10,000 hours

With most tasks, repetition improves skill. Name an action: serving a tennis ball, baking a cake, speaking in front of an audience. In your experience, isn’t it true that the more you do something, the better you get?

Would you find it troubling if the opposite occurred?

Since 2005, I’ve spent many working hours editing articles about wild animals. In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote that the key to outstanding success in any field is practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. When it comes to editing stories about wildlife, I am roughly two-thirds of the way there. I should be pretty good by now.

And yet, when it comes to one task, I’m getting worse. It’s a silly little thing, but it’s something I run across weekly if not daily. You’re going to laugh when I confess what it is, because it’s so basic yet so integral to my job: knowing when to deploy plural terms for various types of wildlife.

Take “dove.” An “s” on the end makes it plural, but when are you supposed to do that? “Dove” can be plural or singular, right? When you’re talking about one bird or three, one bird is a dove, that’s clear. Are three always doves? Or are they dove (if the same species) and doves (if different species)? Or is there another nuance I’m missing?

You’re going to remind me about collective nouns. I know: I can look that up. I’m talking about my ear. I used to have an ear for this. What I’m confessing is, I seem to have lost that ear, and now I have to look things up.

I wish I could ask other editors about this. With repeated exposure to different writers’ approaches to one body of knowledge, does everything start to sound right to you (or wrong, as the case may be)? Do you feel more or less skilled, the longer you edit in that field? In many ways, I feel more skilled, but I do wonder this: What’s happening to my ear?

Maybe I’m not losing it. There’s another interpretation of what’s going on. It’s possible I used to get it wrong sometimes without knowing it, and now I know this is a problem area. I’ve gained the wisdom to know when something could be wrong and that I should pay close attention. In other words, maybe with experience I’ve become more sensitive to the nuances of writing in my chosen field.

Comforting thought. I sure hope it’s true.

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2 thoughts on “10,000 hours

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  1. No, you are definitely losing it.

    Actually, this reminds me of an experience I had, though it may not relate to what you are talking about at all. [Seriously. I am taking a speed-reading course and my comprehension is plummeting.] When you study something familiar with intensity and at length, you can lose your bearings. At least that is what happened to every graduate student I ever met who studied structural linguistics. Our Professors told us this would happen when we worked through exercises to distill the underlying rules of American English. I didn’t believe it until I started to lose all sense of what was in fact grammatical and what wasn’t. This only happened from time to time, but when it did we had to take a break or run our sentences by other native speakers who weren’t studying the matter. Losing our judgment tended to come and go rather unpredictably. At least I think it so is as me remember.

    1. Sure me am you remember correctly it.

      I think your comment is very relevant to what I was trying to express. The immersion of a program like that is total. I can understand how you occasionally lost your bearings in the grammatical fog. When you handed the work to another native speaker who lived in the normal world, I imagine you asked, “Does this sound right?” When it feels like I’ve lost my ear for such matters, it helps that I have someone else to ask, as well.

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