Five million words.

That’s about a hundred NaNoWriMo winners worth of words.  More than most authors will publish in a lifetime. Yet it’s not far off what you need to write to become a good writer.

Ten Thousand Hours

There’s a theory, most famously expounded by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, that you need to spend about ten thousand hours practicing a skill before you get to the world class level. He cites The Beatles and Bill Gates amongst others as examples of this. There’s more to success than just putting in the hours, but it certainly counts for a big chunk of it.

So what counts as practice as a writer?

You’d think this was obvious, writing stuff, and maybe a bit of reading. However I’d disagree with that, or rather modify it a bit. What I think makes you increase in skill as a writer is literacy, and time to reflect on what you read and write. But you need to reflect and think critically about it. There’s a big difference between doing the same hour ten thousand times and doing ten thousand hours of something. That said, there’s no harm in repetition, after all that’s the core of editing. But each iteration should try to be incrementally better.

When it comes to writing most of us have already had quite a lot of hours of relevant practice. About a fifth of primary school is spent on directly relevant literacy lessons. That’s about 1,300 of the hours you need to start you off. There’s about the same again in high school, assuming you attended and paid attention. So most young adults have over a quarter of their ten thousand hours as a writer already in the bag. That’s way more than even a keen wannabe pop star will have managed on finishing high school.

Five Million Words

Five Million Words isn’t a random number. That’s what ten thousand hours of me writing would produce, based on my current rate of output rather than an average over my life so far.

When I first did NaNoWriMo in November 2012 I kept a record of how long I spent writing each day as well as the total word count. There was a range of writing rates, but 90% of them were in the 30-40 words per minute range. Taking the mid-point of 35 works, it’s within a single standard deviation of the median, mode and mean for the times I recorded. Also I’ve got faster since then, some of that is down to having completed an undergraduate creative writing course with the Open University.

You might have done some mental arithmetic there and gone, hang on, 35 words per minute over ten thousand hours is way more than five million words. You’d be right, it’s about four times that. But 35 words per minute is a typing speed, not a writing speed. It also doesn’t account for time spent editing and re-writing. I’ve done a fair amount of that in the last two and a half years. I’ve also reflected on how I go about writing and understood how the creative process works for me.

I probably spend as much time thinking about a story and re-telling it to myself in my head before I put finger to keyboard. After I’ve left the keyboard and it has time to settle there is about the same time again on a couple of successive drafts to polish it and improve it. Often this loses words, so far I end up about 10-20% shorter (but some stories have halved).

So that’s how I get from ten thousand hours to five million words.

How far have I got?

I’m not far off. My education probably accounts for about 3,000 hours. I did pay attention and I managed to get reasonable scores in my exams for English. I also went to university and wrote the odd essay or two (even though I mostly studied science).

I’ve also spent 22 years working as a civil servant, almost half of that has been spent in policy or strategy roles that have had very heavy writing components. I’ve always considered that my early years in the civil service were where I learnt to write well. I had a three year period in an internal consultancy unit where I was coached by two separate managers with Firsts from Oxbridge colleges in English. I also edited and proofed about forty publications by the unit in that time (including writing about ten of those as the primary author and contributing to another twenty). A number of other roles included writing for publication, including draft answers to Parliamentary Questions (a good PQ answer should be honest, accurate and demonstrably answer the question without being overly helpful) and media enquiries.

My progress on writing Five Million WordsI’d score myself at least another 6,000 hours from this work, putting me at about 9,000 hours in total. From there I’m going to switch to word count for the rest. If 10k hours is 5 million words, then a thousand hours is half a million words. That’s still a lot of words. 

So far I’ve written 100k words for NaNoWriMo entries. I’ve also written another 50k in unpublished drafts of short stories, most of which have been edited to the point where they could be published.  There’s also almost 200k words on this blog. So that’s about 350k words. There’s also some poetry, about three hundred lines of it, but I’m not sure how that equates in hours or words (poetry is much more time consuming, or at least I find it so). I also have a folder of hard copy first drafts from my teens and twenties that one day will get edited and digitised. As well as that there’s material on my other websites and my contributions to usenet in the late 1990s, but I’m not going to go count those, nor my Open University assignments.

I’ll probably produce about 150,000 more words to hit the ten thousand hours of creative writing time. I’m writing 2-3 blog posts a week, so I ought to get there sometime early in 2016.

How about you?