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How Much Time Do You Allocate to Rewriting?

by David K. William | The Web Writer Spotlight: May 30, 2016


Writing is a skill that is quite common these days. Everybody seems to be writing. And yes, things like emails, tweets and text messages count. But, not everybody can legitimately claim to be a skilled writer.

The main difference between everyday writing that everybody does and serious writing that professionals do is the proportion that is re-writing. On a ballpark estimate, rewriting accounts for maybe 10-20% for non-writers, while for serious writers it accounts for anywhere between 50-90%, depending on the type of writing and how critical that particular piece is.

Ask any author and they will tell you there are paragraphs in their books that took them five minutes to write down initially, and cost them hours or even days to whip into shape. That translates to like 99% rewriting. For many online writers, they probably average about 75%, while some opinion pieces in print media hit book-like 99% levels. Other pieces for personal blogs are at 50%.


What matters is not how much you write, but how much you rewrite.


Rewriting is the secret sauce for excellent writing. And reading aloud vastly increases the effectiveness of your rewriting. However, rewrite hours are far much harder to log, as you will soon discover.

Because writing is a skill like any other, the famous 10,000 hour rule for mastery should apply. In the book Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

How does Gladwell arrive at this conclusion? Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success, including musicians like the Beatles and computer programmers like Bill Gates. In one particularly revealing study conducted in the early 1990s, psychologist in Berlin, Germany studies violin students and their practice habits in childhood through to adolescence and adulthood.

All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age 20, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less skilled performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

One fascinating point of the study was that no “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, some of the “naturals” would have floated to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. However, the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.

A prolific writer can usually churn out about 1000 reasonably decent words in an hour. So, if you count in words, it might seem that producing something like 10 million words would be enough to achieve mastery in writing. Or, it might take such a writer about 10 years to become a master of the written word if she produced those words 4 hours a day, 250 days a year.

But, it's not that simple. When it comes to mastering the field of writing, it is not how much you write, but how much you rewrite that counts, as Venkatesh Rao, author of Tempo, a book about decision making, observes in a discussion on Quora about writing.

Writing is easy for most of us—at least the kind of casual writing we do every day when tweeting and texting. But rewriting is hard. It is torture, Rao says. However, rewriting is the only kind of writing that counts, he insists. If you aren't rewriting, you aren't developing as a writer.

When you hit your 10,000 hours of rewriting, you can be sure you will be a skilled writer.


So, how good are you at rewriting?


Rao offers a little test you can use to see how good you are at rewriting. Take a passages of about 1000 words that you have written and are reasonably happy with. Now have a go at it, he says.

Start rewriting the passage.

Keep going until you are down to thinking about one last miniscule decision, like a specific word choice or a detail about whether or not to add a comma. Be as obsessed with this task as you can.

How long did it take you to get there? If you reached comma-level decreasing marginal improvements in less than 4 to 5 hours, you are not as good a rewriter as you think you are.

Assuming you care about your writing skills and the ideas or story the passage is about, you should be able to fill 4-5 hours of rewriting. If you can’t sustain 4 to 5 hours of rewriting, it means you can’t see potential areas for improvements and or don’t know how to execute those improvements.

As you can now probably tell, rewriting is not mundane, brainless grunt work that some of us like to think it is. Actually, it is our “first-dump” writing that is more likely to be tedious, brainless grunt work, although our “first-dump” quality will also improve as our skills improve.

Rewriting takes patience and practice. When you are starting out on your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you will initially only be able to achieve about 10% rewriting. As you improve, so will your rewrite capacity. Soon you will be able to log in 5 hours of scheduled time to edit and rewrite your work.

For serious writers, it can take about 20 years to hit 10,000 rewrite hours at an average pace. If you start at age 13 (typical age for discovering a love for writing) and keep at it, Rao says, you could be a skilled writer in 10 years. So yeah, you can become an extremely skilled writer as young as age 23.

See Also: 6 Common Mistakes that Doom Writing Careers.


David K. William is a writer, publisher and entrepreneur. Everything he writes is inspired by life experiences and study. David is also founding editor of Follow him on Twitter @DavidKWilliam.

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