Lessons I Learned From Writing for 10,000 Hours
Back in 2010, I started a journey that would take nearly a decade to complete. It was my journey to become a published author. It was my journey to accumulate 10,000 writing hours.
In 2010, I was about to start my Creative Writing MFA program at Wilkes University. I was writing sporadically, but I wanted to take my writing more seriously. I had zero published works to my name. My ultimate goal was to publish a book, but I felt like I wasn’t anywhere close to reaching the Promised Land.
I had just read “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. The premise of the book is that in order to become an expert at something, an individual has to do that thing for 10,000 hours. The Beatles playing shows in strip clubs and Bill Gates fiddling with his computer instead of dating girls were held up as examples of the benefits of the 10,000 hours rule.
Now, a lot has come out in the past decade to discredit the 10,000 hours rule, but that’s irrelevant. At the time, my decision basically came down to, “Sure … why not?” In June of 2010, I started tracking my writing hours and setting weekly hour goals. I figured, even if I never made it to 10,000 writing hours, something good had to happen along the way, right? Right?!
So 10,000 hours later, nearly 40 short stories later, nearly 20 published works later, five screenplays later, a dozen poems later, and one published novel later, I got my answer.
Here are six important lessons I learned from accumulating 10,000 writing hours:
Lesson #1: Count Time, Not Words
I see a lot of writers on Twitter celebrating word counts.
I wrote 1200 words today!
I wrote 2000 words today!
I wrote 48,876 words today!
I did the same thing early in my writing career. Trying to reach 10,000 hours forced me to change from thinking in terms of daily word counts to writing hours … and it was a change for the better. Let me break it down like this:
I would rather spend eight hours writing one really good sentence than write 2000 words of dog shit.
It’s also beneficial to think in terms of hours because of Lesson #2 …
Lesson #2: Writing Isn’t All Writing
Counting words instead of hours also discounts all the other “writerly” activities that help you improve your craft. If you spend eight hours revising your draft, what do word counters count that as? Nothing?
If you’re counting hours, it counts as eight hours.
A year into my 10,000-hour journey, I realized that there was a lot more to being a writer than just producing words.
Reading craft books
Doing research for a novel
These are all integral writing activities that produce zero words. These are the activities that separate being a writer from a published author. A lot of being a writer is a grind because …
Lesson #3: Writing is Work
I became a better writer the second I accepted this truth. Writing is work. Thinking about it like an art is a recipe for failure.
My job was to produce writing hours. A job is something you have to do … even if you don’t want to. That meant that, in addition to my actual job as a high school English teacher (a time-consuming job in itself), I had to find time to write. Early in the morning before anyone else woke up, during lunch breaks, at night when my kids went to sleep. Since it was my job to produce writing hours, I wrote … even when I really didn’t want to.
It didn’t matter what was going on that day.
Kid being born? I wrote that day.
Going rope drop to fireworks at Disney? I wrote that day.
Global pandemic? I wrote that day.
But, Dougie Fresh, what if you had writer’s block that day?!
Lesson #4: There Is No Such Thing As Writer’s Block
I will fight any writer to the death on this. Writer’s block is bullshit. It’s an excuse. If you sit around waiting for the muse to show up, you’re going to sit around with your thumb up your butt doing a whole lot of nothing for a very long time.
This goes along with treating writing like a job instead of an art. If you work or you have kids or you’re an active member of the human race, you can’t waste time sitting around waiting to be inspired. Sometimes you just have to write … whether you want to or not. It’s this kind of thinking that has helped me write every single day for nearly a decade.
And I found that there are ways to work around Writer’s Block …
Lesson #5: Have Your Thumb In Multiple Pies (Not Corona-Era Approved)
The best way to defeat Writer’s Block is to have multiple projects going on at all times. While I’m working on my novel, I might also be editing a short story or researching indie publishers or conducting research for my next novel. That way, if you don’t feel like working on one project, you can work on something else writing related and still be productive. Then when you quit being a whiny bitch, you can get back to writing. Ultimately, the goal should be to always be working toward completion on something. And when you do finish …
Lesson #6: Celebrate Your Victories … Big and Small
When you’re a writer, you need to be your toughest critic but also your most enthusiastic supporter. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else? Working toward publication can be a lonely endeavor and not everyone in your life will “get it” or understand how important it is to you. That’s why you need to celebrate when you reach your goals.
Met a weekly hours goal? TREAT YOSELF!
Finished that first draft? TREAT YOSELF!
Got a short story acceptance? TREAT YOSELF!
It took me a little less than a decade to reach 10,000 writing hours. It would have been a depressing journey had I not celebrated some smaller victories along the way. I remember when I received the email informing me a short story of mine was accepted for publication. That was my first official writing credit. My wife was working the night shift at the hospital so I remember dancing with my cat and then drinking a Captain and Coke. That became my ritual for all my writing victories … drinking a Captain and Coke. I still dance with my cat, too … when I can find her.
Hopefully some of these lessons can help you on your own writer’s journey. May your writing sojourn be filled with multitudes of captains, cokes, and frolicking felines!
If you want to read one of the fruits of my 10,000-hour harvest, check out my dystopian comedy, Trumptopia! The United States of Walmart.