Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The road to mastery

with 5 comments

“Ten thousand hours,” writes Malcom Gladwell in Outliers, “is the magic number of greatness.” That is, ten thousand hours of hard practice, at minimum, is a necessary prerequisite for success in any field, whether it’s chess, the violin, or even, dare I say it, writing. There’s also the variously attributed but widely accepted rule that a writer needs to crank out a million words, over roughly ten years, before achieving a basic level of technical competence. Both of these numbers are, obviously, sort of bogus—many people will require more time, a few much less. But they’re also useful. Ultimately, the underlying message in both cases is the same: mastery in any field takes years of commitment. And if you need some kind of number to guide you on your way, like Dumbo’s magic feather, that’s fine.

Because the only real path to mastery is staying in the game. Terry Rossio, on his very useful Wordplay site, makes a similar point, noting that when he was just starting out as a writer, he realized that anyone who spent ten years at a job—”grocery clerk, college professor, machinist, airline pilot”—had no choice but to become an expert at it. He concludes:

This insight freed me from the fear of picking a so-called “impossible” job. I could pick any field I wanted, free of intimidation, because it was guaranteed I would become an expert…if I was willing to stick to it for ten years. So I picked the job I really wanted deep in my heart: writing for movies.

The concept of a necessary amount of time to achieve expertise is what inspired the old master/apprentice relationship, in which, for instance, a focus puller would spend ten years observing what a cinematographer did, and at the end, be ready to shoot a movie himself. Writing doesn’t offer such neat arrangements, but it still requires the same investment of time, along with an occasional push in the right direction.

In fact, the best argument for writing full-time is that it allows you to accelerate this process. In the nearly four years I spent at my first job in New York, I wrote perhaps 30,000 words of fiction, only a fraction of which was published. After quitting my job, in the five years since, I’ve written about 600,000 words, not to mention another 100,000 words for this blog—a number that gives even me pause. While not all these words were great, they’re getting better, and close to half are going to end up in print. The number of hours is harder to quantify, but it’s probably something like 7,500, which, combined with the untold hours I spent writing bad fiction earlier in my life, has brought me close to Gladwell’s number. And if I hadn’t spent the past five years doing little else, I wouldn’t even be a third of the way there.

Of course, time by itself isn’t enough. The road to mastery is paved with well-intentioned grinders who work diligently on the same story or comic for years without showing any sign of improving. (The cartoonist Missy Pena memorably described this type to Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club at this year’s Comic-Con. VanDerWerff writes: “Plenty of people who get—and deserve—bad reviews come back year after year after year, never quite getting what it is they could do better, treating the whole thing as a kind of weird theater.”) But even if time isn’t a sufficient condition, it’s at least a necessary one. Every great writer has served an apprenticeship, even if he or she doesn’t like to admit it, and if you haven’t rushed into print, you can always deny it when the time comes. As Hemingway said, when a suitcase filled with his old unpublished stories was lost: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2011 at 9:05 am

5 Responses

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  1. Amazing! Ten thousand hours of practice is something intriguing. No wonder most best-selling authors have some interesting background story spanning usually over some ten years before publishing.


    September 21, 2011 at 9:16 am

  2. Exactly. To spend ten years writing steadily, most writers will need to do some crazy things. But it isn’t the crazy things that count, necessarily—it’s the ten years.


    September 21, 2011 at 9:20 am

  3. Absolutely! But the crazy things make the journey all the more worth taking. It’s a win-win situation according to me because doing what you like(writing) is a great thing whatever the result may be.


    September 22, 2011 at 10:33 am

  4. If nothing else, it means you’ll lead an interesting life…


    September 22, 2011 at 10:49 am

  5. Yes, very true.


    September 23, 2011 at 8:38 am

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