10,000 Hours to Learn to Write?

Hour after hour - photo by Susan L. davenport

How long do you think it should take a person to learn to write? A month, six months, a year? That’s what I thought when I first started, but now, I’m not so sure. I’m reading an excellent book, Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman, and she is making me rethink my assumptions.

I’m a beginning author, working on my first novel, with dreams of it being so special that everyone will love it. Enthralled with my own writing, I was blind to my mistakes, but then I got a writing coach and everything changed. After she covered my work with red marks I could no longer lie to myself; I’d made grammar errors, logic errors, POV errors; I didn’t even know what genre I was writing—you name it, and I had made that mistake.

My coach’s markups on my writing dented my dream slightly, so I started studying. I read about character development, plot arcs, grammar, sentence structure, timelines, voice, POV, dialog, internal dialog, . . . I just knew with all this studying my writing would be wonderful in no time at all.

Then I read Jane Friedman’s comment:

“I agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in Outliers: The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.”

What? I was planning on writing an award-winning novel in less than a year; surely she was wrong. I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math – 10,000 hours is around 3.5 years if you work eight hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a long time to practice before producing quality work.

I told my writing coach what I had read, fully expecting her to say: “It won’t take you that long.”  She didn’t. No, she agreed with Jane Friedman. My dream of a quick success popped out of existence, but I don’t give up easily.

I started wondering what it is about writing that takes so long to learn. Isn’t it just telling a story? Of course, I already knew it wasn’t that simple—my writing coach had taught me that, but it was unclear to me exactly what it was supposed to take me so long to learn.

By this time my writing had improved quite a bit. My writing coach was offering suggestions on sub-plots and character development instead of correcting my grammar. It was as if my writing skills had moved to another level.

I started wondering how many levels of knowledge there are in writing well. Could it be that Jane Friedman is right? Sadly, I suspect she is.

Jane Friedman also wrote:

“Make your book better than you ever thought possible—that’s what it needs to compete.”

That sounds like an excellent goal, even if it takes 3.5 years—my dream is back. What is your dream? How long would you be willing to work to achieve it?

cat clocks - photo by susan l. davenport



  • Friedman, J. (2015). Publishing 101: First-time Author's Guide. Jane Friedman.

  • Photographs taken in Don's Clocks, Lake Jackson, TX