Expert Shmexpert, Just Write The Freakin’ Thing

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This picture has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but it is pretty awesome.

There’s a theory out there that states in order to become an expert at something, you have to have 10,000 hours of practice at it. This theory was shot to the world by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers. The general gist of Gladwell’s book was there are people who are exceedingly good at doing stuff and what did it take for them to get really good at it? He did some research and used (or misused, depending on who you talk to) the research Anders Ericsson did into what makes people masters of stuff.

Gladwell theorized that at 10,000 hours of practice of doing something, you hit this magical tipping point of greatness and automatically became an expert it by virtue of having done it a whole lot. Outliers became a huge best seller. It’s still sitting at #664 in Amazon’s best sellers. That’s not in a particular category, either, it’s #664 in all of Amazon.

Not bad for a nine-year-old book. Especially one based on a faulty interpretation of what Anders Ericsson’s research actually said. You see, Outliers had some flawed logic in it and that magical 10,000 hour tipping point to greatness isn’t quite so carved in stone as Gladwell would have us believe. In fact, Ericsson’s research didn’t show a 10,000 tipping point and it showed some people could become masters in significantly less time than 10,000 hours, while others could take upwards of 25,000 hours to become masters. A lot of it comes down to not only how much you practice doing something, but how you practice doing it. In other words, quantity of practice isn’t as important as quality of practice. 10,000 hours of doing something wrong will just encode that bad behavior. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Now, I’m not trying to dog on Malcolm Gladwell or in any way diminish his work. Not that he gives two tugs of a dead dog’s dick what I think about him, but even though his logic may have been on the flawed side – something even Anders Ericsson has said – Gladwell was absolutely correct about one thing: if you want to be good at something, do it a lot.

When I first started this blog, I got a comment from someone who said he really wanted to write a book. My response was, “Go write it.” Whoever it was, and I apologize for forgetting his name, replied that he wanted to get better at writing before he tackled writing a book. Or words to that effect. Someday someone will dredge up that comment and prove me wrong, but work with me for now and pretend I’ve got the kind of eidetic memory I like to pretend I have.

The thing is, especially looking back at Ericsson’s research, you can’t get better at something if you don’t do it. Sitting around all day, pondering the ins and outs of that story you want to write is worlds away from sitting around all day actually writing that story you want to write. And guess what? You don’t need permission, you don’t need a year off to kick around Europe (or America, if you happen to be from Europe) looking for inspiration. You only need two things to write: a story to tell and some way to write it.

If the story is already circulating inside your skull, great. Write it down. There are tools galore for writing a book. Technically, you could do it with purloined Bic pens and a lot of cocktail napkins, but if you want to enter the modern era, all you need is a cheap computer and a copy of Open Office.

Don’t expect magic. Don’t expect to blow the doors off the literary world with your first cut. Do expect to spend time writing. Lots of time. Like more than you expect. Henchmen took a few months to write. Transmute took about six months to write. Greetings From Sunny Aluna was around the same. That’s part time, of course, usually an hour or two a night. None of those have blown the doors off the literary world.

While it may seem daunting to gaze at the idea of spending months (or years in some cases) writing a book, this is where you get to employ Ericsson’s research. Every minute you spend makes you better by a minute amount, especially if you’re trying to write well. While you may never hit a tipping point at 10,000 hours and suddenly find yourself the greatest writer, like, ever, you will get better at it.

I guess my point is this: if you want to be really good at something, you have to do that thing. It doesn’t really matter what thing is, you have to actually do it before you can get better at it. Once you start doing it, you’ll naturally find it easier and easier to do, especially once those reviews start coming in and you find yourself wondering why “just” was such an important word that it was in the manuscript 400 times. Edit and move on.

If you want to write a book, go write it. Don’t wait to become an expert writer before you write a book, because the only way to become an expert book writer is to write a book. Just like the best way to become an expert on punching is to hit something, or the best way to become an expert at cycling is to ride a bike.

Of course, after it’s written comes the really scary part: letting someone else read it. But kick the emotional attachment to the curb and listen to what people have to say. That’s the quality of practice portion of doing stuff a lot.

Thoughts? Comments? You know where you can put ’em. Just below in the comments field.

5 thoughts on “Expert Shmexpert, Just Write The Freakin’ Thing

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had so much natural talent that we could do anything with the ease of a master? Yeah . . . dreamworld. Our second-oldest son is, by far, the best musician in our house, and though he has a lot of natural talent, he practices constantly. He’s self-taught and has put more hours into learning about scales, alternate guitar tunings, techniques and style than most people would bother to, but it shows every time he picks up a guitar—because he’s reaping the rewards of the effort he’s sown.

    I’m currently editing a really awful MS, and the author has told me she’s already writing a second book and is excited about it. I’m not. I want to tell her to STOP and learn from what I’m fixing in the current book before she puts even one more word on the page of the next one. She’s practicing imperfectly, attempting to go further without actually learning from her starting point.

    • That feedback loop is important to getting better. Do it, get suggestions on how to do it better, get better. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate negative reviews if they include something actionable.

  2. In this case, I fear there’s a disconnect between wanting to write a book and wanting to actually learn the craft. The only things that have been worked on are items that I specifically mention. No more, no less. I’ve heard from many authors like you that they would rather have negative feedback if they can learn from it than the “this is wonderful” type of comment with no actual substance to it.

    • I’ve edited a couple books like that. I always feel a bit guilty handing back a manuscript with 10+ notes on each page, but I hope it helps out. Of course, that’s only if the writer takes the time and effort to internalize what was wrong and how to avoid it in the future.

  3. Pingback: Twittering | Eric Lahti

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