Wednesday, March 12

A Million Words To Mastery?

A Million Words To Mastery?

We've all heard about K. Anders Ericsson and the 10,000 hour rule of thumb which holds that, roughly, 10,000 hours of practice is required to become an expert in any skill-based field. I'm not sure who first popularized the idea, but for writers this is generally taken to mean writing 1,000,000 words.

To put this 1,000,000 word figure into perspective, if one wrote 1,000 words a day for five days a week and kept this up for four years then one would write over a million words. Or, to put it another way, one would need to write ten, 100,000 word books--or twenty 50,000 word books.

Yes, that's a lot of writing but it is not uncommon for a professional to write 500,000--or even 1,000,000!--words in a year (both Chuck Wendig and Kris Rusch have done this).

But, according to Daniel Goleman, this isn't enough to achieve mastery. In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he writes:

"You don't get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal."

That makes sense to me.

I've written about this before (see: The Secret To Succeeding As A Writer: Having A Criterion For Success) but the implications of that comment are far-reaching, especially for writers.

If Anders Ericsson is correct--and I believe he is--then the sheer number of words we write does not hold the key to getting better at our craft. Focused practice does.

1. In order to write well one must write. A lot.

Goleman says the 10,000 hour rule is only half right. Practice may not make perfect but no one will get far without it. 

2. Focused, or directed, practice.

a. Concentrate. Mentally attend to what you're doing. Think about it. 

Goleman suggests eliminating distractions from your workspace, distractions such as the TV and access to social media.

b. Build your writing muscles by working on new aspects on the craft, or aspects you would like to improve. 

For example, hooking characters into setting, giving each of your characters a unique voice, using dramatic irony, pacing, weaving description seamlessly into a story, creating believable dialogue, writing from unusual points of view, using an unreliable narrator, giving your narrator personality, making your narrator invisible. And so on.

3. Get feedback.

For writers this can be tricky since what counts as a good story can differ from person to person. What I think is a terrific story, others do not. For example, Stephen King is on record as saying that he didn't enjoy the first book of the Hunger Games enough to continue the series. It wasn't his favorite book, but, nevertheless, Suzanne Collins' books are loved by many.

I honestly think that talk of 'good' or 'bad' books isn't profitable. It is, I think, much better, much clearer, to talk about the potential readership for a book than it is to talk about good and bad books. (I talk more about this here: The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?)

Find your ideal reader

Your ideal reader will be someone who shares your tastes. Millions of people love Nora Roberts' romance novels* and buy every book she writes. But millions of people also say (different millions, presumably!) that they wouldn't be caught dead reading her books. If you give one of these folks Roberts' latest book their dislike of it wouldn't tell the writer anything useful.

(* "As of 2011, her novels had spent a combined 861 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, including 176 weeks in the number-one spot. (Nora Roberts, Wikipedia)")

Why? Because those folks aren't part of the potential readership for that book.

If you know someone who shares your reading preferences and is willing to take the time to give you a detailed critique of your work, then (all things being equal) they are your ideal reader. Hang onto them!

What An Ideal Reader Can Do For You

Ever since I wrote that blog post The Secret to Succeeding as a Writer I've been doing short little writing exercises every morning as a kind of writing workout. 

But doing these writing exercises isn't enough. We need feedback from a (compassionate!) reader (or readers) who is familiar with our writing and can help us judge whether we are improving as well as suggest what other areas we could work on.

I know that, often, I'm blind to the mistakes I've made in my own writing and need someone--a compassionate someone--to point them out. This is one of the reasons writers seek out beta readers to go over their work.

Choose someone--someone who shares your tastes in books, someone compassionate--to look at the exercises you've done and give you feedback. 

For example, let's say that every day for a week you wrote 500 words and that every day you concentrate on a particular area of writing; for instance, creating vivid characters with distinct voices. After you've done a few if these your reader could look them over and tell you whether they saw improvement and perhaps suggest other areas you could work on.

This isn't about skill level, it's about improvement.

One thing I want to stress is that this is not about how well you write--it has nothing to do with how evocative your descriptions are compared to, say, Neil Gaiman's--it is how much you improve.

And, again, I'm not talking about improvement relative to Neil Gaiman! I think well over 50% of writers who earn a good living from their craft would get dangerously depressed if that were the criterion! No. I'm talking about improvement relative to yourself.

Using yourself as a reader.

If you don't have an ideal reader; that is, if you don't have anyone you trust to help you evaluate your writing progress, take heart! There's still a way to do this.

Use yourself as an ideal reader.

Although beta readers are essential for vetting material destined for publication, I think writers themselves can act as their own readers when it comes to their writing exercises.

Here's one way this could be done:

a. Pick an area of the writer's craft you would like to work on. For example, using dramatic irony to increase tension. Or, if you have Roy Peter Clark's book, 50 tools that can improve your writing, make a list of the 50 tools Roy Clark talks about and practise using those tools, one tool per day, to help build up your writing muscles.

b. When you do an exercise make it clear which element of the writer's craft you are targeting.

c. After you've worked on the same area a few times look at your first exercise and your last. Did you improve? 

That's it for now. I'd love to hear from anyone who does writing exercises on a regular (or semi-regular) basis. Has it helped improved your craft? Do you have tips, hints or suggestions?

Thanks for reading and, as always, good writing!

Photo credit: "Baltic Sea" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. I believe it was David Eddings who suggested the 1,000,000, although he took it much farther

    1. Thanks Trevor, I did a quick Google search and found this quotation from David Eddings:

      "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."

      I wasn't able to find where he said that, if it was in an interview or a book on writing.

    2. My friend Jerry Pournelle advised writers to "write and throw away a million words of finished material." (Byte Magazine, December 1996; updated 2007 for software and hardware changes)

      Perhaps he had the idea from David Eddings.

    3. Thanks antares, I've been researching this subject and found enough material for a (rather long!) post. In that post I mention the information you and Trevor were kind enough to contribute. If you'd like to take a look, here's the link:

      Thanks again. :-)


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