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  • Writer's pictureJudy

May 31, 2020: Exceptional Writing

Exceptional writing. It is the level to which all of us aspire. We want our thoughts and ideas and words to inspire, move, and touch our readers.

Exactly what does it take to reach that level of performance? A deep understanding of grammar and language? Vivid vocabulary? Writing classes to help understand the craft of writing? Creativity?

While all of these things are critical to being successful as a writer, the easiest answer comes down to one word: practice. The more you practice, the better you become. The more you write, the more skilled you become. The more hours you spend putting pen to paper, (or typing on the keyboard) the more compelling your words. Like anything, practice is required to move from novice to accomplished levels.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, was actually able to put a number on how much practice it takes to become exceptional. Based on meticulous research and studies of those in a variety of fields who are exceptionally successful, he was able to quantify how much practice it takes to reach those outstanding levels of performance.

10,000 hours = Elite Performance

8,000 hours = Good Performance

4,000 hours = Average Performance

So what does that mean to us as writers?

First, it means we must be patient with ourselves. Our first attempt, our first story, our first manuscript, is probably not going to be the work of art we envision. There are countless, extremely successful writers who have said that their first manuscript never saw the light of day. That it was their second or third manuscript that was actually under contract to be published well before that first one.

Second, we must simply write. Whatever your genre, or format- write, write, write. If we look at Gladwell’s tallies and do some simple math, we realize that if we write for four hours a day, five days a week, that is only 1,040 hours a year. That means it will take 10 years to reach elite levels of performance. Yes, you can halve that by writing eight hours a day. But that means really writing. Not thinking. Not pondering. Not outlining the story or researching. Not revising or editing. Not sending out query letters. There are so many other tasks that go along with being a writer that do not qualify as writing time.

Additionally, we must be realistic and honest with ourselves about our writing time. What are our other responsibilities? Jobs? Family? I am an elementary school teacher and adjunct college professor, in addition to being a writer. I know that during the school year, I can only count on writing for one hour per day (5am-6am). Anything additional is bonus. I also know that during the summer, I can block off larger chunks of time to put in lots of hours of writing.

Lastly, we must look at our career as a writer in the long-term. The seasons of our lives will ultimately impact the time we can devote to writing and perhaps the types of writing we do, so by taking a big-picture view, we can save ourselves a lot of stress. For example, when I was in my twenties and a full-time stay-at-home mom to my daughter, I was able to do more free-lance writing and even had a regular column in a mother’s magazine. When she started school and I started teaching, most of my writing revolved around academic writing and journals. It was only when my daughter went away to college and my husband and I had an empty nest, that I had the time and energy to devote to writing the novels that I always wanted to write. My determination to be traditionally published and my perseverance paid off, although it was just a few months shy of my 50th birthday before I received my first publishing contract.

Being a writer is a life-long pursuit that looks different for everyone. However, according to Malcolm Gladwell, regardless of the type of writing you do, the hours you actually spend writing are what will ultimately help you reach success.

So to all my writing friends and colleagues out there: Keep On Writing!

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1 Comment

Becky Elie
Jun 02, 2020

Thank you for sharing the numbers. It reminds me of the book you recommended a while back, 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam.

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