Follow These Five Principles to Writing Mastery (in 10,000 hours or less!)

I like the concept of the 10,000 Hour Rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Boiled down to its essence, it states that 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise or mastery of a skill. The Rule is overly simplistic and not universally applicable, but it highlights the importance of hard work as a key factor in individual success.

Here’s how I break down and apply the 10,000 Hour Rule to my writing life:

10,000 hours: This is approximately 20 years at ten hours per week. This gives me some perspective of how much I need to invest in improving my skills and for how long. If I’m impatient, increasing my weekly hours to 20 per week will help me achieve mastery in 10 years. I see this as almost metaphorical, as opposed to an actual measure towards a specifically achievable goal. In other words, I’m in this for the long haul. If I want to get better faster, I need to sacrifice more of other things, and keep this up over a long period of time.

Practice: I define this as smart, deliberate, focused time spent improving my writing. I’m not just logging hours–I’m investing in activities designed to make me a better writer. I elaborate on this below.

Expertise: I want to be a strong enough writer that editors and readers find it difficult to pass over my work. I’m willing to invest 10,000 hours in achieving this level of storytelling mastery.

Here are five principles that I’m using to help me decide how to intelligently invest my 10,000 hours.

1. Seek out challenges:

Break out of those comfortable patterns! For example, I noticed recently that all my stories follow straightforward chronological structure, so I chose to write a story with several parallel narratives (my one story sale last year!). Along these lines, I write a lot of horror and urban fantasy, so I’m considering work on a police procedural and a hard SF story. I tend to write from close third-person or first-person POV, so maybe it’s time for me to try an omniscient narrator. The opportunity to experiment is one reason I prefer writing in the short form, at least during this early portion of my training. I know it’s scary to try new things. I’ve definitely made mistakes and embarrassed myself, but I believe the potential for growth is worth this risk over the long haul.

2. Attend workshops and classes:

We’re very lucky to be writers in the SF space. We have a strong culture of fostering and supporting aspiring writers. We’ve got the Clarion Workshops, Odyssey, Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox, the CSSF Workshops, and many more–I don’t think that any other genre has as many respected opportunities for writers to learn directly from professionals in the field. As an undergrad, I attended creative writing classes taught by UC Irvine MFA students who offered valuable lessons and made me start thinking seriously about writing as a craft. And I’m scared now to even glance at stories that I wrote before I went to the Clarion West workshop.

3. Get feedback:

I’m slowly learning which of my first readers provide the critiques that teach me something new. They point out strengths as well as those things which not only improve a single story, but have the potential to make me a better writer overall. I’m in a writing group with some of the best authors in the business, and I’m striving to recognize this as as a tremendous opportunity and to submit stories to my group, even though some of these wonderful people intimidate the hell out of me. Treasure your best critiquers!

Side note: one might think that the majority of ones time at the Clarion West Workshop would be spent producing new stories, but we spent the equivalent of a full-time job–with overtime–reading, critiquing and listening to critiques of our stories.

4. Study fiction:

This emphasis is one of the biggest changes I’ve made in my writing life during the past year. First, I’m reading a number of books on craft. Instead of reading these works all at once, I read a bit at a time, in parallel with my own writing. This gives me the opportunity to both apply the new techniques I learn to my own stories. Second, I deliberately seek out and read the best works in the field and ask myself what their authors did differently that made many of us take note. My favorite stories to study are the ones that suck me in and make me forget to study, so that I have to go back and attempt to dissect them again. (And again, sometimes!)

My current craft reads are Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook and David Madden’s Revising Fiction. I strongly recommend both, for very different reasons.

5. Connect with peers and mentors:

First of all, attend conferences and writing retreats. The Rainforest Writers Village is one of my annual favorites, because you can write with other writers, which is hard to do at conferences.

My favorite idols aren’t the demigods of our field *cough*NeilGaiman*cough*, but my friends who are perhaps a year or three ahead of me (like my Tracie, and all of the inkpunks!). I know them and their lives well enough to know what I need to emulate to achieve success, which habits I need to break or adopt. I know what sacrifices they make and how they carve writing time out of their hectic, distraction-filled lives. My writing friends and colleagues are a source of endless encouragement and commiseration, both in-person and via twitter and Facebook and email. I depend on them–on you all–for the strength to keep pursuing my long-term writing goals.

FYI: 10,000 hours spent connecting with peers on Facebook will not make you a better writer. It may (if you challenge yourself in a deliberate, focused manner) make you better at connecting with your peers on Facebook.

I’d like to emphasize that nothing is a substitute for writing. Bottom line: If I want to become a better writer, I have to write. But like with any investment, I’d like to maximize my return, so I want to invest wisely.

I’d love to hear from you all–what do you think about the 10,000 hour Rule? Do you have any tips for smart and deliberate practice? Do you have any books on craft that you’d recommend?

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  • Matthew Sanborn Smith

    10,000 sounds good to me, give or take. Before Gladwell came along with that, the number in my head was ten years, as Martin Gardner suggested in “Creating Minds” (great book). In it he studied seven giants of the early 20th century, each exhibiting a different one of his seven types of intelligence. One of the parallels he drew is that each had to be steeped in his or her field for about ten years before they made their breakthroughs.

    The one book that absolutely catapulted my writing forward was “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King. The one that gets me out of writer’s block to this day is “If You Can Talk, You Can Write” by Joel Saltzman. And one that inspires me is “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Bradbury. I’m sure I’ve mentioned these before on this blog, but they can’t be mentioned enough.

    -Matthew Sanborn Smith

    • Remy Nakamura

      I have Bradbury’s book, but I need to track down the others. And The One Thousand project is the perfect encapsulation of seriously pursuing ones craft over the long-haul. Thanks!

  • I also think you have to be open to learning and growing as a writer. Some lessons won’t make sense until you’re ready to understand them or have reached a certain point in your growth. Many years ago, I felt like I was a good writer, that I knew how to write and didn’t really have anything new to learn. I realize now just how wrong I was! (Admittedly, I’d probably learned all I could from the sources I had at the time — but I still had plenty to learn, both then and now.)

  • Also (completely unrelated — apologies!) — when I looked at your Inkpunks bio, the Twitter link goes to a different account, not yours. Thought you might want to fix that. 🙂