The ten-year rule

June 30, 2010

Research has shown that it takes about ten years (or about 10,000 hours) of practice to become an expert. That’s true for a wide variety of domains — chess, music, painting, sports, acting, science, and writing. It seems the role of talent is often overrated. Practice does make perfect.

For writers, a rule of thumb says that we have to write one million words of “garbage” before we might be able to write something worth reading.

But just doing something for ten years is not enough. To become really good at something, it takes “deliberate practice” (Ericsson, A. (2006). Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance) — conscious efforts to improve. Getting feedback is vital, so apparently just writing for yourself without sharing it is not as effective. Writers can learn from beta readers, editors, critique groups, mentors, reader feedback, and even rejection letters.

This week is the ten-year anniversary of when I first started writing my stories on the computer and posting them on the Internet. During those ten years, I have written

  • flash fiction (< 1,000 words): 1
  • short stories (1,000-7,500 words): 11
  • novelettes (7,500-17,500 words): 5
  • novellas (17,500-40,000 words): 3
  • novels (> 40,000 words): 20

That makes a total of 2,012,800 words, 838,750 of them in English.

So strictly speaking, I’m still working to get my one million English words of garbage out of my system 🙂



  1. Wow. So, congratulations are in order 🙂
    And it makes one wonder what novel will break your one million word record. Counting, counting, counting….

    • Thanks, Astrid.

      It might be my next novel that breaks the one-million word mark.

  2. From the date I first started posting fiction (fanfic) on the internet it was ten years to my first published novel… 1997 to 2007. I’m on 13 years now and it hasn’t really gotten easier to write… just easier to accept that first drafts are never final. The words always need rewriting, revising, and editing. LOL

    • Interestingly, the research on expertise shows that if you feel it gets easier, you’re doing it wrong and have stopped improving 😉

  3. Doing a pretty good job, I’d say. BUT, don’t you write in languages other than English? I would think that those words would count towards your million. After all, no matter what the language, there’s plotting, characterization, description, story idea creation.

    • As of four years ago, I was writing exclusively in German. I have probably written 2 million words in German, and at least one million is just “garbage.”

      But you are right — plotting, characterization, point of view and all the technical elements of fiction are the same, no matter in which language you write.

      What’s different is that I didn’t get much feedback when I was writing in German. And without feedback, there’s little improvement.

  4. I appreciate every word you share… am far behind you, but committed to continue the chase!

  5. […] A few months ago, I mentioned the rule of thumb that says writers have to write one million words of “garbage” before they are skilled enough to produce something worth reading. […]

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