David Eddings, an American novelist who was most famous for his epic fantasy books, once gave the following advice to new writers:
“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”
That same advice has come from a number of other sources—it’s tough to determine just who said it first. Some point to legends such as Ray Bradbury or Jerry Pournelle, both of whom famously advice that new writers should write a million words before considering themselves ready to take up the cause.
Regardless of who said it first, the sentiment always seems to come down to one thing: “Your first million words don’t count.”
But that seems a bit negative. Because of course they count. They’re the words you use to hone your craft, to learn the strategies you need to do the work and do it well. So to put it in more positive, less scary terms: Your first million words are practice.
We should probably clear something up, before it becomes a thing: There will always be room for you to grow and improve as a writer.
One of the mistakes that a lot of talented writers make is relying entirely on their talent rather than nurturing their skill. It’s a subtle difference—talents versus skills—but it’s important to think about and understand.
Talent, you’re born with. At least, that’s the common perception. It seems that some people spring forth from the womb with all the ability they need to become great in a field.
Skill takes effort. You develop skill by putting in the hours. Skill comes at the cost of tears and sweat and hours.
Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t have both talent and skill. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of combination we should all aim for.
In her book ‘Mindset,’ Carol Dweck uses John McEnroe as an example of a fixed mindset, reliant more on his talent than on training:
“[McEnroe] believed that talent was all. He did not love to learn. He did not thrive on challenges; when the going got rough, he often folded. As a result, by his own admission, he did not fulfill his potential.”
Of course, McEnroe’s talent was more than adequate to make him the number one tennis player in the world—he just wasn’t particularly happy about it. Screaming at officials, throwing rackets, melting down into tantrums—when his talent failed him, he reacted as if his worth were taken away. And, since he was entirely reliant on talent to deliver him to success, he was kind of right. If your entire sense of self-worth is tied to succeeding naturally, without effort, and you find yourself failing, you immediately start questioning everything you ever knew about yourself. You start to worry that this thing you relied on—this ability that you didn’t have to work to earn—may have left you as easily as it arrived. And now you’re done. Your life, your career, everything that made you who you are is over.
That’s how it can seem.
Dweck further wrote that our culture puts a much higher value on talent than it does on effort—as if the fact that we have to sometimes put effort into improving our skills means that we have failed, that we aren’t worthy of success. If we must practice, then we don’t have natural talent, and maybe this thing we want isn’t right for us. We should give up and move on.
A lot of authors have walked from the business because they felt they weren’t ‘cut out’ for it, and at the heart of that decision is this idea of talent being more valuable than effort. That’s a sad state—because even the greats in this industry have had to pay their dues, to put in those million words so that they can rely more on experience and expertise than talent and a muse.
The mistake, of course, would be to go to the other extreme, and assume that because you have put in the time to nurture your talent into a reliable skill, you’re done. Objective complete. Achievement unlocked.
The reality is that even Stephen King comes back to the keyboard every single day, keeping the saw sharp by putting in the time and the words.
That’s really what those first million words are all about. They’re a measure of the time you’ve spent doing the reps. They are a gauge for how much effort you’re putting into honing your craft. They’re a proving ground for ideas, to help you find your voice and your style, and essentially define yourself as a writer.
Those first million words give you experience, which gives you strategies to use when you’re stuck, when you’re blocked, when you don’t quite know where to take things. Coming back to the writing, every single day, gives you momentum and toughens your writing hide.
The point here isn’t a literal “one million words.” It’s more about doing something every day to improve yourself as a writer. Nothing (and I mean nothing) improves your craft and your discipline like actually writing.
Here’s an actionable approach to developing a daily writing habit and improving your craft. Think of it as 10 steps to your million words:
No one is harder on themselves than an author. We criticize ourselves far more than any internet troll or bad review ever could. Part of that comes from the fact that our work is so solitary, most of the time. We get into our own heads, we forget that there are people who actually do love and support us, and we tend to obsess over all the flaws and errors that somehow ‘prove’ we’re not good enough.
We’re also inundated with pearls of wisdom and free advice and sage words about what we should or should not be doing, or how we should or should not think of our work. Case in point: “The First Million Words Are Practice.”
Here’s the reality: It’s not the first million words. It’s not the first billion, either. The reality is, all the words are practice.
Writing is a lot like the game Othello. It takes a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master.
The thing is, while you’re learning you need to give yourself credit for where you are and how you got there.
First, just having the courage to sit down and start doing this work is something to celebrate. Seriously—the fact you’ve even read to the end of this post is something you might want to write about in that journal we mentioned. It shows a willingness to improve yourself, which means you had to at least acknowledge that you might need improvement. Way to go!
Second, no matter what level you perceive yourself to be on, as a writer, you are, every day, advancing above that level, just by writing. Your victories are worth celebrating. Your skill is ever improving. You are getting better at this, so smile.
Adopt what Carol Dweck refers to as a ‘growth mindset.’ See every challenge as a chance to grow and improve, rather than a sign that you aren’t talented enough. And as for those first million words, consider them practice, and then decide that the next million will be practice, too. Determine for yourself that you can and will grow in this, and then go out and find ways to make that growth happen.
You’re an amazing writer. This is going to be right in your wheelhouse.Share on Twitter Share on Facebook