I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. An outlier is someone or thing that deviates significantly from the rest of the group. Gladwell writes about several very successful people and offers explanations as to why they rose above the pack. While his book has its critics, he raises some interesting points on why certain people achieve not just success but mega success.
Gladwell sees Accumulated Advantage as a key reason for success. Advantages accumulate when one break leads to another and another. Not just brains and talent, most successful people have more than their fair share of good luck and they make the most of it.
Chance created an advantage for four working class blokes from Liverpool. Through a friend of a friend, The Beatles were given and seized the opportunity to become the house band at a German club. In Liverpool they played a few gigs a month. In Hamburg, they played all night, every night for months at a time. Thousands of hours of public performance time helped them develop confidence, an extensive repertoire and an audience.
Early access to a computer helped Bill Gates become a software mogul. It’s hard to fathom today but in 1968 the eighth grade Bill Gates attended the ONLY middle school in the country with a computer. He was one of a tiny handful of fledgling software programmers (of any age) with computer time at their fingertips. In high school he finagled his way into the University of Washington computer room. The computer was only available in the middle of the night so Bill snuck out of the house at 2 a.m. Like The Beatles, Gates spent hours and hours of hard work developing and perfecting his skills. He seizedthe advantage.
Which begs the next question, how much practice do you need to succeed? Although his book is big on anecdote and weak on data, Gladwell suggests that regardless of your chosen field, 10,000 hours are critical for success.
What does all this mean for you as a writer? It simply means that if you want to be successful, you have to seize every opportunity and then some to write. So how close are you to 10,000 hours? As important, what kind of writing are you booking against your 10,000 hours? Is it the writing equivalent of fooling around in your parent’s garage or, like The Beatles, an intense forty-eight week gig as a house band?
If you are not yet writing professionally, it can be tempting to focus on quantity over quality, to get a new post on your blog every day or capture the latest angst or idea in your journal. The power of blogging is its immediacy and that gem in your journal may be critical to your first novel. Just don’t stop there if you want to get published. In fact, I’d like to suggest that you spend most of your writing time focusing on finished pieces.
Good writing is more than content, more than ideas. Good writing wraps words around the idea and creates meaning and mood with thoughtful, coherent sentences. It weaves those sentences into paragraphs and the paragraphs into a story. The best, maybe the only, way to improve your craft is to spend time and energy on each and every part of the process; from idea to the first rough draft to writing, rewriting, final polish and proofreading. You don’t need an editor, publisher and audience to produce great work.
At least once a week write a polished story. If you love movies, write insightful reviews. If you are interested in politics, write thoughtful editorials. Write flash fiction, love letters or your memoirs; push yourself and strive for flawless perfection.
Write, rewrite and polish but have a deadline and stick to it. When it’s done, post it on your blog, file it, send it to a friend or throw it in trash. And then walk away. Don’t worry about it. It’s perfect enough. Next week, every week, do it again. The more you write the better you’ll get. Before long you’ll have a nice collection.
Almost five years ago with nothing more than a few Word documents, a local newspaper group gave me a weekly food column. I was delighted, proud but most of all surprised. I had no food writing experience but (and it’s a big BUT) I had spent a lot more than 10,000 hours writing and polishing business memos and strategic plans, white papers and promotional copy. I was technically adept and had a great topic. One thing led to another and I began writing for magazines.
Every week, I spend as much time as I can find working on my craft. Writing. Rewriting. Polishing. More than 6,000 hours and 350 stories later, it’s getting better all the time.
Susan Nye is a writer, blogger, photographer and chef. Her favorite topics are family, food, green living, marketing and branding. She invites you to take a minute to learn about her philanthropic project Eat Well – Do Good © Susan W. Nye, 2011