It’s not a question anyone really wants to ask themselves – but it is the most necessary question in professional writing.
And if the quality of writing around the web is any indication, it’s a question very few writers ask themselves.
Most people starting out as professionals will receive the following advice: write. Just write. Keep writing.
I know. I give that advice myself.
Recently, though, I realized that this advice is only useful after you’ve asked yourself the all-important question: are you good enough to begin? Because if you’re not good enough to write professionally, then the only thing you’ll accomplish by writing and writing more and keeping on writing is –
Well. A lot of bad writing.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. It basically states that you have to put in 10,000 hours actively trying to get better at a skill before you will be considered expert in it.
When new writers receive the advice that they should just keep writing, their advisors are essentially telling them to keep knocking out those 10,000 hours. It’s great advice.
What Gladwell doesn’t mention is that you can’t do your 10,000 hours out of order. Those first 500 hours or so are going to be mastering the very rudiments of the skill. In writing, this means you’re going to learn how to form your letters, how to spell, how to create basic sentence structure.
Theoretically, all of us mastered these skills back in grade school.
Except that clearly many of us didn’t.
I see a lot of people who don’t really know where to place a comma. People who don’t understand that even if two words sound alike, they are not spelled alike (“here” and “hear” come to mind). People who write long, nonsensical run-on sentences because no one ever quite finished teaching them that every subject needs a predicate.
If you haven’t figured out the fundamentals, all the advice to write and keep writing and write more won’t help you.
Because you’re just going to keep repeating the same mistakes.
The First 500 Hours
At a certain age, it’s assumed that you mastered the fundamentals. If you’re 30 years old, no one is going to dream of sitting you down to teach you how to correctly use a comma. It’s not done.
Unfortunately, I recently had to sit a 30-year-old friend of mine down to do just that.
He’s a smart guy and he wants to learn how to be a professional writer. He wants to get good at this. He asked me to help him. And for about two months, I worked with him on creating compelling, pithy paragraphs, great headlines, and interesting content.
He was great at all of that – but somehow, his writing was always just a little . . . off.
You couldn’t quite put your finger on it. It didn’t quite sound right. There were too many basic errors to be typos and yet he didn’t make the same errors consistently. He misspelled certain words – also inconsistently. He couldn’t hear when a sentence was awkward.
I finally sat down with him and asked what the deal was.
And he confessed that he’d never figured out this stuff in school. The way the teachers taught was straight out of a textbook, and if you didn’t understand it the first time, it was too late – they’d already moved on to the next lesson plan. There was no personal attention, no one willing to explain why a red-circled mistake was a mistake.
The reason he made inconsistent mistakes was that he’d gotten good at guessing what was right. But he didn’t really know.
Which meant that he was never going to be good enough to be a professional writer if I just encouraged him to write a lot and corrected his mistakes.
He was missing the first 500 hours. And embarrassing as it was, we had to go back to the beginning and teach him the fundamentals before we could move forward with our lessons in professional copywriting.
So. Are You Good Enough?
If you want to be a professional writer, there’s no reason you can’t be.
But it’s important to ask yourself this question first: are you good enough to be a professional?
If you haven’t figured out the fundamentals, then no, you’re not good enough – yet. You’re going to have to put in that work first. You’re going to have to go through the first 500 hours.
You have to know how to write properly before you can learn to write well.
Does that mean you can’t learn how to be a professional writer? Absolutely not. It just means you can’t skip ahead. You can’t learn how to write amazing headlines before you learn subject-verb agreement. You can’t learn how to craft compelling introductory paragraphs before you learn how to avoid run-on sentences.
I’m the last person to discourage anyone from dreaming big. If you want to write professionally, I salute you. If you’re willing to put in the hours to become an expert in the field, I take my hat off to you. And if you are willing to ask yourself this one hard question, I will actually drop a deep and deferential curtsy in your direction.
Because it’s a really important question.
And every would-be professional should ask it.