Becoming a Master Writer in 10,000 Easy Steps
Talent is produced in the inglorious increments of constancy.
When I first became a writer, I marveled at the magical worlds my favorite authors created — their lyrical prose, their riveting plots, their piercing characterizations. They wrote with such grace, such ease, that it seemed as if they’d been born writers, blessed with a talent and anointed by a higher power. They were masters, and I was a simple novice, a bystander wanting in, but improperly dressed for the fancy dinner party they attended.
Their prose shimmered like diamonds, but what I didn’t realize was that they weren’t just plucking diamonds from an endless store of gems and dropping them in their novels. No, each gem was hard-earned, burnished by the unsexy and often uncelebrated traits of diligence and discipline.
We sometimes praise an author’s talent too easily, forgetting the thousands of hours of practice that form the steel girders and rivets that make a novel’s beautiful contours possible. If talent was a prerequisite to writing a novel, then writers would talk about how easy it was to do so. The opposite is true, of course. Writing a novel is full of anguish and mis-steps. Talent is nothing without flinty determination. Talent quickly becomes indistinguishable from perseverance and hard work.
There’s a concept that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery, whether it’s in chess, writing, or brain surgery. (James Joyce estimated he spent 20,000 hours on Ulysses alone.) Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the concept in his book Outliers, calls it “the magic number of greatness.” The number 10,000 comes from the research of K. Anders Ericsson, who studied what goes into elite performance and found that the average time elites practiced was 10,000 hours (about 90 minutes a day for 20 years).
Most writers need to write several hundred thousand throwaway words before they begin to produce their best work.
Now, if you’re just starting to write, don’t despair that you’ll have to wait 20 years to achieve mastery, or even 10 if you speed things up and write for three hours a day. You’ve already done a lot of writing and reading, not to mention imaginative daydreaming and storytelling with friends and family, so those hours count.
Also, 10,000 hours isn’t truly a magic number of success — your brain doesn’t tally the minutes of your practice and then magically deem you a master at the 10,000-hour mark. It’s the concept that’s important. Most writers need to write several hundred thousand throwaway words before they begin to produce their best work. Ray Bradbury wrote a thousand words a day when he first decided to be a writer. “For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen.”
NaNoWriMo teaches a similar process. To write a 50,000-word novel in a month, you have to write 1,667 words a day for 30 days. You have to banish your Inner Editor and show up and write, on good days and bad days, on days when you have a crappy day at work, on days you’re just feeling lazy and uninspired, and maybe even on sick days. Your goal of a 50,000-word novel beckons you. Your daily word-count needles you. In this determined practice, you learn how a novel is built not by the grand gusting winds of inspiration, but by the inglorious increments of constancy.
The hard stuff, the stuff you’d rather skip or do later, is often the stuff that’s most necessary.
But the mantra of practice, practice, practice, will only take you so far. The mythical 10,000 hours of practice isn’t just a matter of banging away on your keyboard for 10,000 hours. To get better at anything, the number of hours you put in is just one component. The other component is how you practice — the quality of your practice.
For example, if you practice shooting free throws, and shoot 10,000 shots with bad form that you don’t try to analyze or correct, then your shooting percentage isn’t likely to go up much. But if you figure out that you need to bend your knees more, steady your elbow, and release the ball off your fingertips — and then practice the precision of your new method through repetitions — you’ll start to see improvement.
The hard stuff, the stuff you’d rather skip or do later, is often the stuff that’s most necessary. This method of practice is called deliberate practice, an approach that is focused on improvement through continual reflection and instruction on what needs to be improved.
As a writer, it’s important to pay attention to the moments you’re writing on autopilot. Every time we choose to play it safe or bypass challenging intellectual moments, we hinder our ability to innovate and grow. It’s only through the more deeply challenging work that takes more time and energy where we’ll find the soul work that is so gratifying.
Practice being comfortable in discomfort.
So practice being comfortable in discomfort. Practice writing for an extra 10 minutes when you think you’re spent, just to build stamina. Read interviews with authors or craft books to evaluate your own stories and investigate new ways of writing. Take a writing workshop, just to see if there’s a consistent pattern of weaknesses that others see in your stories. Study novels and other works of art and apply new techniques to your own works.
One of the great benefits of writing so much is that you begin to reflect on your writing in so many different ways. You understand what creative approaches work for you, what times of day are best for your writing — and then you think more about your writing because you’re doing it so much. It’s become a dominant part of your life. You grow ravenous to learn more, and you run a fever as you plumb the depths of your prose. By noticing your writing more keenly and reflecting on it with more depth, you’ll make it better.
Achieving mastery through practice doesn’t mean you’ll become a best-selling author or a genius who will go down in the annals of history so much as it means you’ve achieved your proverbial black belt of writing. Some might not even arrive at the mythological level of mastery, but one’s enjoyment in an activity improves in proportion to the effort invested in it.
Also, keep in mind that writing well is so challenging that it might be said that one never truly masters it — we’re writing and rewriting ad infinitum. Every story, every novel is its own fresh challenge.
Try This: Practice Deliberately
Logging thousands of hours of practice sounds like a dispiriting grind, a forced march, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a process of deepening your knowledge and thereby deepening your enjoyment. Reflect on how you can make your practice more deliberate and meaningful.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.