I really like the ten-thousand hour rule. If anyone has read any Malcolm Gladwell they already know all about it. But basically it reduces excellence across the board to a common maxim: whatever it is, whatever you do, the most successful people in that field will somehow, someway have logged at least ten thousand hours practicing that activity. I like the rule because it does a lot towards explaining the behavior of certain friends. My ex girlfriend was a real pain in the ass to argue with about almost anything. It’d be easy to say this because of some genetic advantage, or because of the schools she went to, or because of the topics we happen to have been discussing–all proper diagnoses. It’s even easier to point out that her father is a carpenter who usually worked from home when she was a kid. He’s a stubborn man and wouldn’t let his daughter win at anything–talking and arguing especially–and so she basically was schooled and practiced in the art of debate from day one. Other friends who grew up with bullying older brothers are quick witted, sharp, often funny, and most often sort of bullies themselves. We are what we do repeatedly. I think that was Aristotle.
So I wonder sometimes how many hours have I put towards writing. Is it 10,000 hours? I doubt it. I doubt I’m even halfway there. But let’s find out. So far in my 29 years I’ve written four novels. My first book I wrote my freshman year at Moorpark College. It was a sprawling fantasy epic that, despite what everyone thinks, was not inspired by Lord of the Rings, but in fact The Legend of Zelda video game, the pictures from the players’ guide to be particular. I wrote about a draft and a half of that book and from what I can recall, it clocked in near 200,000 words. I think it was 500 pages single spaced. A really long book. The next book I wrote just after I graduated college. I called it the Digital Moon and it came in at a more modest 70-80,000 words. After that I wrote another modestly lengthed, larger scoped novel called Cabraca, or, Here Lies Emiliano Otalero, 400 pages and around 85,000 words if I remember correctly. After that we have the final book, the one for which I am trying to find an agent, the LA Riots book (or maybe we’ll call it Treehouse Riots) and this is also around 400 pages and 85,000 words. Those are all goodish lengths for books I think. I get a little fed up with novels these days–sort of like movies–that feel like they need to be 700 pages long to be worth your effort. That’s a lot of effort to put into any entertainment.
So anyway, of those four books I put in a various amount of time editing and doing seconds drafts. The first one, the fantasy book, I wrote maybe a draft and a half before I scrapped it. For The Digital Moon I wrote two solid drafts: one first draft, plus a second draft and some editing. For Cabraca I put in a lot more effort. Three drafts and lots of editing in between. And for the LA Riots book I am currently on my fourth draft, the final draft (I hope).
I wouldn’t say first drafts are easy, per se, but I often just plow through them. I did the same thing in college. Actually, I started a habit in college that I’ve continued with my creative work, where I write the first draft by hand, the “second” draft is when I transcribe the handwritten words and the 3rd draft is when I go through and rewrite it. Often times, on my saved documents, you’ll see it written as Draft 2.5 or some such thing. Anyhow, let’s keep it moving. Here’s what we have for draft one of the four books (we’re not even including non-novel writings, not to mention college and high school and everything creative I wrote before 18. We’ll get to that later.
–Legend of Zelda Book – 200k
—Digital Moon – 70k
—Cabraca, or, Here Lies Emiliano Otalero – 80k
—Treehouse Riots – 85k
Total words: 520k
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King laid out a basic daily goal of his. He wanted to write 2000 words a day. I think that’s a good goal and since I read the book back in High School I’ve made that a goal of my own for when I sit down and write. 2000 words. If he’s writing well he finishes fairly early, by 11:00AM, and if he really struggles it’ll stretch out into the afternoon. Suffice to say, 3 hours is a good time to put down 2000 words, though god knows as fast as I type I could do that in a better time if I really just wanted to spit out some filth. Based off of the Stephen King model for writing we’ll say the average comes out to about 10 words a minute. (10 good words if I’m knocking on wood.) So how does the math play out? 520k words at 10 words/minute, comes out to 52,000 minutes, or 866.66 hours. Because I am certainly no Stephen King, let’s round up and say it took me 900 hours to finish four first drafts. (Side note: certain video games log how many hours you’ve played them. I remember playing a 100 hours of Final Fantasy 7 or 8 and a friend of mine had logged something like 1000-2000 hours at Final Fantasy XI, the online game. So 900 hours seems a fair estimate.)
For each of these books I transcribed the handwritten words into Word (or WordPerfect way back in the day). I can type around 100 words per minute when I really get going but when I’m copying and editing and cleaning things up it probably comes out to about 40-50 words per minute, probably less. Let’s say 50, since the copying part takes less mental effort and does involve a little bit less “writing”. So 520k words, at 50 words/minute, gives us 10,400 minutes, or 173.33 hours. How about 175 hours!?
So combined, with drafts 1 and 1.5 of my first four books, I’ve roughly logged 1075 hours. Not bad, not bad. But now for the real editing, the part half of me hates and the other half enjoys. We’ll skip The Legend of Zelda since the second real draft I just scrapped altogether halfway through. For The Digital Moon I wrote a solid second draft. For Cabraca and Treehouse Riots I wrote two solid second and third drafts.
Editing and extra drafts are odd ducks. Sometimes I’m really happy with something and I just copy and paste it into the new draft. Other times I scrap entire chapters and rewrite them. Other times I spend hours and days tinkering. If the first draft comes out at 2000 words/3hrs, the second and third drafts are at least a third of that. (Most of this involves staring at the screen and thinking.) So 3.5 words/minute. Combining the multiple drafts of the last three books I come to about 400,000 words. 400,000 words at 3 words/minute comes to 114,286 minutes, or 1904.76 hours. Whoa!
So four novels, all written between the ages of 18 and 29, have logged me 2979.76 hours. Or 3000 hours. Now we’re getting somewhere. But that’s just my own novels. That doesn’t include the writing I did in college as well as the writing I did in high school and middle school and even elementary school and first grade when I wrote a story about how an astronaut mediated a feud between the Sun and the Moon. (I think that’s what it was about.) How much writing did I do then? I just read an article quoting a survey (oh how we love studies and surveys, don’t we?) that estimated college Freshman write about 92 pages their first year. Seniors write on average 146 pages. I don’t know if I did any more or less work than the average student so can we just go ahead and say I wrote 500 pages during college? And maybe…100k words? Using the same formula here that I did with the novels we arrive at the following estimates:
100k-words/10words per minute/60 minutes=167 hours.
100k-words/50words per minute/60 minutes= 33 hours
200 hours combined on the shitty first drafts.
Now half the time in college I would really try to do a great job with the essay and write a second draft and edit and rewrite–try to do a really good job, ya know? The other half the time I spat out that typed-up draft and turned it in, making sure there were no glaring spelling errors or curse words I typed when nothing was going well. (Guess which ones I got better grades on?) It probably averaged out to one solid rewrite per essay so let’s stick with that.
100k-words/3.5words per minute/60minutes= 476.19 hours, or 500 hours.
Just so we can hurry up and get to my final tally, let’s estimate that the amount of writing I did in college is roughly equal to the amount of writing I did in High School and Middle School and Elementary school, including the random stories I wrote on my own. That gives us an extra 500 hours. Bringing our final tally to…
Everything Else: 500hrs
Damn that’s a lot of time. Most of these numbers come from the novels. If I spent a little more time calculating how much work I did in my earlier school years and even somehow tried to discover all the old writing I did as a kid the tally might be higher.
Regardless, it’s a pretty fun exercise. I’m by no means an expert at writing. I like it and it makes me happy and as this exercise has shown I at least have some experience doing it. And of course just tallying 10,000 hours doesn’t mean you’re an expert or even any good at all. Tally is just a tally. I have other friends who are professional writers and far better and more experienced than I. One covers the Philadelphia Flyers, the other is a senior editor for a local Los Angeles magazine. I’m curious what numbers they would come up with. I’m sure they passed the threshold ages ago. What numbers would some of my friends who are musicians would come up with? For me, I know I have a lot more writing ahead of me to get where I want to be. I shouldn’t even count the writing I did for school since much of it was not even creative writing. Essays, essays, essays. Maybe I can hold my breath and say I’m halfway there. That makes me feel good and at least look forward to the years ahead.
For what it’s worth this article has clocked in at around 1800 words and I’ve been writing and eating and drinking coffee for maybe three hours. Following my own rules for this website to write more and edit less (perhaps another article is needed for that), I will not be worrying too much about a second and third draft.
© 2013 Christopher Dart