What It Takes to Become a Master Writer

This is a guest post by Mary DeMuth. She is an author, speaker and book mentor with seven published books and several more on the way. Mary also mentors writers on her Wanna Be Published blog. She is also active on Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

As a writer who loves the craft, I look for clues everywhere to improve. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers [affiliate link], he elaborates on the importance of sustained hard work as a condition for success and mastery.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/YinYang, Image #2604076

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/YinYang

A study orchestrated by K. Anders Ericsson who looked at musical prodigies found the common denominator for mastery and success: 10,000 hours of practice. “The emerging picture from such studies,” says neurologist Daniel Levitin, “is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert—in anything.”

Think about that for a moment.

If you work hard at something for twenty hours a week, in ten years, you’ll have mastered it. And yet, when I teach and evaluate manuscripts at writers conferences, it seems very few understand this or embrace this.

When I share my publication story, that I spent ten years writing in obscurity, folks inevitably want me to share the “fun part” when I met my agent at a conference and my success seemed to blossom overnight. So many want to know the secret of instant publishing success.

Those who write novels ask me how to deepen characterization, or create a character out of a setting, or evoke mood, or widen suspense. I usually can’t answer that. Why? Because most of what I write now is instinctive, born from years of experimentation and failure. It’s something I cannot teach. It’s something an author must do on their own behind a desk, in quiet places where rewards of publication seem far off.

In evaluating nonfiction and fiction pieces, I see the disparity. Some naïve writers think they can bank on their friend/parents/kids’ over-the-top praise, believing themselves to be an instant prodigy. Or they’ll invoke God’s name, saying He told them to write. And yet some of these “geniuses” won’t receive critique. Some are unwilling to count the cost by practicing BOC (butt on chair).

While it is true that some publishing sensations happen overnight, it is more true that most authors spend years and years toiling over craft, trying techniques and failing, submitting to smaller entities and suffering from perennial “rejectionitis.” That’s the reality.

With all that as the backdrop, here is a checklist I’ve created to determine if you’re the type of person who will invest 10,000 hours to become a master writer:

  1. I am willing to write unpublished words.
  2. I am thankful when a writer farther along the journey offers critique.
  3. I understand that honing my voice is not merely a weekend exercise, but a decade-long fight.
  4. I am developing thick skin with each rejection, while maintaining a tender heart. (I realize that rejection can make me bitter and entitled.)
  5. I see obstacles to my publishing journey as hurdles to jump over, not walls to stop me.
  6. Folks who describe me use the words tenacious, dedicated, and disciplined. I am a lifelong learner of the craft.
  7. I set word count goals or production goals each week. Then I meet them early no matter what.
  8. In the beginning of my journey, I write pieces for free, understanding the importance of apprenticeship.
  9. I am passionate about helping others in their writing journeys even if it means they surpass me. Because when I teach, I learn. And when others succeed, I rejoice because I’m expanding my writing ministry beyond myself.
  10. I understand the beauty of God’s sovereignty in the midst of the journey. He gives and takes away. Blessed be His name, no matter what happens—published or not.

How did you do? Are you a ten? Are you willing to put in 10,000 hours to master your writing?

This journey is not for the casual. It’s a disciplined way of life. This is one reason I’m so thankful my first book didn’t catapult me to success. I believe God kept me slow-going to prepare me for each new project, for each new height.

I’m still not a well-known author, but I do believe that each book I write is better than the last, perhaps because I’m working on my twenty-thousandth hour.

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