Not long ago I re-read my first published book, Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite (originally released as The Serendipity Effect). The book was out of print and I had applied – successfully – to have the rights reverted.
I’ve since revised, updated, and enlarged the content and reissued the book, but looking over the original copy was an unsettling experience. Much of the material was still current, many of the stories were still engaging, but the writing – ouch!. The mysterious qualities we call tone, voice and style seemed vapor thin. Some of the story structures, especially the leads, sounded awkward. And there was a proliferation of dead language – “hads’, “beens”, and “weres” dotting every page: I’ve learned to avoid those now.
The writing I did then does not resemble the writing I do now. Of course, the explanation is pretty obvious. I’ve developed as a writer in that span of 20 plus years. But in what way, I wonder.
Recently I read about some revealing research in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:The Story of Success. Termed the “10,000 Hour Rule”, it’s based on a study conducted by Dr. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University.
Ericsson found that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any skill. There are many examples of excellence to support the claim…Sports figures like Wayne Gretzsky who put in 10,000 hours as a kid practicing on a backyard rink… Musicians like the Beatles who paid their pre-fame dues singing for endless nights in dingy pubs across Europe…Race car drivers like Mario Andretti who whirled around the track gaining 10,000 hours of driving skill before demolishing the competition.
Since Gladwell popularized the 10,000 Hour Rule, critics have pointed out that achieving excellence is not quite as simple as putting in X number of hours. At least two other factors come into play:
- How time is portioned out must be considered. Ten minutes of concentrated effort can yield more than an hour spent gazing at a blank page.
- Natural talent is a huge factor, too. Some people have it; others don’t. There’s no way, for example, that 10,000 hours of rink time could have ever transformed me – the most awkward and uncoordinated of kids – into a Great One. Not even 20,000 hours could do that.
Despite the limitations of the 10,000 Hour Rule, there is a thread of truth to it. Applied to writing and assuming some level of starting talent, dedicated practice should make one a better writer. But better at what? Probably a lot of things, but for me, revision tops the list.
My hunch is that thousands of hours of writing practice coupled with thousands of hours of reading hardwires the brain and strengthens connections between these two expressive-receptive partners. The payoff comes when we revise. Experience gives us a refined grasp of rhythm, pace and flow. We intuitively sense how readers might interpret passages we string together. We know whether our message is clear or muddled. With practice comes a heightened awareness of what works and what doesn’t. And with practice comes a longer list of strategies we can use to shore up or repair damaged spots.
In their book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry discuss one of the more difficult aspects of revision – “killing the baby”. It’s a graphic term that describes what it feels like when a writer cuts out major portions – entire sections or even chapters – because they no longer serve a purpose in the larger piece. It’s especially painful when these are the writer’s favourite portions and contain cherished characters, creative twists, or particularly clever wording.
Novice writers often do not recognize when “killing the baby” is necessary, nor do they have the confidence to do it, but to Eckstut and Sterry the ability to cut without mercy is the mark of a true professional: “Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer,” they say. “But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
If there’s a hopeful message here, it might be this: Keep writing. Hone your craft. Thoughtful practice pays off. Looking over my early work, I know that a little “killing” will be necessary before I can do anything more with it. Now that I am closer to the 10,000 hour mark, I might even be wise enough to do it.