Expertise and Habit: Outliers Analysis

Rethinking learning how to write, I’ve decided to seriously practice, so I can get to Carnegie Hall.

The expertise literature is old news. Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Outliers suggests that “greatness requires enormous time.” A constant theme in the book is Anders Ericsson’s theory that in order to be an expert, one must spend around 10,000 hours practicing in an area. For example, the Beatles performed over 1200 times in Hamburg from 1960 to 1964. That kind of practice changes art.

In our own genre, Jay Lake is an example of this. Jay was a story-writing, rejection-receiving machine, until ultimately his expertise caught up with his output.

There are other factors that we commonly believe help us succeed. The public thinks “our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work” are among these, although Gladwell remains skeptical. I think they probably do play a role, although they are no substitute for expertise. Gladwell also continues to question about whether environment plays a part.

I’ve been thinking about my writing. As a writer who didn’t buckle down until later life, I realize that I have quite a long way to go before I reach those expert hours. In order to invest 10,00 hours in my writing, I’d have to spend 20 hours a week writing for 10 years. (520 weeks X 20 hours = 10400). That’s an ambitious schedule. I probably don’t have quite that many hours to go. Even the hours from when I hadn’t buckled down count.

I’m about to do some math. You can skip to the bottom of the math, and get to the point. Here we go.


The books I wrote in my childhood? They count, even though they are hardly expert. Let’s give that time of writing about 500 hours (three books of terribly stinky quality from the ages of 12-18).

No writing time as an undergraduate. As an MA candidate, a lot for one year. I’d say we came close to 1000 during that experience.

After I started my teaching job, I wrote two books. I’m going to give myself another 500 hours for those books.

And then, after the PhD, there was the fan fiction period from 2002-2004. I’ll easily give myself 1000 for that, as well as the ideas for the Klarion series.

In 2007, I began to pursue writing more seriously. For these 3 years, I’ll keep the estimate to another 1000.

That’s 4000 hours. I need about 6000 hours to go. That means I need to write for about 20 hours a week for six more years in order to get myself up to speed. Looking realistically at my life, I’m not seeing that as possible. For pockets of time I could do this, but not overall.

How about setting the goal of expertise for 10 years from now, when I retire? That’s a more realistic 12 hours a week. Can I find 12 hours a week to write for the next ten years? I think I can. It’d vary from week to week, but I think I could schedule that. And still work out, have a social life, and have time to do other things.


Right. That’s the math. And that’s the New Year’s Resolution. To write 12 hours each week until I am able to write MORE per week.

Why focus on time?

1. Focusing on word output always makes me feel backwards while I’m revising.
2. Research time, carving out time lines and outlines count, but don’t in word count.
3. Word count focus puts the emphasis on the artifact, rather than the creator. I’m the one getting the training!

How about the rest of you? Are you willing to make some sort of time commitment (weekly, daily) to improve your art? It seems like a great idea for a resolution.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

6 thoughts on “Expertise and Habit: Outliers Analysis”

  1. Nice post! Math and writing are always an interesting combination. You brought up Jay. His hours produce a ton of more words than most other writers’ hours. There’s the other theory about writing that you need to write a million words before you start to get the hang of it. If you write at Lakeian pace, say 2,000 words an hour, you can get to your million words in 500 hours. Considerably less than 10,000 hours.

    Of course, only Jay Lake is Jay Lake. For a mere mortal like myself, the 200 words per hour pace is more realistic, which would put me in the 5,000 hour range.

    I’ve been writing steadily since the mid 1980s. I’m pretty sure I’ve hit both standards.

  2. One million words…

    I think I do find it less intimidating to think about hours.

    From everything I’ve heard about your short stories, there’s no doubt that you’ve hit both standards. I keep hoping someone will give me one of the collections from you that’s on my wish lists, but I will probably have to purposely buy them myself.


  3. Use it or lose it, too.

    I put in my two million words, to the point where I was actually selling, and even getting some positive reviews. And then I quit; software paid more.

    Two years later, I can’t put one word in front of another. Not and maintain consistency of character, or plot, or theme.

  4. Jim, I don’t know if you can output more words per hour, but I know I used to think I could only do 250 words or so at a sitting, and then I said, “screw it, I’m doing NaNoWriMo anyway.” I found I can write 2,000 words in 1.5 hours consistently. Granted, the words are really rough, but they can be rewritten. Also the more words I put out like that, the better they’re getting.

    I keep tabs on hours and word count, Catherine, but more important by far is how much better I am than I was a year, two years, five and ten years ago. I get that data by looking back every six months or so at what I wrote before. And then there’s knowing what I want to get good at next, and finding ways to focus on it until I get it down. It’s like learning a musical instrument, I think.

  5. Richard, I envy people who can crank out massive word count. Sometimes I can, but sometimes a story is pretty halting.

    I agree that it’s important to see improvement as well, and practice in an informed way.


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