When I was first starting out, (meaning I decided I actually wanted to be a writer,) I talked with my uncle about my aspirations. He’s the CEO of Gibbs-Smith Publishing in Utah and he graciously took me to lunch with their children’s book editor. (I was so naive at the time, but I look back and realize what a gracious opportunity that was.) We chatted and it was fun and the food was good, and then they dropped that magical question.

“So have you written anything?”

“Umm…no…not really…not yet…I mean I have lots of ideas. Lots and lots.” (Drink deeply.)

They smiled and nodded. Did I mention the food was good? Nice and homey.

As we finished lunch and continued with our delightful conversation, a little space opened in the back of my mind and expanded with each passing second. If I wanted to be writer I would have to actually get my butt in a chair and write. Who knew?

When we go to the ballet we know that the dancers spent hours and hours in the studio, sweating, bleeding, and aching in order to achieve their incredible skill as a dancer. If we listen to an amazing pianist and watch their fingers fly across the keyboard, we don’t just say “Wow. Maybe I could do that.” We know the pianist practiced until their fingers hurt. Yet for some reason when we read a book something in our brain says, “I know all those words. I know all that stuff. There’s nothing written here that I don’t know. I could be a writer.”

And many people in the world could, and many people in the world try, and many people in the world shred their manuscripts and go on with their lives. Am I one of those people? I could be, but for now my butt is still in the chair, thank you very much.

As I work to hone my craft, I learn more and more just how complex a task writing really is and how much time and effort it takes to become a skilled writer. No matter how much seeming talent someone possesses to manipulate words into seductive sentences, paragraphs, and stories, writing is a skill that takes a lot of practice. In his book OUTLIERS, (one of my favorite reads for 2009,) Malcolm Gladwell introduced me to the 10,000 hour rule.

“The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

-OUTLIERS pg. 39-40 by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell gives numerous examples of true masters in several areas and delves into their habits of study and practice: Bill Gates, The Beatles, even Mozart whose musical genius has long been credited to…genius, pure and simple. We bypass the fact that all of these masters put in an enormous amount of practice in their respective fields, (and estimated 10,000 hours) before they produced anything particularly ingenious.

Ten. Thousand. Hours. Just how much is that? If you practiced for two solid hours a day, every single day, it would take you fourteen years to reach 10,000 hours. Fourteen. Years. That’s a long time. And most people don’t practice for two hours a day, no matter what it is they want to do. Most people don’t have time.

You can look at the number and be a little depressed, because not only will it take a long time to reach mastery, there’s no guarantee that you will, even if you do work on something for 10,000 hours. And I would like to attach my own theory to the 10,000 hour rule. Just practicing something does not necessarily make you better. Quality of practice is more important than quantity. As my mother says, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” (I’m sorry I quit the piano Mom, but my butt is still in my chair and I search feverishly for typos and misplaced modifiers.)

So I still hold firm to my theory. Practice and practice often…and practice perfectly. 10,000 hours or more.


5 comments

  1. I love your point that it’s the quality of practice that counts. I also think that you’re practicing writing a lot of times you don’t even realize–I believe pretty firmly that all the essays and papers I wrote in college helped make me a better writer. All the reading did, too. Maybe these don’t count in the 10,000 hours in the strictest sense, but in a practical way, I think they do.

  2. This is amazing. I’m linking it to my blog right now.

    • Liesl

    • January 29, 2010

    • 5:39 pm

    Thanks Caroline!

    Rowenna, I’ve also wondered what actually “counts” as practice. There are so many things that can improve ones writing. You are right. Reading, essays, blogging, etc all shape our writing. And can you really add that up? Plus my life experience counts right? I’ve been living approximately 245,000 hours. I’m a friggin’ genius at life!

    In the end I’ve decided my conscious efforts to improve my craft are what actually count…not that I’m counting.

  3. You’re so much cooler than me! Great post! I love the “practice perfectly.” I tell my students this. “We’re not going to practice it wrong.”

    • Liesl

    • December 1, 2010

    • 9:46 pm

    Wow, thanks Elana. I keep hoping to one day be as cool as you! Practice, practice…

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