The One Million Words and the 10,000 Hours theories: both are commonly espoused writing apprenticeship practices that continue to do the rounds of blogs and forums every few months.
Reaching these “apprenticeship” goals will not make us a bestseller, and not reaching them will not necessarily stop us from finding a publisher, or selling our work either. But there are core writing habits found in both, that we, as writers, can work with.
How much Practice is Enough?
There are many tales of well-known authors who tossed many “practice” novels into the bin, wrote for years and were rejected by many publishers before they found “overnight” fame. But many of those same people, now authors who are well accepted in their craft, will not have met the targets set by the following writing myths –
- Myth # 1 : as a writer you have to write 1 million words (of crap) before you will write anything good.
- Myth #2 : any skill takes 10,000 hours of practice to master.
A little secret: I fell for one of these myths myself when I first started out following my dream of writing. Scroll to the bottom for more on this.
The One Million Words Myth
“Start early and work hard. A writer’s apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin. That takes a while.” ~David Eddings.
Author Ray Bradbury is the commonly accepted originator of this theorem. The saying is likely to have evolved from Bradbury referring to the writing process: “you must write a thousand words of story everyday and in three years, you will have written a million words. At this point, you will be a writer”.
Bradbury again: “Everybody has a million bad words in them, and the sooner we get through that first million, the better.”
Some writers have set themselves this exact target, with mixed success. There is now a writing challenge group called Million Word Challenge where 2013 participants are attempting to write a minimum of 2,740 words a day for the entire year.
Some figures for writers: –
The average published book is 100,000 words (fiction).
That equates to writing ten novels (one million words) and tossing these as practice novels before you have learned your craft.
With an average assumption of writing speed, the average novel takes a full year to write.
That equates to ten full-time years to turn out (and dump) those million words.
JK Rowling is known to have pre-planned her Harry Potter novel series for five years before ever starting to write the first. Imagine if she’d then gone on for another ten years of “practicing”?
This ten year / one million word apprenticeship also has another big cross against it: that’s ten years at an apprenticeship ie. an unpaid job.
Some writers, trying out this very long-tail target, start suggesting that everything from emails, letters, blog posts, and fiction are “words down”, and therefore countable for this “crap” – begging the question: why are they publishing / posting off work they have predetermined as being below standard in quality or simply “practice” writing.
But – setting a target word-count is a core habit of successful writing. Aiming for a big target like the Million Word Challenge, where there is a group of co-supporters and cheerleaders, can work for some writers. Other writers can output larger word-counts than this in a year via their normal writing process. The point is – no large arbitrary figure like One Million Words is going to be useful for the majority of writers, but trying it on for size and fit – and chucking it if it doesn’t – there’s nothing lost if you do so.
The 10,000 Hours Myth
The 10,000 Hour Myth is attributed to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, and often quoted as something like –
“You have to have 10000 hours in a subject to be an expert” or “10,000 Hours of Practice Makes Perfect”
Gladwell studied “outliers” in the book. These people aren’t only experts, these are the upper echelon of their fields – the top sports person in the world, the top violinist. The 10,000 hours are deliberate practice also – not including play or group jam sessions.
Gladwell’s Beatles example is often quoted as a convincing argument of proof. The Beatles played for 5-8 hour sessions in live shows in Hamburg, Germany, before returning to Liverpool and “fame”. Realistically, these admittedly many hours of live sessions don’t add up to 10,000 hours, however. Nor do they directly link with the Beatle’s later fame and success, as at the time many other British pop groups were playing Hamburg for those same times and sessions, but didn’t achieve the same success. A second example of a young Bill Gates being able to join a computer club in 1968 tells more of his fortune and possible family location and affluence than of spending 10,000 hours there.
The book also links the 10,000 rule onto an “Exhibit A” – a study by K. Anders Ericsson – which, unfortunately, Ericsson later went on to discount, suggesting his data had been misrepresented in such literary articles as Gladwell’s, and disputing the findings regarding practice.
Despite the discrepancies and debate, Zintro made an infographic on this “rule”, and much of it is good advice.
If you want to read more of this, have a look at –
- Erik Devers, “What Malcolm Gladwell REALLY Said About The 10,000 Hour Rule”, March 15, 2012, ProBlogService
- Dr Fiona McQuarrie, “Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” Doesn’t Add Up”, November 21, 2012, All About Work, in which she links to the letter by Ericsson.
Some Figures for Writers:
Jared Sandman, 10,000 Hours, February 23, 2013: “I generally write two pages in an hour (maybe three if I’m really cooking). That means I would have to write 20,000+ pages before my work is worth publication. 20,000 pages is the equivalent of fifty novels. If you don’t know what you’re doing by your fiftieth book, you aren’t paying close enough attention. Most professional novelists won’t reach that goal over the course of their whole careers.”
Despite the debate over the legitimacy or not on the 10,000 Hour Rule, Outliers makes some good points in the examples – that it’s not only huge amounts of practice (or focus), and not necessarily talent or intelligence that leads to ultimate success. Many exampled outliers had a lot of support and help – whether it was from familial affluence, or opportunity (of birth or location). The violinists spoken of, for instance, would have required hours of expensive tuition and training, and the cost of their instruments would have been prohibitive to many. Bill Gates had access to computers – in 1968! The Beatles made the best of their opportunities living close enough to travel to and play in the music dens of Hamburg, Germany at the time.
Each of those outliers made the best of their opportunities. As writers,we can too – whether we have 10,000-hours spare or not. The key is that our practice must be deliberate and mindful. See F is for Focus on the Now.
The Writer’s Core Habit Pack for Milestone Targets for Practicing Writing
These are some core habits and beliefs for the successful writer when it comes to an apprenticeship or practicing our writing:-
- Don’t kill yourself over achieving apprenticeship theorems (such as One Million Words or 10,000 Hours) with quotas set of arbitrary large word-counts or time spent on “practicing” writing. Just write.
- (And from ‘Outliers’) Writers with a supportive structure of family and groups around them are more positioned for success.
- Set target quotas of wordage over time, a core habit for writers.
- Set rough word-count targets for your work in progress – word count per novel, or article for instance.
- Set goals for writing projects over 6 months and one year.
- Break it down to smaller more measurable outcomes – something like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000K marathon in November, or Chuck Wendig’s Big 350 (warning: some swear words in this post) use a similar approach. In my upcoming Y post I provide a similar type of target.
- Sit down for a dedicated amount of time to write – every day preferably, another core habit for writers.
- BICFOK Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard – write for one hour, two hours, six hours…
- Schedule dedicated sessions of writing every day.
- Seek out achievable and supported time based challenges – things like this blog challenge this post is part of – Blogging from A to Z happens every April, and expects 26 blog posts from us, each on a certain day.
- Recognise that we can, and will write “crap”. There are ways around this crap however –
- Studying our craft, and bettering our writing
- Using other practice exercises (journaling, writing prompts, writing challenges)
- Revision and editing of our drafts
- Recognise that the more we write (practice writing), the better we will get at it – our understanding of the core concepts, and our processes better our craft.
- Practicing and Perfecting our Writing is a life-time mission, it doesn’t have a use-by date.
- Seek out methods for practicing – writing challenges, writing prompts, writing exercises…
- Practice deliberately and mindfully.
- Use hours and time spent writing as a quota, target to aim for, and milestone to celebrate.
- But being a writer isn’t just about writing, there are many other factors such as “reading”, “researching” and “planning” activities which help in improving our craft also.
- Keep a record! Successful writers can normally tell you exactly how many hours they spent writing today/this week / on that project. They also have records for word count, hours spent on other writing activities, and just how long it took them to go from a nutty little idea to a book launch.
- Challenge yourself to meet your targets, and then better it.
- When you do meet a large target or quota, celebrate it, and reward yourself.
The Tale Where I Took a Myth Quite Literally
My dirty little secret (okay, one of many) – several years ago when starting out on my journey to make my lifetime writing dream a reality, I totally believed one of these apprenticeship theories.
Believing that my novels were just going to be so much crap, and only “for practice” I never gave them a proper name. Those 300,000 words (which went immediately into File 13 or the closet) – will forever be known as: Pod Novel 1,2 & 3.
Why “Pod Novel”? Because I’d recently been watching a television remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” where alien clones of humans are grown in pods, some in closets.
Pod humans are not real humans, and pod novels…not real, right? That way, I set myself up to not care that I would never get them published – they were just for practice, after all.
Of course, sending novels to dark drawers or completely destroying them, is the writer’s prerogative. But I still wonder about whether some initial decision – based on a mis-aligned belief or not – was the right one. No regrets, though. It’s all good practice.
This blog post participated in April 2013’s Blogging from A to Z Challenge, along with many other blogs on subjects as diverse as writing, foodie blogs or mummy blogs.
This blog post is part of a themed series or pack on Writer’s Core Habits. I acronym this as WCH or WCHP © . Do a search for these tags, and you will find more in the series.
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