Applying the 10,000 hour rule to writing

I’ve been reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and have just read chapter two about the 10,000 Hour Rule. This is new to me, though it has been around for a while. The theory is that in order to succeed you need to put in your apprenticeship first, working 10,000 hours to perfect your skill.

Malcolm Gladwell


Gladwell mentions:-
– The Beatles [above] who broke America in 1964. Lennon and McCartney first started playing together seven years before in 1957. As a struggling school band, they were invited to Hamburg and played hundreds of concerts there between 1960-1964. By all accounts they were pretty awful on stage at the beginning. It was an accident that Liverpool bands were invited to Hamburg, but it gave them the chance to learn their craft on stage.
– Mozart, whose first ‘masterpiece’ was at the age of 21 when he’d already been composing for 10 years.
– Bobby Fischer, who became a chess grandmaster after nine years of playing.
– Bill Joy [below], co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who just happened to live near the University of Michigan’s new Computer Centre at which he was able, as a teenager, to program for hours and hours. Like Bill Gates [bottom], he was a nerdy boy who happened to live in one of the rare places in the US where advanced computers were available at that time.

Malcolm Gladwell

[photo: Wikipedia]

Malcolm Gladwell


Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin: “… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no-one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” But Gladwell also acknowledges that other things have to fall into place at the same time, things we don’t necessarily control, to enable expertise to achieved ie the invitation to Liverpool bands to play in Hamburg. Without that invitation, would The Beatles have learned their stagecraft?

So does the 10,000 hour rule apply to novelists as well as to Andy Murray, Venus and Serena Williams, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Chris Hoy? Would JK Rowling [below] fit the model? How many hours did she spend writing before publishing HP1?

Malcolm Gladwell

[photo: JP Masclet for Bloomsbury]

I don’t know the answer about JK, but I have totted up my hours. After 30 years as a journalist, I have been writing fiction for the last 12 years. I have completed Ignoring Gravity, a 98,000 word novel [edited from a first draft of 140,000 words] which I regard as a huge learning curve; set aside Tiara, an overly-ambitious half-written novel of 31,000 words until a later date; and am 80,000 words into my second novel Connectedness. I have outlines for two more books. Excluding journalism, two years of creative writing study at Birkbeck University of London, and numerous short stories, I have written a quarter of a million words. I have no idea how to calculate the total number of writing hours that equals. In writing those 250,000 words I have learned one thing: writing is not simply about having an idea and putting words onto the page – if it was, it would be easier and more people would be successful authors. It is about hours of reading, thinking, daydreaming, developing ideas, writing sketches, constructing worlds and plotlines and challenges for the characters I invent. Then setting them free to do things I hadn’t even considered possible when I had the first idea.

So I am not going to try to calculate how many hours I have spent writing fiction. I’m going off to write now…

Read more about Outliers and The 10000 Rule here.

Malcolm Gladwell


‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell [UK: Penguin]


And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Applying the 10,000 hour rule to #writing via @SandraDanby


  1. Thank you for directing me to your post. Glad you enjoyed Outliers. I try to set an average for every week so that I can more accurately calculate the hours I write.

  2. Sophie Nussle

    I have no idea how to calculate those hours either, but your final sentences is one of the best descriptions of the writing process I’ve ever read. Do you count those sudden waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night moments when you have a plot breakthrough or a new idea for a character? Or that time when your friend is smoking a clove cigarette and you know your protagonist would do that too?

      • Sophie Nussle

        …and night! Do you find yourself waking up and in that half-sleep, half-waking stage, just ‘knowing’ something you are going to write – a solution, a new idea, a dialogue, a voice on the wind…?

  3. I’m glad I found this post today. Slumped on the sofa having a momentary gloomy moment about how long it’s going to take me to get a good result in a dressage competition – hopefully, less than 10,000 hours….