 10,000 Hours Breakdown for me –
200+ published and drafted blog posts – average of 1.5 hours spent on each = 300 hours
50+ published essays and articles for various online and print publications – average of 2.5 hours spent on each = 125 hours
62,000 word completed manuscript – 3 hours writing and 2 hours editing per 1,000 words = 310 hours
63,000 word completed manuscript– 3 hours writing and 2 hours editing per 1,000 words = 315 hours
74,000 word completed manuscript – 2 hours writing and 2 hours editing per 1,000 words (I got a little faster) = 296 hours
50,000 +/- total words for unfinished or abandonded manuscripts – 2 hours writing per 1,000 words = 100 hours
Three 6-week Shanty Boat Writers Workshops, at 3 hours per night, each = 54 hours
Creative Writing course in college –
2 hours per week X 30 weeks = 60 hours
Adolescent/non-serious writing when I was a kid/teenager – one novella at 15 hours, one screenplay at 21 hours, misc short stories = 50 hours
Total: 1,610 hours