Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is probably best known for its assertion that the way to become great at something — anything really — is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Similarly, author David Eddings (and apparently a few others) claim that the key to becoming a good author is to write a million words, then throw them away and really start writing.
Some writers will hear these claims, crack their knuckles, and start typing with relish. They’re delighted to learn that success is as simple as aiming in the right direction and putting in the time and effort. Others (including myself) are a bit less enthusiastic. A million words equates to ten or eleven substantial novels. Ten thousand hours is 417 days-worth of writing, without sleep, meals, or bathroom breaks. Not to mention the unshakable feeling that there must be more to greatness than simply plowing forward stubbornly.
However you quantify it, we know that writing is a craft that can be refined over a lifetime. Whether you believe in innate artistic talent, practice and study do make a difference.
That’s all to say that sometimes, it can be daunting to write. It’s normal for writers to have deep insecurities about their own skill. Writers are readers too. We see the incredible feats of our favorite authors. We can cite examples of phenomenal writing, and we see every time we don’t quite measure up.
Be Afraid, but Not Too Afraid
Have you ever had an idea for a story that you loved, but you were afraid to write it because you thought you could never do it justice? Have you ever started to write what was sure to be your greatest story ever, only to have the words flow out of your brain, down to your fingers, to flop, sad and desiccated on the page; a pathetic imitation of what you saw in your imagination?
Being a writer requires a specific cognitive dissonance — the ability to believe that you are writing something brilliant, while simultaneously seeing all the flaws in that work in order to edit them into oblivion. It’s a knife’s-edge mental balancing act, and it’s awfully easy to fall off one side or the other.
One of the traps that writers, especially inexperienced writers, can fall into is the belief that they have great ideas, but lack the skill to do them justice. They have the idea that could be the next bestseller, if only it was written by someone with more expertise. Sometimes this takes the form of a fear that they might be a one-hit-wonder, who only ever has the one great idea. It would be a terrible waste to squander it.
I call this a trap because it’s almost certainly not true.
That Idea Isn’t Special
How many awards are there for novels, poems and short stories? And how many awards are there for cool ideas?
That’s because ideas aren’t that special. We become writers because we read things that inspire us. We start coming up with our own ideas. Every writer is an idea-generating machine. You may feel like it’s a slog, but you can come up with story ideas, if you put your mind to it.
A great writer could take a downright mundane premise and create a mesmerizing story from it. Many have. Ideas only become great in the execution.
Even more dangerous is an idea that’s put on a pedestal. When you think of that idea as “the perfect idea,” the one that you may never live up to again, it’s hard to move past it. You might hold on to that idea for years. You might even obsess over it.
I know, because I’ve done it. You can wear down an idea over years, like a worry stone. You can keep adjusting it, refining it, or just tweaking it here and there. It can feel like you’re accomplishing something, but if you can’t bring yourself to translate that idea into an actual story, then all that thought and effort and obsession is useless.
That obsession also precludes other ideas. How many new ideas could you play around with in the time that’s being spent worrying about that one idea? Sometimes our minds are like a warehouse, and we need to clear out those ideas to make space for new ones. Dwelling on the old can prevent you from moving on to something better.
You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better
If you write for years with some regularity, I can easily prove to you that you’re getting better. Go back and look at something you wrote a year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Those pieces will certainly be different. You may have preferences of voice and style that have changed. You’ll also notice a lot of improvements that could be made. You’re so much better at writing now.
Gladwell didn’t claim that a switch flips at the moment you hit your 10,000 hours. Every day you practice, you learn something, even if you aren’t always aware of it. It’s a slow and steady progression. You can improve your skill at dialogue, or at description. You can develop your voice, and you can learn to build deeper, more sympathetic characters.
Isn’t it strange then, to believe that you can get better at all of these things, but not at coming up with good ideas? It’s a skill like any other, and it develops through practice. Granted, if you’re brainstorming ideas, you can’t expect all of them to be amazing. But you can trust that the writer you become in five or ten years is going to be better at coming up with good ideas, just like they’ll be better at dialogue and characterization.
The ideas you come up with today are for present-you to write. Trust future-you to come up with their own great ideas to write about.
Diamonds Have to be Polished
First drafts suck. Sometimes second and third drafts suck too.
One of the times when that special brand of authorial cognitive dissonance is really tested is in writing a first draft. Ideas are like clouds. They’re soft and vague and beautiful. You can stare up into that bright blue sky and see all sorts of amazing shapes.
Words are flexible, but they’re less flexible than ideas. Those nebulous ideas seemed so good partly because you could ignore the missing bits, the conflicting bits, the bits that just plain don’t make sense or haven’t been thought through properly. When you put them down on the page, that luxury immediately goes away. They’re solidified into a rough, mangled form that will never live up to those gauzy visions in your mind.
Don’t confuse that first draft with the polished end-product it will become. Don’t compare the perfect idea to the worst form your story will ever take.
If it feels like a great idea, try writing it now. Expect your first draft to feel bad, and look forward to closing that gap between idea and execution in the revision process. If it still doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. Just consider it part of your 10,000 hours, or million words.
Trust that you’ll have better ideas and be better able to execute them in the future. Make room for those new ideas by not obsessing over the old ones.
And in case you weren’t sure, the answer is “Yes, you are good enough to write that.”