Does the 10,000 Hour Rule Apply to Writers?


David Silverman,
M.A., LMFT

Does the 10,000 Hour Rule Apply to Writers?

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.” — Daniel Levitin, Neurologist

As a therapist and a writer, I see how this rule can apply to both fields. Clearly, as therapists we have 3,000 hours of internship, with input from experienced supervisors. I can see it taking 10,000 hours to “perfect” one’s abilities as a counselor. 

What does this “rule’ mean for writers or screenwriters? Does it take 10,000 hours to become a great writer?

In his book, The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what he called “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” According to the rule, no matter what field you’re in, long hours, days and even years are required for you to master your craft. To clarify, just putting in the hours does not guarantee you will be a success. Also, the depth and quality of your practice and the feedback you get on your work can speed up the process.

Gladwell writes about the Beatles and Bill Gates. He asks how they became the best in their fields? What did they have in common? His answer? He theorizes that the people who rise to those levels have all spent long, long hours preparing, practicing and mastering their own disciplines.

The Beatles started out in 1960, playing in Hamburg, Germany. However, they weren’t very well received. They spent years rehearsing and played long hours in German night clubs. By 1964, when they finally did become international sensations, the Beatles had played over 1,200 concerts together.

Bill Gates met Paul Allen, his friend and future business partner in high school. They were just kids when they started writing computer code. That was 1968. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft with Allen, he’d logged way, way over 10,000 hours.

What about screenwriters like Diablo Cody? You hear about “first time” screenwriters like her, who are discovered out of the blue, and called “overnight sensations.” Cody was 28 when her screenplay Juno was produced and became a hit film. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won her an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Most award-winning screenwriters have a long track record of both failures and success. They’ve been able to hone their craft over the years. They’ve done endless rewrites on scripts in the development process and on movie sets. They’ve learned from their mistakes, so they’ve had thousands of hours to perfect their craft. 

So, when someone like Cody wins an Oscar for what people are calling her “first screenplay,” does that prove Gladwell’s theory is wrong?

Consider this: people assumed she just started writing, and thousands of writers thought they, too, could become overnight sensations. The truth is Cody had been writing poetry, short stories, journaling and even blogging for most of her life. She started at 12. In fact, ten years before Juno was written, she was promoting a novel on The Late Show with David Letterman. She clearly exceeded her 10,000 hours.

How long is that many hours in years? If you wrote for three hours a day, it would take about ten years. This is why the kids who started at 12 have an edge. That’s a lot of time. Does that mean you have to wait ten years to see success as a writer? No. But it does suggest you’re going to need a few years of practice. Most MFA Screenwriting programs run about two to three years.

You can’t always wait ten years to get paid to write, especially if you’re just starting out of college. That’s why I recommend writing plays, novels, short stories, or even nonfiction to start out. Get them published or produced. Write Indy shorts, or features. When you get to see your work produced, it’s a huge encouragement.

You need to be good, but you don’t have 10,000 hours of practice to work on a TV writing staff. It’s expected that you’ll learn and grow writing episodes, with a staff full of writers to learn from. I can’t imagine a better place to perfect your craft, while earning a lot of money, than writing for television.

Let’s say you’re good at writing jokes. You get a job on a late-night talk show writing jokes. After a few years, you get really, really good at it. You can count those hours. 5,000 hours writing for Conan or Jimmy Kimmel, will get you closer to becoming a successful comedy writer.

A good example — a lot of the Simpsons’ writers, started out spending a few years writing for David Letterman. Another large segment of Simpsons’ writers started out writing for the Harvard Lampoon. The hours writing for a humor magazine, or a talk show will definitely help get you closer to the hours needed to master your craft.

Getting paid to learn and practice doing what you love to do is the best scenario possible. I can’t recommend that road highly enough.

Can anything speed the process? Whereas practice matters, I think experience is better. You can call it a “feedback loop.” Getting feedback in the form of notes from qualified individuals and making corrections can accelerate your learning. The same goes for seeing your work in rehearsals or table reads, and doing rewrites.

So more hours of practice will help you, but practice with feedback will help you more. 

Image credit: Creative Commons, c.e.m.e.t.e.r.y. II, 2005, by Aldo Cauchi Savona, is licensed under CC By 2.

David Silverman, M.A., LMFT, treats creative and highly sensitive individuals in private practice in LA. Having experienced the rejection, stress, creative blocks, and career reversals over a long career as a writer in Film/TV, he’s uniquely suited to work with gifted, creative and sensitive clients experiencing anxiety, addiction or depression. Contact David at silverman.email@gmail.com or 310.850.4707.