the secret to becoming a successful published writer: putting the ‘deliberate’ into ‘deliberate practice’



You might love or hate Malcolm Gladwell, but since his book OUTLIERS came out the idea of “10,000 hours” has entered mainstream culture.

Gladwell argues:

When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.

I first heard this idea not from Gladwell but a writing teacher over twenty years ago, when I was 13 (and just starting to form some serious ambitions of my own). “Fiction writing,” she told me, “has a ten-year apprenticeship.” Years later, attending a workshop in San Diego as an unpublished writer, I heard this echoed in the words of a published novelist I went to dinner with: “It takes at least ten years to figure out what you’re doing,” he told me, “and in many cases, fifteen.”

Ten thousand hours equals…guess what? Ten years.

‘Practice’, though, turns out to be too general a term. If twenty years of experience can mean the same year of experience times twenty, then Gladwell’s rule can mean the same hour of crappy, half-hearted practice times ten thousand.

And that won’t get you very far.

It has to be the right kind of practice.

It’s called “deliberate practice”.

And according to Geoff Colvin,deliberate practice matters way more than talent (hence the title of his book about peak achievers, TALENT IS OVERRATED):

Understand that talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”

To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.

What separates the great from the rest is no secret. It’s like your mama told you. Nose to the grindstone.

….even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule…and as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years’ experience before hitting their zenith.

Except it has to be a particular type of grindstone.

Cal Newport has an excellent post at his blog Study Hacks that lists the characteristics defining DP, which he regards as “the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life.”


1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”

2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”

3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”

4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”

5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”

6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

(The characteristics of deliberate practice, as I pointed out in a blog post of my own, feed directly into ‘the zone’ or ‘state of flow’, where time disappears and you lose yourself in what you’re doing…which makes those ten thousand hours fly by a lot faster.)

Newport observes that

“most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”

It seems, then, that if you integrate any amount of DP into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to train an ability that’s both rare and valuable

Because as Colvin observes: “…. the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge.”

So what does ‘deliberate practice’ look like if you want to be a fiction writer in the twenty first century?

I sold three novels to two major publishers (Penguin and Simon & Schuster) and I’m still putting in a lot of deliberate practice of my own. I wrote my first novel when I was 14. I am now 37. And I’m just beginning to feel confident that I know what I’m doing.

If I could go back and give my younger self a blueprint for DP, it would look like the following. Some of this, I always did. Some of it, I could have done sooner and more often, and I would now be further ahead as a result.




Jan 21, 2010

14 comments · Add Yours

It’s really the core teaching. If I had to throw away everything else and follow one rule, in would be to engage in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

It took me 5 years of full-time work as a carpenter before I developed the skill set to handle more-or-less anything that came my way. That was 40 hours a week: 10,000 hours. But I also read about my work constantly, deliberately sought out knowledge from guys who were very good at what they did, and constructed learning projects for myself in areas that I couldn’t learn in my everyday work.

Likewise, seven or eight years ago I hatched a plan to learn French so that I could live happily in Montreal, which looked to me like about the best place on earth to live. But 10,000 hours was just too big a commitment. I wasn’t willing to make that the focus of my attention and my energy, in the way I had made carpentry and a few other things the focus. But thinking about it in those terms helped me to clarify a bunch of other things I wanted to do and why I wanted to do them. It led to enormous changes in my life.

Are you familiar with George Leonard’s masterpiece Mastery? (Leonard: 5 years to a black belt in Aikido). Leonard spent years profiling elite athletes for Esquire magazine. It’s a great book, which talks at length about what the path of 10,000 hours looks and feels like, why it’s so easy to get blown off course, and how to stay focused.


Looking forward to the continuation.


Reading Outliers heavily impacted my 2009. I got the book for my birthday in January and read it in a few days. Because this writing gig can be rough, and I jumped into it full time without a net, I was feeling pretty low about that time. The concept of 10,000 hours, though, shifted my mindset entirely.


Thanks for this. When I read it, I saw the mistake I’ve made — over the past ten years, I’ve produced an absurd collection of first drafts, but never learned to edit.

Which is absurd, because now I discovered that’s where the fun is.


I completely agree with this, 10,000 is comming up soon for me, and I feel another 10,000 could do me well.


Yay, you’re back. I missed you.

(I love Montreal, by the way; if I ever went back to live in Canada — which I never will, because I am so rooted in LA now — I would want to live in Montreal.)

Haven’t read MASTERY but immediately ordered it from Amazon.

“But thinking about it in those terms helped me to clarify a bunch of other things I wanted to do and why I wanted to do them. It led to enormous changes in my life.”

It really does, doesn’t it? Not just in terms of what you want to *do*, but how good you feel you have to get in order for the activity to feel worthwhile (and for it to justify taking time away from other pursuits). I don’t need to be a master chef, for example, but the ability to cook for friends & family is important to me. It’s just not the 10,000 hours kind of important.


Thanks. Posts like this never attract the kind of traffic certain other posts do, so I’m conscious of writing them for a smaller group, which makes that group all the more important to me.


Same with mine. It implies that success is not simply a matter of luck and chance. Your best shot at success is becoming the best writer it’s possible for you to be, and there’s nothing ‘lucky’ about that: it’s just a matter of time and work, & the willingness to do it….I just reread Seth Godin’s ‘The Dip’ and as he puts it, ‘the dip’ is your friend: the ability to push through ‘the dip’, that part where learning and/or doing something gets so tough that most people quit, is an opportunity to separate yourself from the competition. Push through the dip, and suddenly the odds are so much more in your favor.


That’s totally where the fun is. I love to edit. I love to revise. The first draft, for me, is the hell part.


I started young, so I’ve probably logged more than 10,000 by now, but I agree — another 10,000 will do me well & I’m curious to see what kind of writer I can be at that point & what I’ll be writing.


Yeah, my dip was late last spring and it was terrible, but pushing through it was about the best thing I could’ve ever done.


Absolutely love this post.


Great post! I couldn’t agree more!

Question, though:

I’m assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the 10,000 hours does NOT include the reading of books deliberately (or even watching films deliberately, as story and plot development lessons). What do you think of that?

Honestly, I’ve selected many books lately that would not be on my first-choice list to read, and the goal has been to learn about genres and styles.

I’ve been subsequently startled by my newfound love for the nonfiction method of plot and story.

I’ve been irritated enough by some books to look up the genres they are listed in – and swear not to submit to those genres, as those are incompatible with my writing style and expectation.

I’ve been intrigued to find that my loathing for first person POV is not as deep as I thought, and some of my writing has begun to reflect this.

I’ve been surprised by excellent choices of tense and mood that I would have sworn would never work.

I’ve been swept away by genres that I never thought I’d like, while old favorites are getting swept under the rug.

By examining the myriad gestations of a particular trope (vampires, for instance), I have realized what to look for when trying to decide whether something works or not in one of my stories. I can see much better when something is forced.

So this brings me back to the question: Does the reading count towards that 10,000 hours?


I find the 10,000 hours of practice ‘rule’ to be both liberating and depressing.

Liberating because it frees me from believing that I must be good at many things and, as Dan Owen mentions, helps in letting go of a lot of superficial interests and stuff that clutters my time, life and space.

Depressing because I’m mid-forties and I am certain that I’ve spent most of my life *not* deliberately practicing anything but instead lived by reacting and responding to circumstances. Rather than defining and pursuing what I want to create (and putting in the deliberate 10,000+ hours), I have instead drifted and dabbled and diffused my attention and focus across many things.

I’m sure there I have some strengths that make me useful to the organizations I work for (or maybe not; who knows). But I haven’t applied deliberate practice to any of those, and I spend too much time working in areas that I’m weak.

Now, I can decide to freak out, buy the hot sports car and date a blond chic half my age and try to blot out the missed opportunity to focus on a core thing, or I can get to work defining what I want to create 10-15 years from now and get started with the deliberate practice.




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