Tuesday, June 4, 2013

TWO Secrets to Writing Success

I could try to drag the suspense out, but I won’t.

 1. READ


 Order counts.


 I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read since I started high school. The list numbers 2,342 and does not count rereads of favorite books. Nor does it reflect other reading including short stories, essays, magazines, text books, professional journals and whatnot. That averages roughly 46 books a year. The standard deviation is high. The years range from a low of 6 (1986, a year that included the birth of my second child and taking over significant new work responsibilities) to 97 (tie for 2005 & 2007).

Using a rough rule of thumb of 250 words per page, that means I read about 3.5 million words in books in an average year. It’s almost 7 million since I started writing.

Reading provides at least three benefits: We gain factual knowledge outside our personal experience. We learn how others write well (and what writing mistakes they make). We experience the world through others’ eyes.

I’m an eclectic reader, enjoying both fiction (mostly crime, but some science fiction, a touch of fantasy and the odd bit of literature) and non-fiction (history, science/math, economics/business, biography, contract bridge and writing). In my days as an actuary I once had a boss who provided these words of wisdom as he saw me reading a professional journal. “It’s good to know that stuff, but it’s critically important to understand what’s new in other fields. Taking their ideas and applying it to your area of expertise often yields new insights.”

Without a continually renewed base of reading, our own writing will not be fresh or informed.


I am willing to concede that some writers are so gifted they have the ability to write well without any learning period but I know I am not one of them, so it doesn’t matter to me whether these mythically gifted writers exist. Writers learn to write by writing.

I have spoken to scores of authors from as yet unpublished to world-famous and each one has said the equivalent: their first writing was not very good. Here’s a quote from Ken Follett about his first published novels:

My agent suggested I use a pseudonym because, she said, “you might want to write better books later”. Boy, was she right. I chose the name Symon Myles. Unfortunately, The Big Needle has since been republished under my own name in the US. It’s not available anywhere else and I plan to keep all three of these books hidden away.

The 10,000-hour “rule” has recently been stated as the amount of time necessary to attain expert status at a particular skill. I’m skeptical about any particular set level and want to caution about hours being the only criteria for success. Using my math terminology, I would call it a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement. Without putting in the time, no success; however, other factors are also required for success.

 I once had a job performance discussion with an employee who desired a good balance between work and “life.” He wanted to work his forty hours and go home. At the time, many of us worked about sixty hours a week. I pointed out that at the end of five years, he would have five years of experience. Someone like me would have the equivalent of 7.5 years of experience. Assuming the same quality of work, the sixty-hour per week person would be paid more and promoted faster. Also, when push came to shove, they would get plum assignments because they would do whatever it took to get the job done. As long as he understood that reality, I could work around his desire for balance.

Each of us must decide the equivalent issue for ourselves. Those at the top of any field have focused most of their life in pursuit of that pinnacle level of expertise. As a writer, if you are not committed to “ass in the chair” as Nora Roberts once called it, you won’t make it.

That’s not to say you can’t eventually succeed with less effort per day/week/moth/year; it will just take longer and others will pass you by.

 ~ Jim

[Updated on August 12, 2015]