Start now & keep going – the only writing rules you need

Image of clocks

The thought that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill is enough to put you off trying. Bec Evans urges you to forget about perfectionism and instead focus on starting small and starting now.

I blame Malcolm Gladwell. By explaining the 10,000 hours rule he’s given us all an excuse to not start. I can hardly find ten minutes in my day for hobbies and interests let alone ten years to master them.

The original research by K Anders Ericsson* is more encouraging. Ericsson has spent a lifetime studying experts and his conclusion is that experts are always made, not born. This should give us hope – we all have a chance to excel at something.

“experts are always made, not born” K Anders Ericsson

Ericsson’s research identified the components of expertise. Deliberate practice – the high levels of repeated activity to stretch your skills – is only one element of the path to expertise. Focusing exclusively on the time it takes to master a skill creates a high barrier to entry and gives us a reason to abandon hope. Instead it’s worth looking at the other principles of motivation and attainability.

Have an idea and act on it – now

You’ve got an idea for a story, a poem, or a blog and this time you’re really going to write it. That’s motivation of the best kind, intrinsic as it comes from your own desires.

In having that idea you’ve overcome the first hurdle, now you need to take action. Research shows the best way to start is to do something really small. It seems ridiculous but the Tiny Habits program recommends starting with just one word or a sentence, something so small you can’t make an excuse to not do it.

You could plan when you start and there’s lots of advice about attaching new habit to things you already do. Or you could start now – take that small first step, in the next available minute.

“start now – take that small first step, in the next available minute”

Ask yourself what’s the smallest thing you can do now to take action? It might be writing down the idea, the title, or the first sentence. Do it – do it now.

Swap perfectionism for attainable

Another of Ericsson’s principles is doing something that’s attainable – tasks that are within reach of an individual’s current level of ability. By focusing on what you can actually do well you avoid the trap of perfectionism. Don’t set the bar too high before you’ve started.

Why do millions of people go running when they are never going to compete in the Olympics? Or go on diets despite knowing they’ll never look as great in a bikini as a Victoria’s Secret model? They do it not to be perfect but so they can be slightly better versions of themselves.

Keep going

I remember being eight years old and practising for school sports day by running round and round the garden. I got my mum to time me, and though I can’t be sure I got any better, it certainly made me feel more confident lined up with my classmates on the big day.

That same summer I decided I was never ever going to play cricket again after my brother teased my bowling. I still can’t throw a decent ball and that annoys me. Giving up because I was rubbish at something only made me feel bad.

“Do what you do, to the best of your ability. If you keep doing it, you’ll get better.”

I need to channel the version of me that keeps trying. Practising running round the garden was fun, my only competitor was myself and that’s still the only person I can compare myself to. Watching my own incremental change and improvement is reward enough.

So forget about Olympic golds, Pulitzer prizes, or Billboard awards. Do what you do, to the best of your ability. If you keep doing it, you’ll get better. That’s your benchmark not JK Rowling, or Usain Bolt, or Taylor Swift.

The only two rules you need for writing are start now and keep going.

***

The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, 1993 The American Psychological Association, Inc.

Photo credit: ‘Time‘ by Sean MacEntee on Flickr

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.