Why 10,000 hours of practice isn’t enough

Janet Grant

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?

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60 Comments

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Janet, for this post. It comes at a great time for me.

    The issue I most need to work on is taking breaks. I have some compulsive tendencies. One is the (felt) need to finish things. The other problem is that I am a recovering perfectionist, so I have to work at letting go of working on the same scene for hours, trying to make it perfect. Intellectually, I know it’s better to write something, leave it alone for awhile, then go back to it with fresh eyes, but I find it difficult to say, “That’s enough for now.” However, doing so makes sense as I’m going to revise the piece of writing anyway the next time I read it, so trying to make it as perfect as possible in one sitting fits Einstein’s definition of insanity.

    This post comes at a great time for me for two other reasons. First, I teach writing (academic writing for students whose skills aren’t up to college level), and your words reinforce what I’ve told them: in order to improve your writing skills, you have to discover what you specifically need to improve and work on that. Writing ten papers with the same errors on each paper is a waste of time and trees. Secondly, I founded and facilitate a writing critique group. For the past year and a half, one member of the group has brought in a new piece of writing each week with the same problems. I’ve always tried to find something positive to say about each piece along with giving feedback on what needs improved. This past week, I gave very little feedback as I find it frustrating that he asks for the feedback from the group, but never puts it into practice. This last time, he also indicated that he was disappointed and somewhat hurt that the group never simply says that the piece he’s brought in is sensational. Periodically, I share with the group articles about writing–about how to get ideas, how to revise, how to build a platform, etc. This post would be helpful to the entire group. I also hope it will get the message across to him without his being singled out. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. At the same time, he’s never going to the “That’s sensational!” comment if he never deals with the aspects of his writing that need fixed.

    Happy Monday! :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Christine, I hope the blog can bring a breakthrough to your students as well as to the guy in your critique group. It’s odd how we can get stuck in writing ruts and don’t even recognize that’s why no one thinks our work is spectacular.
      And I hope you’ll give yourself a break–literally–more often. Your writing will be the better for it.

  • I know that I need to work on taking a break. Although I seldom have four consecutive hours to write, I need to work on taking mental breaks. My day job often requires writing-type tasks.

    Recently, I heard a children’s occupational therapist present on the importance of physical activity. She explained that having regular physical activity increases focus, productivity, and general quality of work in things like writing. So, here is to walking, water exercise, and (yes) housecleaning!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I’m so with you in needing to give myself permission to take breaks. I’ve read so much on how it increases productivity and effectiveness, but I’m a stick-to-it kind of person, which it turns out, isn’t all pluses with no minuses.

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Oh, Carol, thank you! You’ve just motivated me to get some exercise, which I always tell myself I’m “too busy” to do. Apparently my ever-expanding waistline doesn’t provide enough motivation, but the possibility of improving my focus and productivity has me lacing up my hiking boots. (I almost typed “hiking books”–you can tell where my true interests lie, lol)

  • If I may, I’d like to address two items from the beginning of today’s post.

    First, the writing instructor’s approach, saying that most would not finish their manuscripts, is a lazy and cruel way to teach.

    I taught structural engineering for many years, and many of my colleagues took a similar attitude – “Engineering is so tough and demanding, only a quarter of you freshmen will get through!”

    They thought they were hard-boiled, but they were only absolving themselves from working harder to teach more effectively. The truth is that the math required isn’t beyond a person of average intelligence, and neither are the study habits. One has to motivate with kindness and care, and an appreciation for an individual’s needs. College teaching is not a sinecure, and it does take effort.

    Starting a class by quashing hope is cowardly, and dishonors the profession.

    That attitude also creates a culture of elitism, which is, frankly, laughable.

    The other issue I’d like to take up is the comment that you had basically nothing to show for the effort of trying to finish a manuscript.

    I think you did get quite a bit, not the least of which was a sensitivity for the writer’s lot that shines through in this forum every Monday. Our successes give us pride, and our failure give us empathy.

    Most of what we start will remain unfinished; most of what we dream will be partially unfulfilled; and we will not do justice to most of our abilities.

    In the end, that doesn’t matter, because the legacy we leave is a mosaic made up of the shards of what we’ve tried to do, bound together by how we’ve tried to do it.

    And polished with the love we’ve shared.

    • Beautifully stated, Andrew.

    • “In the end, that doesn’t matter, because the legacy we leave is a mosaic made up of the shards of what we’ve tried to do, bound together by how we’ve tried to do it.And polished with the love we’ve shared.”

      Whoa.
      Dude.

      Just…wow.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Andrew. I never considered the effectiveness of the instructor’s prediction that most of the students wouldn’t finish their manuscripts. I just always thought of my proving how right she was–at least for me, and feeling like a lesser person for having met her sad expectation.
      You’re right, of course, that the experience of trying to write a novel was invaluable in learning just how hard fiction writing is. My respect for those who can imagine characters, a vivid setting, and conflicts that strike readers as “real” went up immeasurably as I realized I wasn’t gifted in that way.

  • What a practical post, Janet. I’ll be coming back to re-read it again. For me, I have gotten some contest results back, and I’ve seen some similar comments. So, guess what I’m going to be studying so I can improve those areas? :) I love having helpful feedback, and when I see patterns/similarities, I know those are areas to work on.

    I also have a friend who is an astute reader, and she has been blunt with me about what needs work. I love this. The ivory tower doesn’t work for me, because I’m just NOT that good. I would love to find a good feedback loop for more frequent feedback. That’s a great idea.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, you’re certainly on the right track in poring over those contest comments. And having a reader who is blunt is such a gift. Hooray for your willingness to learn from feedback. At some point, it might be worth the investment to go to a writers conference such as Mount Hermon, which has sessions in which a small group of writers critique each other, with a mentor overseeing the group and adding feedback.Writing for the Soul Conference also has sessions in which Jerry Jenkins critiques the first pages of manuscripts in front of the entire class (with no name attached to the pages). Those are a couple of places I know where you can get more feedback (and where you might others who want to form an online critique group).

      • Thanks Janet, for the suggestions. I’ve wanted to go to Mt. Hermon. Maybe next year. This year’s retreat/conference budget is allocated. :) I didn’t know Jerry Jenkins did that at his conferences. Good to know. Thank you!

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Jeanne, feedback is my favorite reason for entering contests. Placing or winning is nice, but getting the judges’ comments are the real value, IMO. That’s why getting a vague “I don’t know, it just didn’t appeal to me” (as happens once in a while) is so frustrating. Details, details!

  • Janet, Another way of saying that mere repetition won’t make you better is what a golf pro told me years ago–repeating the same flawed swing just sets it in muscle memory. That’s why even golf pros constantly work on their game. Writers should do no less. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Richard, Goleman actually mentions golf as an example of the importance of breaking out of a habit. Thanks for pointing out that it’s more than habit; it’s actual muscle memory.

  • Janet, wow. Way to kick off our week!

    Breaks! I need to give myself permission to take more of them and then not regret when I do.

    And great point about feedback. Last fall, as my husband burned off brush I threw some old manuscripts on the burn pile. *sigh* (I saved notes in idea folders, but I knew those first efforts must go.) While it was sad to a degree it was strangely cathartic, too. I realized I’d learned so much since those early days, and it gave me incentive to start afresh.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cynthia, literally seeing your work go up in smoke would be sad, but that action also marked a new era in your writing. One that you entered because of the work you did on your first manuscripts. Without those first attempts, you wouldn’t be where you are.

  • Micky Wolf says:

    Good stuff, Janet–a great beginning to the week!

    I’ve been in a practice deliberately mode with certain aspects of my writing for some time, although the flip side of that is needing to remind myself occasionally that it’s time to take a break. I can also fall into the self-editing trap. Oh, the woes of being a recovering perfectionist! :)

    As always, thank you for the helpful post–another of the Books & Such gems to return to from time to time. :)

  • Practice alone doesn’t make perfect, does it? My mother always corrected that by saying that perfect practice makes perfect. That’s always stuck with me (obviously :) ), so I try to be careful that I’m not just repeating things that haven’t worked before.

    In my feedback loop, I need to have more readers look over my work. I have a CP (Hi, CP!), which has been wonderful, and I’m a part of the ACFW Scribes group. I also have a soon-to-be-published author who encourages me. But I haven’t cultivated a ready pool of readers. They are there, I just need to solidify those connections.

    Thank you for another great post, Janet, one that challenges and educates but also encourages.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Ooh, I love what your mother said! Now all we have to do is figure out how to be perfect! Writing challenges are never lacking for us, are they?
      Tell us more about the ACFW Scribes group. Maybe others reading the comments would benefit from being part of that.

      • The first part is, of course, becoming a member of ACFW. Then, any member can sign up to be a part of the Scribes group. There is a brief orientation period in which writers receive emails from the group moderator (not sure if that is her actual title) with instructions on being a part of the group. Basically, for every 2500 word submission to the group, a writer has to critique two other submissions. Two submissions are allowed per week. Often, writers will gravitate toward each other based on genre, and there are smaller critique groups that form out of Scribes and then go private. I was a little nervous at first, since all of the members (several hundred, I believe) would be able to view my work. But, thanks to the C in ACFW, all were kind and encouraging in their constructive criticism. It’s been a great group, and I was privileged to meet in person at the conference some members whose work I had critiqued and who had critiqued mine.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Meghan, thanks for explaining how the Scribes group works. It sounds as though you can gravitate to the people whose critiques sound like the readers really get you and offer helpful insights. It seems like a wonderful way to sort of “test drive” a wide range of critiquers.

    • Hello to you CP!

      Glad you decided to try the Scribes group despite your early hesitancy.

      I need to keep cultivating that pool of readers you mentioned Meghan. Sometimes I wonder though, how many opinions are too many?

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Good question, Jenni. The answer probably varies from writer to writer, but my instinct tells me quality over quantity. A few trusted readers are much better than a collage of opinions of varying insight.

  • Elissa says:

    Ah, well, being a musician makes me well aware of exactly what “practice” is. I’m an amateur, but my husband is a very accomplished professional. People are constantly exclaiming how good he is. I always agree that yes, he is, but it’s not magic. He practices. Every day. Even though he’s been performing for decades.

    It’s wrong to think you have nothing to show for all the hours of writing you’ve done. Andrew said it best, but it bears repeating. Just as a musician develops his ear over time, a writer develops hers.

    In my opinion, no amount of time spent working on a skill is wasted. While theoretically you might ingrain bad habits and poor technique, that’s highly unlikely if your goal from the start was improvement. I don’t believe anyone has the tenacity to work on something for 10,000 (or more) hours without having the drive to improve themselves.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Elissa, thanks for your perspective on the Art of Practicing. I see your point about my attempted novel not being a wasted effort. I did learn a lot in the process. I did demonstrate to myself I didn’t have the tenacity to work those 10,000 hours.
      And while I think anyone who devotes 10,000 hours to an activity is highly motivated, I’ve seen mammoth manuscripts (200,000-300,000 words) that clearly showed a major time commitment, but it’s interesting to me that seldom has the author of one of those tomes appreciated my telling him or her that the book must be severely cut. That person’s vision of the book didn’t match the market, yet the writer wanted an agent to sell the manuscript to a publisher. Being able to receive feedback can be an exercise not every author is willing to undertake.

  • Practice deliberately–I love that, Janet!

    What does that look like? For me, it was taking the first chapter of my finished novel and working on it and ripping it apart until it read like a published book. For the first time, I didn’t give myself a pass or say, “I’ll fix it the next time.” I forced myself to stay with it and figure out why it didn’t read like a published book.

    Yes, it was a pain to stay with one chapter for an entire month. But at the end of the month, it read like a published novel–and I knew so much more about why it worked. After that, it didn’t take nearly as long to improve chapters because I knew what I was doing. Well, knew a lot more than I used to anyway. :)

    You’re so right that writing isn’t enough. We have to be deliberate, and that never ends. We always have to be focused and working to be better.

  • Angela Mills says:

    This made it clear to me that I really need to find a critique group. The Christian ones I’ve found are an hour or more away. No one has read my fiction, and the only people I’d consider asking are my mom and stepmom and they might not be objective :)

    I’ve been thinking about sending some pages in for a paid critique, what do you think about that?

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I put in my 10,000 hours, but toiled largely in isolation. True, coworkers would give me some feedback on my business writing, and readers would sometimes comment on magazine and newsletter articles, but their input lacked what I really needed to improve.

    Critique groups made a huge difference for me. Now I’m working on next 10,000 hours.

  • I recently sent my work out to a trusted friend who edited the whole MS. It SLAYED me how spectacular my POV tangos were!!!
    And here I thought I was ballparking every word.
    Umm, no.

    So, back at it, again.

    Also, I cannot edit out of sequence. I can tweak a scene here and there, but I can’t be all over the place. That just confuses me.

  • Jenny Leo says:

    I feel energized by this post, and eager to not just put in my time, but make the best use of every hour. It reminds me of what a mentor told me a long time ago: “A job applicant might have ten years’ of experience, or one year of experience repeated ten times.” The key is growth and progress, not just time served.

  • Dan Miller says:

    It seems that self-publishing has opened the floodgates for anyone to be an “author” with no connection to the normal corrective process of editing, copy layout and marketing considerations. One of the benefits of seeking a normal publishing agreement is the brutal process of having lots of other eyes evaluate one’s work before it it thrown to the masses.

    One of the better learning tools for me (in addition to working with major publishers) has been to read voraciously in the genre in which I want to write and be recognized. If I really read with the eyes of a student I can learn to improve my own writing.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Dan, you’re so right that self-publishing invites cutting corners. When I first started writing, I worked at a nonprofit that created several magazines, loaded with feature articles. Everything I wrote WAS published, which was daunting. It’s the opposite side of the coin from those who struggle to be published.
      I agree that reading with a critical eye is one of the best ways to learn. I’m a self-taught writer who scrutinized every well-written piece I read. It’s a method that works, and will certainly add to those 10,000 hours.

  • donnie says:

    . . . honest revealing art can’t be measured in time, it can only be achieved with blood,sweat and tears. Lot’s of tears – coming mainly from your soul.

  • Lisa says:

    This is such great advice, thank you. I am so afraid to show someone my work, unless it is perfection. It’s something I need to work on for sure. Others eyes do bring so much clarity. Quality hours do refine, the change in my writing has been so visible since I started blogging.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lisa, it’s interesting that blog writing has enhanced your writing in general. It doesn’t always work that way. I’d love to hear what you find has improved.

      • Lisa says:

        For me, it is just building on the courage to put myself out there. I stick to a pretty steady three day a week schedule, so the need to be consistent has taught me to put pen to paper, even when I don’t feel like it. I’ve felt my voice emerge, it has found more clarity in my fiction. I also think blog readers help to define that voice by encouraging and responding to your strengths.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Lisa, I appreciate your perspective. I can see how writing regularly for your blog helps you to be disciplined in your commitment to working on your manuscript. And blog readers certainly do let you know what they respond to.

  • Wonderful insights, thank you so much. I especially resonated with your line about rejecting our own work. I think I am in a time loop of rejecting my own work. I also wonder if the ease of blog writing can get a writer into some bad habits. It is so easy to write and post without scrutinizing our work or to gauge the quality of our writing by how mant Facebook likes we receive.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Karen, I think you’re right that writing blogs can put us in a terrible groove when it comes to writing books. Even if we spend significant time on a blog post, blog writing has a different rhythm to it than book writing. I’ve seen proposals from bloggers in which the sample writing was dreadful. It would work for a blog but most certainly not for a book. We’re back to how we need to concentrate deliberately on writing well.

  • Sending my work out to be critiqued is a bit like wearing retainers. They keep my teeth in line, but they can also make my gums ache, and sometimes I choose not to wear them because of the discomfort they cause.

    I write in isolation, but extend my story to be scrutinized by numerous people. Which harkens back to my question above, can too many opinions cause more harm than good?

    This is where discernment comes into play. Having started my MS one way, I then decided to add a new beginning.
    I sent the first five pages of this alteration to a contest. One of the judges suggested that I may have started the MS too early. After mulling this over, I decided to rework my original beginning to integrate the most common critiques from readers and judges.

    The hours add up, and they make

  • Karen Cioffi says:

    Excellent information. I had no idea there should be a four hour max, so not to go on writing autopilot.

    And, I’m a big proponent of critique groups.

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