Cool Million

From time to time, I hear any number of reasons from people about why they don’t write (or sing or draw or play the piano or some other equally demanding task).  Most often, the cited excuse is a lack of talent. “I just don’t have enough natural ability,” they say.  That answer has always puzzled me.

For years, people described my younger brother as ‘tone deaf.’ He just didn’t have an ear for music, I guess. Or at least, that’s what everyone seemed to think.  Turns out, though, that idea is completely bogus.  See, while there may be some measure of ‘talent’ involved with singing, what it really involves is practice.  And practicing involves shaping the rest of your life around whatever it is you’re trying to improve.

Personally, I encounter the same challenges with staying healthy and working out.  I could stand to lose a few pounds, gain some energy, and so on, but I only spend an hour or two a week at the gym.  Certainly, that’s better than nothing, but it’s not likely to help me reach my goals.  Dedication and persistence are necessary parts of accomplishing any major goal, whether it’s losing 30 pounds, learning to play the cello (my wife and I very much want to do this) or writing a novel.

I read somewhere once that in order to reach ‘expert’ proficiency in any activity, you need to spend about 1000 hours doing it.  One thousand.  That means, if you spent a solid hour writing every single day, you would become an expert in about three years.  One hour a week? It will take you closer to twenty.

It gets better.  A reasonable pace for someone typing on their computer is about 1000 words per hour, which works out to about 17 words a minute.  Do the math.  1000 words per hour. 1000 hours of work.  That comes out to a nice, clean, even million.

That’s right. One million words.  That’s what it takes to become an expert writer.  There’s no other way to get better at it than actually doing it.

So, I guess we’d better get cracking.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ashley Harris on October 29, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Now if you could write while simultaneously working out, we’d really be in business! ;-P


  2. Posted by Patrick Nathan on October 29, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    If the figure you’re thinking of came from Malcolm Gladwell, it’s actually 10,000 hours. It’s from his book Outliers.

    Ten million words.

    I estimate that I’ve put in about 850 hours in on my novel. If only genius could be attained in 1,000 hours. I’m starting to wonder if even 10,000 is enough.

    But I completely agree with you regarding practice. There’s something to be said for talent, but it’s nothing that’s innate. Circumstantial, certainly, but not something with which we’re born. Real writing strength comes from practice. Over the last year my skill has increased dramatically. I can only attribute this to the 20 or more hours per week I’ve been putting in. Before this year I never spent any significant time writing and that is unquestionably why I was so unhappy with the work I was putting out. Practice is the way to go. That’s why nobody can write their first novel in one draft.

    Good post. I dig this blog.


    • Good reference. And while Gladwell’s number is specific to success in a particular field, 1000 hours gets you expertise, which still does not guarantee success.


      • Posted by Patrick Nathan on October 29, 2010 at 5:08 pm

        Hmm. I guess we’d have to uncover the meaning of expertise. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve put in well over 1,000 hours of writing in my lifetime, and I still see myself as an amateur. When I think of expertise I think of an outstanding quality of writing.

        I guess I’m also of the opinion that success and expertise aren’t necessarily related. An acquaintance of a friend of mine just got a two book deal with Simon and Schuster, and from what I understand her writing is nothing more than a product to be sold.

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