Carving Out the Time to Write – and to Read

On Christmas Eve, we explored the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field.

It’s a concept I’m still thinking about five weeks on, so I’ve been conducting a couple of unscientific experiments about increasing the time available for writing – and indeed reading, which is almost as important for an author.

As many mornings as possible, I go for a half-hour walk around the local park. I’m also a frequent radio listener, so I often take my pocket-sized DAB receiver with me. I use it when I walk other places, and occasionally at work when it’s quiet.

For five weeks, I’ve replaced that radio listening with educational podcasts; the subjects covered have not been writing-related, as I’m already familar with that.

Similary, I also have two 15-minute breaks per day. To increase my reading time, I’ve started setting my watch to beep after ten minutes, during which time I concentrate on my book. When time is up, I then finish at the next convenient break, usually the end of the current paragraph or page.

By doing this consistently, I’ve now clocked up an estimated 100 hours of learning in just over a month: that’s already one percent of the 10,000 aformentioned hours.

If I were a beginner writer, I could replace the walks with audiobooks, and replace the reading with writing, and I’d be on my way to becoming better at what I enjoy. There is usually time to be carved out if you look for it.

10,000 Hours of Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field. There is an excellent introduction to the theory on ReviseSociology with reference to figures including The Beatles and Bill Gates.

Note that the word ‘expert’ is probably not the most accurate one in all fields. However, let’s stick with the term for the purposes of this entry so as not to overshadow the broader point it makes.

It seems redundant to say that 10,000 hours is a considerable length of time. Think back to what you were doing on Hallowe’en in 2018. The period that has elapsed since then is approximately 10,000 hours.

Realistically, it’s going to take longer than that to clock up the magic number. Assume you work on something for eight hours a day on five days per week, giving a 40-hour work week. Then, for argument’s sake, multiply that by 50 to represent the weeks worked in a year. That gives a round figure of 2,000 hours per annum. Now repeat that five times.

I’ve been writing since 2010, and I don’t rely on it for an income. Instead, I have an office job that offers flexible working hours, allowing me to devote extra time to writing where necessary.

I’ve probably served my 10,000 hours of practice since 2010. It doesn’t mean I know everything – far from it – and neither does it mean I stop learning. But I do feel I’ve had quality practice.

When I was a student in the early 2000s, I had a flatmate who would play the opening bars of In The Shadows by The Rasmus over and over again on his electric guitar. I didn’t live with him for longer than six weeks, but he never improved in that time, probably because he didn’t approact the problem from another angle.

As I say, I’m still learning, and I found out only this year that varying your practice rather than merely repeating an action can help you learn a skill up to twice as quickly. In a writing context, this might mean using a pencil instead of a keyboard, focussing on description rather than dialogue, or changing the time of day when you write.

It’s also important to invite feedback if you wish to improve. Particularly in poetry, I read a lot of work that has potential, but would need to be trimmed or otherwise refined to make it sparkle.

Don’t forget there are many milestones on the way to 10,000 hours, no matter what your field. Just 10 hours is usually long enough to read up on the history and theory of your chosen field, while a language learner probably knows enough after 100 hours to hold a reasonable conversation. And how could you possibly be bad at snooker after 1,000 games?

Above all, probably the most important part of is to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s usually possible to tell whether someone has enjoyed writing: the words seem to pop off the page and carry the reader along. You don’t need 10,000 hours to have a good time.

Giving Quality Feedback on Poetry

It’s something of a badge of honour when someone asks me to read over a poem they’ve written and to provide feedback. So I was only too happy to oblige when a friend sent me a three-part piece she wasn’t sure about.

On receipt of a poem, I first of all go through a mental checklist of features I would expect to see. As I write, I realise this is the first time I’ve written down these features, so I might return to this topic and make amendments.


Punctuation

Although poetry often employs types of line breaks that don’t appear in prose, it’s a convention that sentences are still punctuated in the same way with commas, full stops and other marks.

Capitalisation

Before 1900 or so, the first letter of a new line was capitalised whether or not it was at the beginning of a new sentence. Beginning in the 20th century, however, that first letter is not usually capitalised unless it also begins a sentence.

Forced rhymes

Not all poetry rhymes, but when a rhyme is included, it’s conventional to make it sound as natural as possible. I hear too many cases where the poet has written in rhyming couplets and the order of the words in the second line of each couplet is altered to make it fit with the first.


After those three checks, I consider other aspects such as word choice, whether any clichés have been used, the rhythm of the piece, and how the structure might be amended for greater impact on the reader.

But these are only conventions and they can be broken. In the second part of her poem, my friend eschewed punctuation and capitalisation so it read like work from Allen Ginsberg or E E Cummings. If you’re planning to break poetic convention, the best way is to make it clear to the reader that you’re not following the rules.

Overall, I was pleased with the piece my friend sent, and I look forward to hearing it in its final form.