My essay reflecting on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success is now up on Broad Universe’s Broadsheet, and as often happens when I write nonfiction, I find I have something else to say.
Gladwell’s book is about people as “outliers” — those who are so successful in their fields that they outshine almost everyone else. He gives the lie to the idea that these people must be extraordinarily bright or ambitious, pointing out that other people as bright (or even brighter) and ambitious do not reach the same level of success.
Perhaps his most important point is that no one gets there alone. Success has a lot to do with family, culture, community, and even generation, according to Gladwell. Being born at the right time, with the right kind of family and community support and culture, will give the bright person who works hard a real opportunity to become successful on the world class level.
The other concept he talks about is hard work. Yes, having some aptitude for the field is important, but genius is not a requirement for world class success. People who are good enough, and work hard and effectively — the base amount of work for getting very good appears to be 10,000 hours — can develop a superstar talent. They may not become a huge successes (no one gets there alone), but they will be very, very good at what they do.
I’m very taken with that concept; I like the way it disposes of the idea that talent is inborn and you either have it or your don’t. And while many of the other factors Gladwell mentions are beyond any individual’s control, hard work is something anyone can do.
But what I didn’t get into in my essay was what kind of work was required. The 10,000-hour idea comes from work by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his ideas on deliberate practice. And the key is that it’s not just 10,000 hours of work, it’s 10,000 hours of the right kind of work.
Ericcson has spent many years studying the subject of expertise and deliberate practice. His most recent book on the subject is The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which runs 901 pages, and costs about $60 on Amazon. PDF selections from it can be found here. While I haven’t read his work, and find the idea of plowing through all that psychological research more than a little daunting, I would like to come to a better understanding of deliberate practice and how it applies to writers.
I suspect that most successful people have stumbled onto appropriate deliberate practice for their fields by accident. But perhaps we can come up with a general idea of what writers should do. What would a 10,000 hour regime of deliberate writing practice look like?
Obviously the first step is the most the most basic: sit down in that chair and write. Write a lot. But just writing the same thing over and over without thinking about it critically won’t make a writer into a super talent. What else is necessary?
Here’s the beginnings of a list. I hope others will add to it in the comments.
- Rewrite. Rewrite a lot.
- Read a lot of diverse works with a critical eye to structrue, form, and content.
- Find one or more persons whose opinions about your work you can trust. Listen to them.
- Work on your weak points. Of course, to do this, you must learn to recognize your weak points.
- Understand how the language you write in works, so you can use it to full advantage.
Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week is “We Are Golden.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.