It was Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers who popularised the idea of the 10,000 hour rule – the notion, supported by a weight of scientific research, that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to become an expert in anything.
Quite often people who aspire to be writers ask me for advice. They will say things like: “I have been thinking of writing a book …” It’s as though they are asking for my permission. And, though it’s clearly not mine to give, I say to them ‘yes, if that’s what you want to do please go ahead, start writing now, without delay.’
But they are worried that it won’t be any good, that the great book which is inside their head might turn out to be a bad book when it’s on the page. And they are right to worry – it probably won’t be any good, there’s a strong chance it will be terrible. But that’s not the point, the point is that they will have taken the first steps on a long road, the road to learning a skill.
Some people are disappointed on hearing the news that it will take them time to become good writers. They don’t want to practice, they want to be great right now – straight out of the box. Perhaps they think they already are great – they shared a few scraps with their friends, their partner, someone, and they were assured more perfect prose had never been written.
So it can be deflating to realise that becoming a good writer is like becoming a good anything else, it takes hard work and hours of practice. But, personally, I find the 10,000 hour rule to be a positive idea, it’s very democratizing.
It destroys the idea of exceptionalism, you don’t have to have been born a genius, you don’t even have to have been born rich or privileged or gone to the right school or university, though these things will help you hugely when trying to break into the exclusive world of top end publishing. To be a good writer what you need is practice and lots of it.
The Chinese say: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
So get on and start writing. Eventually you will get good.