It has been estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything resembling a career. Orson Scott Card has said, “Since every writer has about ten thousand pages of utter drivel in them, you might as well start now so you can get a good portion of that out of your way while you’re still young. After all, you learn more about writing from writing a 100,000-word manuscript than you ever will from any writing class or writing book.” (Fiction Factor citation)
This means you need to write a lot and write often. How many years will it take? It depends on how much you write each day.
There is plenty of room for individual variation. Some will work harder and increase their skill faster as they learn more and produce more. Others will sit at the keyboard for an hour and only produce one sentence. 10,000 pages seems to be a better gauge than 10,000 hours.
Individual variations aside, how does that 10,000 hours/pages break down in the long view?
Assuming you’re producing one page per hour, here are some estimates:
40 hours a week takes 5 years.
20 hours a week takes 10 years.
10 hours a week takes 20 years.
5 hours a week takes 40 years.
1 hour a week takes 200 years.
Now it’s getting ridiculous, so let’s look in the other direction. Someone who has a means to pay the bills without a job could bump up the rate.
80 hours a week takes 2.5 years.
More hours than that is pretty much impossible. Sleep 8 hours a night and you have 112 waking hours a week. Less the 80 hours of writing leaves about 4.5 hours a day, but you need to eat, shower and have some diversions so you don’t go insane. If you decided sanity was overrated and put in 100 hours a week, it would still take two years.
It’s clear that you can’t become an expert writer overnight. As Card says, it’s best to get working on writing out the drivel as soon as possible. How can you speed things up?
Writing the 10,000 Pages of Drivel
Whether you’ve just started writing seriously or have been at it for years, you will want to get those 10,000 pages out of the way. You can do some of those pages as first drafts of your important writing. By also working on some less important kinds of writing, you can write faster and that will also make you faster at writing first drafts.
This is one of the easiest and fastest ways to write a lot. Nobody is going to read your journal entries. You can write about anything. Rant about problems you’ve seen lately. Make up a ridiculous short story. Try to explain something you learned ten years ago and haven’t used since. Summarize the last book your read or the last movie you watched.
Experiment with types of writing you don’t think you’d be good at. Write bad poetry. Write recipes. Write your autobiography showing how you’ve succeeded at life and then write it again showing how you’ve failed. Explore the personality types you’ve had to adopt for different jobs. Tell short stories from your life and then re-write them as fictional stories for an imaginary character.
It’s amazing how much drivel you can produce when you know that nobody else will ever see it.
Silly short stories and articles
When you are working on ideas for good short stories and articles, there are always silly ideas that come up. Go ahead and write them. You might want to mark them as drivel. Or not. I’ve seen some of my silly writing ideas turn into good ideas. Give up on hoping they’ll work out and you’ll be able to write them faster.
Examples? Sure. For non-fiction, how about, “How to Change a Flat Tire Without Stopping”. You’ll need two people so one can drive while the other changes the tire. It will help if the spare and tire iron are in the back seat so the person changing the tire doesn’t have to go through too many acrobatics while the car is up on two wheels. What are the steps?
Once you have the ridiculous title, the article will almost write itself. “How to Kill a Polar Bear with a Pointy Rock”. “Five Ways to Win at Russian Roulette”. “How to Steal Pens from NASA”.
For fiction, “Obama versus Megatron”. “There Once Was a Chicken”. “Obese Odie and the Cross Country Road Race”.
Failed novels and nonfiction books
Card is right about the 100,000 word manuscript teaching you a lot about writing. This time, you shouldn’t pick something silly. If you succeed in finishing the manuscript, it would be nice if it was marketable. Just keep in mind that the first draft can be horrible and you’ll produce about 500 pages of bad writing quickly. If it has potential, then do the revisions.
I read a story once somewhere about an English teacher who had trouble getting his students to finish a term assignment of writing a short book. Then he hit on the idea of changing the assignment to writing the worst book ever written. After that change, all of his students finished their manuscripts. The trick is to stop trying to be a great writer when you’re only writing a first draft.
Reading is not writing
You need to read lots of writing tips to help you improve your craft, but reading alone won’t do. Put what you learn into practice so it will stick. Researchers have found that we need to repeat something three times before we remember it. Read a writing tip. Use the writing tip in your writing. Read the tip again at a later date.
Read as much as you can about writing and put it into practice. Use the drivel factor to your advantage. Everything you write can be part of that 10,000 pages of drivel. In time, all of your drivel will be first draft writing that you take through to a marketable final draft.
Article text copyright 2012 David Arthur Smith. All Rights Reserved.