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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

2. Become a Successful Writer in 2,000 Hours (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 2 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series (NEW: Buy the book HERE).

2. Become a Successful Writer in 2,000 Hours
I've read before that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something before you become an expert at it. I consider myself an expert in Project Management. I used to be an expert in computer programming. I'm getting towards being an expert in writing.

10,000 is a lot of hours. It's about 5 years of working an 8 hour, 5 day week with a few vacations thrown in. Or if you write at, let's say 1,000 words an hour, it's 10,000,000 words of writing. That's a lot! Personally I think a better target would be about 2,000,000 words because if you wrote that many you would also have spent several times that editing and re-editing your work. I guess I've written close to a million words over my writing lifetime, but I'm not absolutely certain (I can definitely account for about 800,000). Either way, it's a lot of words.

How many words have you written during your writing career? Maybe you're on your first book, maybe your second. And let's say you've also written a few poems and short stories and a couple of articles and letters. Maybe you've written a total of 150,000 words. Still a long way to go to become an expert! Yet many authors consider they know everything even when they're nowhere near being an expert. I know there are still many things I can learn.

What sort of advice do you take? What books do you read to become a better writer? Who do you turn to, to get feedback? If you're that 150,000 word writer you certainly need to be taking advice from somewhere. And practicing. Practice makes perfect, so they say. Certainly practicing will hone your skills and help you learn the secrets to better grammar and plot development. You need to put in as many hours as you can in order to get better.

When I look back at my early works I cringe occasionally at what I wrote. Not that it was bad per se, but I know I could write it in a better way now. It's also not to say I'm ashamed of my first books, of course not. Every writer needs a first book and every successful author has one. Stephen King for example wrote about 10 full-length novels before his first one was successful. Then later he went back and re-edited some of his earlier works. It's a normal process.

As way of an example, what do you do for a day job? How long have you been doing it? What were you like at the beginning? Writing is just like that. It's not enough to have a good story and to know a little about writing, you need to put in your time to become an expert.

Successful writers have been writing a very long time. They didn't just wake up one day and write a book, having never written anything before, and then become successful. They put years into their writing, writing short stories, poems, and unfinished novels. They probably started writing when they were a child. I know I did, and I have all these other things too!

Try writing a list of everything you've ever written and add up the words. See where you are. Then do everything you can to crawl up that word experience ladder. Write some stories, just for fun. Experiment with formats you've never tried before. Rewrite something you wrote a long time ago - from scratch. The important thing is that you're just looking to get more experience. Then give these short stories away to friends to read. Get their feedback. Or even better, try and get an established author to critique your work for you.

But most important, don't get despondent. The road to success is just one of putting in the time. You can and you will succeed if you do the things necessary and learn all the lessons. Reading all the essays in this book and then putting them into practice will keep you on track.

And one more thing. Believe in yourself. Writing can be a very lonely job sometimes and it's normal to have periods of self-doubt. Those periods usually come after you've written something and then go back and re-read it a little later. You say to yourself "is this really any good?" Let me tell you a little secret. If you're writing a long story or a novel that will take a long time to complete, don't re-read it as you go. Trust yourself. Sure, you may need to check something in it from time to time, just don't re-read it all. Then, believe it or not, when you come back to the finished product a month or so later, it will be so much better. Stories have a way of maturing on their own sometimes. They just need a little time in the dark untouched to do so! (We will be covering this topic in more detail in another essay).

2,000 hours. You know the target now, so get writing!


  1. Found your blog through twitter. You've made very excellent points, here. I'm on book #8 and still learning. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Thanks for the advice. I won't re-read until a while after I've finished. :-)

  3. Interesting article. My thoughts.. it's not just the time but also what you do with it...

    I consider myself an expert writer, but I also believe you never stop learning and expanding your repertory. Or at least I don't want to.

    I also don't want to even begin to tally up the words - decades of scholarly writing, years of writing poetry, years of writing sales letters, ebooks, articles, etc. Years of teaching writing at the college level (primarily composition). How does writing emails and letters factor into that count?

    There are many different kinds of writing, and yes, you get better by writing, but I find that it's really more complicated than that.

    My personal writing skills for all sorts of writing took a huge leap upwards when I got into writing formal poetry and worked towards my MFA about a decade or so ago. It was great "finding the perfect word" training and really gave ALL my writing a big boost.'


  4. Good post. I spent years poised in a state of readiness. Writing is the only way to learn about writing. On my fifth novel now, my fourth has gone down really well. Getting there.

  5. Came upon this link in Twitter and glad to read this. To write you have to write. Period. Thanks for the reminder (and the slightly smaller number...)

    Judy Stone-Goldman
    The Reflective Writer
    Personal-Professional Balance Through Writing

  6. Hi Paul. (I've finally discovered why I couldn't post here before! so hopefully this will stay here when I click 'publish').

    Another insightful post as always. I personally have written about 500,000 (creative) words in my lifetime, and whenever I go back to an earlier work I am shocked at how my writing has progressed since that time. Of course, I have to completely rewrite the damned thing! (which then adds to the word count - how many rewrites HAVE I done??)

    I think it is important to separate creative words from other types of writing. For example, I have written 12 years worth of police statements, investigation notes etc which I don't believe make me a better writer of fiction - unless it's police-oriented fiction of course.

    Neither do emails etc help in this respect. It has to be *creative* writing which is, after all, our craft which we are constantly refining.

    Keep up the good work Mr Cox. The first round is mine!

  7. Nice post. I have over 10,000 hours of writing time in and with this next book, over 1.2 million words published plus all the stuff that's still in progress and unpublished. Still, I'm not an expert, but I can sure see improvement with each book (I'm also going back to re-edit my first books). Success, here I come... one of these years. ;-)

  8. So true! Thanks for all you share on twitter (that's how I found you), and here on your blog.

    I've been writing for years, both in the corporate world and short stories. There's one thing I know for certain - I have a LOT to learn.

    2,000 hours...I'm on it. :)


  9. I'm at about the 190k mark for my writing, so I have a long way to go!

  10. On'ya. Great stuff. I've been writing for 40-years and I NEVER want to stop learning. Every time I start pontificating at a writer's event, I bore my britches off. Much better to say: Hey! You wrote that? Tell me about it.....then I get to hear something new.