In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell eloquently articulates the key to success is simply a matter of putting in the hours. 10,000 hours to be specific. That’s 250, 40-hour work weeks, nearly five years of practicing a specific task over and over again. It’s estimated The Beatles performed over one thousand shows before they hit it big in ’64. In the late sixties, Bill Gates joined a computer club with access to a time-share computer. Within a seven month period in ’71, Bill and friends devoured over 1,500 hours. That’s eight hours a day, seven days a week. Bill put in his 10,000 hours before he graduated high school. If you polled the best screenwriters in the biz, you’d find similar numbers.
Proficiency and speed go hand in hand. Conventional wisdom will tell you, the more times a process is repeated, the easier it becomes, requiring less energy to be exhausted. Realizing the cognitive demands of writing put the required hours into perspective:
“Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task,” he declares. It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance. We are all aspiring Mozarts indeed. So what’s holding us back? How does one write faster? Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as “knowledge-crafting.” In that state, the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience. 1
Diving into the world of screenwriting presents its own challenges, as the style and formatting are so unconventional. You’ve probably read countless novels, text books, articles, and essays, yet none are quite like a screenplay. Read the first page of any script and you’ll clearly see the difference. Here, screenwriter John August comments on adapting:
Once you start to recognize the rhythm of the page — how action interrupts dialogue, how to change locations while staying in a story thread — a lot of the frustrating craft stuff melts away. Decisions you used to consciously agonize over get taken care of before you’re even aware of them. 2
In closing, Douglas Adams summarizes the challenges of writing better, and with fewer words, than I ever could:
Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.