How to be a Better Writer

For Jamie: What I learned when I dipped into the excellently delicious Outliers.

Malcolm Gladwell is such an engaging writer and his subject here–extraordinary people who are markedly different, more successful, way smarter–is fascinating. Gladwell investigates the variety of circumstances that separate the super-successful from average folk like me. Along the way, he piles on the cool facts. For example, I learned that to become a world-class expert in just about any field a person needs to put in ten years of really really hard work. They need to work three times as hard as the average person.

Another way to calculate those ten years is in hours. About 10,000 hours will yield “mastery associated with anything” including writing. Which got me thinking. How many hours have I put into writing over the years? From about age 23, when I wrote my first novel, to 33, I didn’t rack up a whole lot of hours writing. I had two babies and a house to keep. Then I had a divorce to get through and a remarriage to negotiate. I also started college. I figure those 10 years yielded probably 500 hours of writing. Pretty simple to see why I was not a success at my dream career.

From 33 to 43, I did a little better. My kids were older, my marriage was settling down into a stable union, and I wrote a lot for college. After I started teaching, I also wrote a novella every summer. I’d say those ten years likely yielded 1000 hours. Still way below the “New York is calling with a contract offer” limit.

So the first 20 years of my writing life, even though I loved writing and was passionate about wanting to be a writer, I had only accumulated 1500 hours of writing time. Not enough to be called a master by any stretch. In retrospect, I realize that I was just too busy living my family life and figuring out how to be a good teacher.

Then something wonderful happened. I found a window of time, five years exactly, when I was able to write every day for three hours a day. By this time my kids were out of college and on their own. My husband has always been low maintenance. We were in a good financial position, and I felt so ready. With Al’s blessing, I took a break from teaching and totally devoted myself to writing. I wrote several novels during this time, started my blog, reviewed on average 10 books a month for Romantic Times. I treated writing like a real job and many, many days I clocked well over three hours at my computer. I’m averaging it out, because I know some days I only worked an hour or two. That five year period gave me 5500 writing hours.

Believe me, I saw my ability jump. I could actually tell that I was getting better. A lot better. Still, at 7,000 writing hours clocked, I wasn’t anywhere near the 10,000 hours I needed to become an “expert.” And a few years ago, the economy started to shift, and I went back to work. But an amazing thing happened when I returned to teaching. I kept up my three hours a day output. It was a habit I loved, and I made time for it. Again, some days I’d work eight hours straight and others I’d work one or two, but on average I added another 4500 hours, to put me at 11500 hours, well over the 10,000 mark.

When I figured this out last night I was so amazed I immediately subtracted two weeks vacation for nine years. Still at 10,000 hours. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll get a great publishing contract or a promotion at Publishers Weekly. It doesn’t even mean anybody will want to read my blog. It just means I put in the time it takes to master my craft. Sure, it took me thirty years instead of ten, but every single hour has been a total pleasure.

*Reprinted from a 2008 blog post. Betcha I’ve got another several thousand words under my belt by now. Also a publisher!

2 Comments on “How to be a Better Writer

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is very motivating. I know I need to put in the time and treat it like an actual job. I’m a stay at home mom but both of my children are in school now. I get about three and a half hours five days a week to write…if I just focus on writing.

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    • Ashley, it’s so hard when the kids are little. You’ve got lots of other stuff competing for your time. But I’m rooting for you. Even if you only take an hour some days, the daily habit, five days a week, will serve you well. Best of luck:)

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