One Million Words to Mastery

…or at least competence. But one million words to competence doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely.

You might have heard before that the first million words you write are practice. A pretty astounding number if you ask me. That’s something like ten novels before you’re producing something of publishing quality.

It’s sort of like the concept of ten thousand hours, It creates this strange barrier for newer writers, and I think it has some unsettling implications no matter how innocuous the phrase might seem.

But why am I bringing this up?

Firstly I don’t agree. Well, I do, but I also don’t. And here’s why.

It’s pretty obvious that once you’ve written a million words, you’ll be a better writer. Like with any other skill, if you write and continue to write, you will get better at it.

My biggest fear is that new writers will hear something like this and feel daunted by the idea. One million words is a vast time commitment, and a newer writer might feel that they will never be able to produce content of good quality.

In this day and age, information is ubiquitous and technology connects us to experts, teachers and other writers. We can receive immediate feedback on our work and there are endless resources to study the craft. It’s not unheard of for someone to publish the first book they’ve ever written. It isn’t something I’d recommend of course, but the reality is that making a living off of your writing is different now than it was twenty, even ten years ago.

A lot of authors these days are working parents or people with full-time jobs who find time to write on weekends. Career writers are few, and speed is just as important as quality. Self-published authors who experience the most success are producing and releasing new novels several times a year. Waiting until you have a million words under your belt is going to put you behind.

Now maybe you’ll argue that the point is to focus on the writing – focus on the craft until you can produce something decent. But then I ask, for what purpose are you producing content that is no longer ‘practice’? If you’re creating just to create, what does it matter how many words you’ve written? If you’re set on becoming a published author, then why not aim that high right away?

Don’t let it interfere with your writing, of course – no matter how badly you want to be a published author the writing should come first. But I think it can really hurt a writer’s confidence. And Heaven forbid they don’t consider themselves ‘true writers’ until they’ve written such a large quantity.

After much math and digging around, I have calculated the number of words I’ve written since I began writing ‘seriously’ back in 2011: 387, 214 words. Not even halfway there and yet I know from skimming my old drafts that I am already a much stronger writer. At this rate, I’ll be producing my best content 20 years from now.

And yet I feel ready to begin my publishing journey right now. I know that if I’m still writing decades from now it will probably be much better than anything I produce today, but I’m also not going to let that stop me. I think getting my work out there is just as valuable, and just as important to my writing journey and my growth as a writer as the writing process itself.

Are you going to write garbage at first? Probably. But you need to get a thick skin anyway, so I say jump in. Make mistakes. Write garbage. Post garbage. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I think what matters is that you write, and keep writing. It doesn’t have to be every day, and anyone who tells you to write every day is speaking from a place of privilege. Hell, anyone who is telling you to write a million words to begin with is speaking from the same place. But that’s a post for another time.

Despite my misgivings about this phrase, there is a sentiment there that I think is important – writing is hard. It’s a lot of work, and sometimes it takes a few rounds of failure. Maybe it takes several. You might look back at your early stuff ten years from now and cringe. But you had to take that step to get where you are. You have to write poorly and learn from it so you can do better the next time.

I don’t think you should query or publish the very first book you write. I think there is some perspective to be gained by having even two or three manuscripts under your belt. A better understanding of story structure, the willpower to stick through the drafting process and an understanding of what works best for you. If you revisit that first draft with a bit more experience and you still think it’s worth pursuing, then I say go for it.

One million words is a milestone, there’s no doubt about that, and that is all it should be.

I’m going to think of it as a measure. A progress bar of where I am in my writing journey. Doing the math for this had me revisiting old drafts, and I can clearly tell with near 400k under my belt that I am a better writer. I’m excited to see what my writing will be like when I get to one million words. It will be exciting just to say that I’ve written that much. But I don’t think you should let such an enormous number weigh over your head, or let it crush any dreams of publication. You will always be improving. It’s just the nature of artistic expression. A beautiful painting is still a beautiful painting, whether it’s the artists’ first or his tenth.

Of course, this is just one writer’s opinion. And any advice, no matter how well-intentioned, should be reflected upon and looked at critically. Take it with a grain of salt no matter where it comes from. This was just a phrase I heard recently that both intrigued me and made me uncomfortable and I wanted to explore it a little more.

I’d love to know what you think! Do you think one million words is a valid marker for writing experience or is it more a product of its time?

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