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How Many Words Does It Take to Become a Great Writer?


When I think of great writers, I don't necessarily think of the most famous writers, nor the ones with the most published books. I tend to think of those who always make me want to read another paragraph.

Only a handful come to mind. Susannah Cahalan, with her book Brain on Fire. Surprisingly, Neil Patrick Harris, with his Choose Your Own Autobiography. F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. Truman Capote and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The only two I can think of (that I've read) who do this consistently are Malcolm Gladwell and J.K. Rowling.

I always want to keep reading whatever comes out of their fingers! I'm sure there's an author or two, or perhaps even a blogger or two, who comes to your mind when I talk about this.

We all have our favorites. As an aspiring writer myself, the question I ask is: How do I become like them?

I've been writing a good bit recently. I think about what I've done in relation to others, and about what I'll have to do to become great. Sometimes it's quite daunting!

Since 2015 started, which is when I consider my starting point, I've published about 200,000 words. I've spent however many hours writing, and then about that same amount editing. And I'm nowhere near the level described above!

Faulkner, Wilde, and many others have said: It takes writing a million words to become a writer. Based on that, I'm about 1/5 of the way there! Progress. But there's another, perhaps better theory.

Gladwell didn't come up with the research, but he's credited for making it popular with his book Outliers. As the studies go, it takes about 10,000 hours to become great at something - to master it - and the faster you reach that 10,000 hour mark, the better you'll be moving forward. But here's the thing.

Once you hit that mark and get into a competitive space, you're competing against others who have all hit that 10,000 hour mark, too!

To stand out from them, you have to have at least - what - 20,000 hours of experience or practice?

Broken down, that's 10 years worth of 40-hour weeks spent solely on your craft. How many words come out of 20,000 hours of writing?

Everyone has their own pace, so this will probably differ somewhat for each of you. Let's say it takes me about 45 minutes to write 500 words, and that I spend another 45 minutes editing those 500 words for a total of 90 minutes, or 1.5 hours per every 500 words.

20,000 hours divided by 1.5 hours equals 13,333. That's how many times I need to write 500 words to reach my 20,000 hours of time spent writing. And 500 words multiplied by 13,333 instances equals 6,666,666 words that would be written within those 20,000 hours.

Ergo, to become a great writer, one that people will continually want to keep reading, takes an incredible amount of dedication.

6.7 million words is a lot of words. 20,000 hours is a lot of time! The thing is, it doesn't matter what your goals are (writing or otherwise), it's going to take you this amount of effort to become a great [whatever] that stands out from all the other really good [whatevers]. There's a pro and a con to this.

On one hand, it takes a discouraging amount of effort to become great. On the other hand, you know exactly what to shoot for. You know what it takes. You know what your goal has to be. The only question left is: Will you do it?