Have I written for ten thousand hours? I’m not sure.
I’ve been blogging, in the sense of journaling for a public audience, for a decade now. Recently, over the last year or so, I’ve had reason to go back and re-read many of my earlier posts. This has got me thinking critically about my writing. About how I express myself and how I structure what I write. And how I’ve developed over the years.
I’m not horrified by the quality of my writing from ten-odd years ago. (Thank goodness!) But I do think I’ve improved as a writer over time.
Blogging can be compared, I suppose, to writing articles or letters. It isn’t necessarily the same as fiction writing, and it’s a long way from poetry. Still, it’s a creative activity. It involves stringing words together in groups that convey an idea and that make sense. The words sense and sentence derive, after all, from the same Latin root.
(Hmm. I see sententia, meaning thought, way of thinking, also lies at the root of sententious. I should watch myself.)
Blogging is also an attempt at communication. Writing a blog, I am not writing for my private diary. Privately there are things I might write that I wouldn’t blog about. And writing for an audience other than myself there are things I cannot take for granted my imagined reader will understand. Things I have to explain. Writing a blog I have to keep an audience in mind as I write.
It’s all to the good.
And I would write ten thousand hours,
And I would write ten thousand still,
If I knew that writing all those hours
Would help improve my writing skill.
Ten thousand hours
There’s a popular myth in circulation that 10,000 hours of practice at anything will result in mastery. This was promoted by popular social-science author Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) he repeatedly refers to this “10,000 hour rule” to support his argument that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field.
The “rule” turns out to originate with a study of a group of just ten violin students at a Berlin music academy. One of the authors of the original research, Professor Anders Eriksson, comments: “The [10,000 hour] rule is irresistibly appealing. … Unfortunately … [it] is wrong in several ways.”
There’s nothing “special or magical” about the number of hours, other than “it’s a nice round number”. The ten young violinists in the original study were not masters of the violin by the age of twenty. “They were very good, promising students who were likely headed to the top of their field, but they still had a long way to go…” Nor had all of them, by age 20, practiced for ten thousand hours. That was an average. Half of them had practiced less, some had practice more.
Also, the practice they had put in was a very specific sort of deliberate practice. This “involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them”.
Anders Eriksson says that Malcolm Gladwell had one thing right in his “10,000 hours rule”. That was that learning and growth don’t come easily. It may take more or less than ten thousand hours to achieve mastery in any given field, but it will take an investment of time. And an investment of effort.
Coming back to writing, and my blogging in particular. How much of the practice I have put in over the years could reasonably be called deliberate practice?
It’s very hard to know. I didn’t set out to blog as an attempt to improve my writing. The idea that writing the blog may be a way to improve as a writer has grown organically over the last few years.
One thing for sure, the amount of feedback from visitors to the blog has been very limited. For periods I took part in blog challenges with small groups of other bloggers. We wrote blog posts, shared the links, and visited one another to read and sometimes to comment. It was noticeable that some posts attracted comments and others did not. That was feedback of a kind.
More useful, I think, has been my SEO. For the last five or six years I’ve been using a Search Engine Optimisation programme behind the scenes. Produced by Yoast, it has two elements, one which is directly linked to SEO (key words, meta descriptions etc). The other has to do with readability.
Now, we could dispute the value of prescriptive frameworks as true indicators of readability, but if this is the only regular, direct, specific feedback I can get, I’ll run with it.
One of the indicators Yoast’s readability index uses is sentence length. I have a tendency to write sentences that run on, with sub-clauses (and parenthetical asides). The readability index marks all my sentences that are longer than 20 words. It makes me re-read my writing and encourages me to vary the length of my sentences. (I can have 25% of my sentences longer than 20 words before Yoast’s green readability indicator turns orange.)
Paragraph length, the use of transition words, passive voice and subheading distribution are other indicators. I don’t pay so much attention to the passive voice indicator because Yoast is still not very good at identifying it. (An interesting technical problem.)
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences… This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.William Strunk Jr in The Elements of Style
But one further indicator I do pay attention to is the Flesch reading-ease score. I aim to write texts in the plain English advocated by Ernest Gower and William Strunk Jr. This means I try to write to achieve a Flesch score in the 60-70 range (“Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students”.) Left to my own devices my writing happily wanders off down the overgrown paths of the 30-50 range (“Difficult to read”.)
This text, you may like to know, has a Flesch score of 67 “which is considered OK to read”.
“OK” is good!
Well, I think I have probably rambled on long enough. One other thing I do with my texts nowadays is to pass them through a spelling checker. It doesn’t catch all my slips, but it does save me from dislexic error.
And writing in Plain English is all very well, but my blog posts tend towards being over-long.
What do you do to improve your written English? Do you have any deliberate practice tips to pass on?
I wrote this post as my blog for this week at the Writers Abroad website. Every week a member of the WA writers group writes a public blog post. If you’re interested in writing, you should visit and follow us!
Too Long Didn’t Read
Ten thousand hours of practice will not necessarily result in mastery of any given skill. The practice needs to be deliberate practice.
For bloggers on WordPress one way to get direct feedback on the readability of your text – and so deliberately practice to improve your writing – may be the Yoast SEO plug-in.