Why do people say that you have to write a million words to be any good at writing?

People write for a lot of different reasons, and have a variety of life experiences. Over time, you’ve had things you always wanted to write about. At first, though, you have a lot of things in the way.

  • Your prejudices
  • Any trauma you’ve suffered in your life
  • The desire for recognition
  • The desire for or fear of success

There are probably more, but those are the ones that popped into my mind. The first million words do a lot to help work through those issues. You might see themes coming up over and over. You might see your stereotyped attitudes coming out. But you won’t see them until you’ve done a LOT of writing. I’m starting to see mine now, coming on two years of serious writing. You need to know about them so you can deal with them now. No one’s going to pay to read about your angst.

The other thing those million words do is help you see if you like writing as a career. If you’re pulling teeth to write a hundred words, you’ll be dying at a thousand, and ready to throw your computer at ten thousand. Better to find out now then when you have a contract deadline.

The million words help you to learn how to write. With a big IF:

If you edit and have those million words critiqued.

I suppose you might be the one exception in history and write perfect prose on your first draft. But if you’re a fallible human like the rest of us, you’ll need to edit, and you’ll need help from others who read and tell you what works for them as readers and what doesn’t.

Editing, critiquing other people’s work, and getting critiqued (in that order) have been the three things that taught me the most about writing. You learn plot structure, how to write what you mean to, how to connect with your readers’ emotions, how to describe your settings. You learn the things that irritate readers and what’s been overused.

You can’t learn these by writing one story. A million words is about ten full-length novels.

While you’re writing these, you also find out what works best for you. Are you an outline-maker or do you just sit down and start writing? What research tools work for you? Do you write best on a word processor, or do you write best longhand? Do you prefer writing alone, in your office with people swirling around you, or out at the park? No one can tell you these things; you discover these as you write.

Another thing you’ll discover is a circle of like-minded writers. Hopefully, you’ll do a lot of exploration on and offline while finding information. Perhaps you’ll find a local group you click with, an online writers’ group you like, and read blogs by other writers in your genre. Cherish the ones who are supportive, and support their efforts in turn. These people can help you when you’re published and give you encouragement along the way before then.

Those million words give you time to learn about the publishing industry, to learn who the good agents are for your genre, who the scammers are, and which publishers take your genre. You’ll learn how to find markets for your work, and what the market trends are.

So don’t rush into things. Take the time to do your million words, to become accomplished at your work, to have your first entries into the writing world be of high quality. Get input into what you’re doing and listen to that input. (Not always follow it, but at least listen. More on that later.)

If published authors are telling us that writing a million words helps, it makes sense to consider it. You really have nothing to lose by writing more. You just have more to submit when the time is right.