Why 10,000 hours of practice isn’t enough
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Most of us have heard that, if we want to succeed at any activity, the best way to do so is to practice that activity for 10,000 hours. The title of this post suggests that 10,000 hours isn’t enough time, but in actuality, the time commitment isn’t the issue. It’s what you do in those 10,000 hours.
If you write for 10,000 hours, you can churn out a lot of words. The dedication to put in that kind of time is laudable. I, for example, once took a class in writing romance novels at UCLA. I had been writing magazine articles for decades and had an intensely-researched nonfiction book published at that point.
So I scoffed when the instructor opened our class by saying the vast majority of us would never finish our manuscripts. Of course I would! I had put in my writing time; I was ready.
Or not. I found novel writing really hard. I started my novel in, oh, about 10 different ways. I made it halfway through a manuscript draft at least three times.
But I was not only busy writing, I was also busy editing. And I kept rejecting my own work.
I think I finally threw out my box of printed-out drafts a few years ago, after hauling it around to each new house I lived in for several decades.
I had, basically, nothing to show for my thousands of hours of work.
What does it take beyond an intense time commitment to succeed–by which I mean be the best you can be?
In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, the author points out that mere repetition won’t make you better. Repeating an action puts on autopilot.
So, let’s say I have a moment of delusion and decide to work on that romance novel again. If I’ve gained no new knowledge on how to write better in the intervening years since my last draft, I’ll still write stilted dialogue; I just might be able to type faster now.
To improve my writing I have to not just practice, I also have to practice deliberately. In other words, I need to focus on the writing choices I’m making and try new ways of approaching a topic or new writing techniques. I need to focus on one aspect of my writing to break out of automatic choices to something new and better.
The second element Goleman says is necessary to reach excellence is to create a feedback loop. You can check this off your list if you have experienced writers who critique your work, if you ask astute readers to look over your latest draft, or if you have a superb editor who challenges you to up your writing game. But if you’re going the ivory tower route, who’s going to point out what you need to change?
I recently read the sample chapters of a manuscript for the friend of a friend and was hard-pressed to find anything redeemable in the work. The writer asked me what she could improve. Obviously she hadn’t asked anyone who was insightful for feedback before, which left me in the position of trying to figure out how to give her a starting point. I told her she needed to find a good critique group.
The third action to excel is to concentrate on what your feedback loop tells you needs work. If you don’t figure out how to solve those issues, you’ll return to writing on automatic pilot. Our brains are just geared that way. When we stop focusing, which Goleman calls top-down thinking, we return to what’s habitual, which he calls bottom-up thinking. What you’re really trying to do is break the patterns you’ve been following without realizing it.
Goleman then points out that, after putting in the necessary quality time, responding to critiquers’ feedback, and breaking habits through concentrating on weak areas, you should…take a break. Most of us can focus our attention for four hours. After that, we’re working out of habit–and reinforcing bad habits. So he suggests something called “attention chunking.” Set aside a maximum of four hours concentrating on improving your writing. Then work on emails, marketing efforts, phone calls, etc., giving yourself a chance to take a deep breath before diving back into the hard work of becoming excellent.
What part of this cycle do you need to focus on?
What would you put on your list of writing techniques that have become habit for you? Do you need to break your habit to reach excellence?
Why 10,000 hours of writing won’t make you a good writer. Click to tweet.
Do you have bad writing habits? Want to break them? Click to tweet.