Friday, January 24

The Secret To Succeeding As A Writer: Having A Criterion For Success

Today I read a typically wonderful article on Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence, by Maria Popova.

It's not just how long you practise, it's HOW you practise.

Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, writes:    

"The '10,000-hour rule'--that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field--has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

"No less an expert than Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, 'You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.' [Emphasis mine]

"'You have to tweak the system by pushing,' he adds, 'allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.'"

Unsurprisingly, it isn't just quantity, it is also quality. It turns out that "the main predictor of success is deliberate practice--persistent training to which you give your full concentration rather than just your time, often guided by a skilled expert, coach, or mentor." 

I often envy Stephen King's children. I don't mean to take anything away from their deserved success, but what an advantage to have Stephen and Tabitha King reading your work, giving you notes. (Note, I'm not saying they wouldn't have become successful writers if left on their own; but I have to think that having skilled writing mentors helped to speed up the process.)

So, given this, what is a writer to do? Kidnap Stephen King and go all Misery on him? Fortunately, there are other ways.

1. Focused practise

Focus on improving a particular aspect of your craft. Goleman writes:

"Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. For instance, in his much-cited study of violinists--the one that showed the top tier had practiced more than 10,000 hours--Ericsson found the experts did so with full concentration on improving a particular aspect of their performance that a master teacher identified."


"... those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing."

Applying these insights to writing, what seems to be required is a) to pick a specific aspect of the craft of writing to improve and then b) to pay full attention to it.

Here are a couple of writing exercises I've come across for improving specific aspects of one's writing:

i. Develop a unique voice.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but one way to speed up the development of your unique voice is to attempt to mimic the work of other writers

Pick a short passage from the work of a writer you admire, read it, study it, then put it away and write the passage on your own. Your work should be in the same voice, in same setting, and include the same characters. Also, the characters should have the same goals and be forced to confront the same obstacles.

Try doing this once a day for three months.

ii. Do some improvisational writing.

Write a dialogue for six characters, switching to a new character every ten seconds. The goal is to make every voice unique. (see: How To Create Distinct Characters: An Exercise)

2. Feedback Loop

But practising one's craft with full attention is only part of it. Creatives need a way to receive feedback on their efforts. 

With writing this can be tricky. What constitutes a good story--or at least a story someone would pay money to read--can vary sharply from reader to reader.

There are two things here. First, one needs a goal. Then, second, one needs a way of measuring how close one comes to achieving the goal.

A Writer's Goal

As a writer, what is your goal? What are we trying to accomplish when we write a story? Here are a few possibilities:

A. The writer is satisfied with their work.

What is art? 

I believe that, at it's most fundamental, writing is art. In this sense there are no criteria beyond what the writer intends. If I sit down to write a story for myself (and only for myself), and I am satisfied with the story, then it is a success.

One of the problems with this goal is that, since we are social creatures, we tend to want others to read--and enjoy--our stories. This usually leads writers to ask: how can I write stories other people will like?

B. We write to entertain. We do this by evoking emotions in readers.

Here the criterion passes beyond me and my tastes to those of my readers. If I write a horror story and my readers are not horrified, I've done something wrong! If I write a tragedy and no one is saddened by it, my story has failed.

One of the problems with this goal is that it's difficult to measure since, generally speaking, I can't observe my readers' emotions.

C. We write to entertain. We do this by playing a verbal game with readers, by giving them a puzzle to solve. 

I love mystery stories. One of my favorite detectives is Agatha Christie's Poirot. Why? Because Christie set out verbal puzzles that were usually solvable with the information at hand.

This goal has the same drawback as (B): one can't directly observe whether a person is being entertained by the game. 

Yes, readers could write to an author and give them detailed feedback on wether the story engaged them; most folks, understandably, don't do this.

D. We write to impart information. 

You might think this applies primarily to non-fiction--and perhaps it does--but many works of fiction, especially those set in exotic locations, take as one of their goals to impart information about the world. 

Evaluating Performance

Okay, so, we have various goals, various criteria that to us as individuals would mean we succeeded. Maybe none of the ones I've mentioned apply to you and, if so, that's fine. Also, you can have one criteria or many, it's entirely up to you. 

I just wanted to get across the idea that, even if we don't have a crystal-clear idea what they are, every writer has goals just as every writer has an idea--no matter how vague--about what a good story is. 

But having a goal is of little use if we can't tell how close we are to achieving it.

i. Number of books sold

This criterion is the ultimate in terms of being external, objective and more-or-less easy to access. Smashwords, Amazon, Kobo, as well as pretty well every ebook retailer, lists how many books an author has sold. Higher is better. 


Of course this criterion has its problems. What, really, does it mean? If one of my books sells twice as much as another does that mean readers were twice as emotionally and intellectually engaged by it? Probably not. Certain genres sell more than others and the first book in a series will probably take more time to get off the ground than the third book is an already established series.

Also, often, the sales of one's current book reflect what people thought about your last book. 

In addition, a book can sell well based on a fabulous cover or blurb. Or the recommendations of other authors.

ii. Amount of money made

The amount of money a book makes over time is, all things being equal, a good indicator of whether readers found it entertaining.

That is, the amount of money a book makes relative to your other books. Just because you don't come close to Stephen King's numbers doesn't necessarily mean your story was any less engaging. It took a long time for King to be discovered.

Also, books are often priced differently and sometimes the first book in a series is sold for 99 cents or given away. As a result this book likely won't make as much money for the author as the other books in the series. However, this doesn't make the book any less valuable, just the opposite, since it is the first book in the series that 'hooks' readers and makes them want to continue reading. 

There are many other criteria for success or failure. Sometimes--often?--people write to express an ideology, or communicate an idea, or to urge a certain course of action.

Beta Readers

I imagine that some of you will say that beta readers can help an author gauge whether a story is both emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying. Yes. Absolutely. 

Get as many eyes on your manuscript as you can, get as much feedback as you can. That said, keep in mind that there's often a big difference between readers and writers. Writers often look for different things than the average reader.

For example, the late Roger Ebert gave Wedding Crashers two out of four stars even though it went on to be a wildly successful movie at the box office. (That said, I loved Ebert's reviews, both for his opinions and his prose.)

I think the best predictor of how well a book will do is the responses of readers, people who love the genre it is written in. If you have some way of getting your work in front of average readers so they can give you feedback, that's awesome! 

3. Don't Overdo It

We've seen that it isn't just practise that's required, it is deliberate practise. We've seen that we need goals--an idea of what we want our writing to do--as well as a way, or ways, to gauge whether we are achieving those goals.

How much should we practise our craft?

Goleman holds that a skill can be overworked, tired out. Strained. He writes:

"... world-class champions--whether weight-lifters, pianists, or a dog-sled team--tend to limit arduous practice to about four hours a day."


In the end what criteria you adopt--what you take as constituting success or failure--is entirely up to you. The important thing is to:

- Know what your goals are and have some way of telling whether they've been met. 
- Engage in focused, deliberate, practice every day, working on areas you would like to improve, always keeping an eye on whether you are getting closer to your goal.
- Do all things in moderation.

I'm off to write!

Good writing.

Photo credit: "Golden girl" by Ernst Moeksis under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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