What I Didn’t Say in My Broadsheet Essay on Outliers

OutliersMy 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.

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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.

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What I Didn’t Say in My Broadsheet Essay on Outliers — 4 Comments

  1. I think the biggest component for getting better at writing–not just practicing, but improving–is analysis. You can practice all day, but as you said above, just typing more of the same isn’t pushing you to the next level; it’s the analysis, the picking apart of the writing and figuring out what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it, that helps the most. That’s why brutally honest feedback is so important, because writers are too close to their work a lot of the time to see flaws. Once my writing flaws are pointed out to me, they’re glaring and I can fix the flaws and my writing improves drastically.

    I think analysis is the work (besides the actual writing) that contributes to the 10,000 hours Gladwell talks about. Analysis of one’s own work, analysis of other authors’ works, and analysis of the language.

    (I just recently read Outliers as well, and it was both humbling and inspiring–it led me to go over my own life and count all the opportunities and advantages I myself was given, and I’m a big believer in the concept that with enough (of the right kind of) work, success is always achievable.)

  2. Well, there’s the “million words of crap” truism (you must write a million words of crap in order to become a good writer).

    If there are 250 words on a page, and a writer can write two pages an hour (just for example), then 10,000 hours would produce 20,000 pages or five million words.

    That’s a lot of practice.

  3. Pati, using your figures, perhaps only the first million words are crap, and the next four million are how you move from adequate to world class!

    Lynn, I think you’re absolutely right about the need for honest feedback. And you have to learn to listen for the real problem, which may not be the problem your reader points out. Steps on the way, I guess.

  4. I first heard the “million words” statement in 1995 from Harry Turtledove, at the first convention I ever attended. Mike and I went, and we sat in the front row of a couple of panels – appalled by the “Valkyrie Hat Guy” (still around, have seen him many times since) and another chap that I haven’t since seen who definitely needed some hygeine counseling.

    Chitchatting the other night with Mike about this very topic, he said, “Well you had to write about a million words.” I told him I had about a million words in print now, and cogitated about how much fiction I’d probably written before making my first sale. About 250,000 words, I think. It did take approximately 5 years of consistent work (10,000 hours) to get anywhere.