How Quantity Creates Quality in Writing

Quantity creates quality, when we’re talking about writing. I realize that’s going to ruffle a lot of feathers, but that’s okay. Better than okay. Let me be very clear about what I’m saying:

It’s more important to write more than it is to write better.

Now, it’s important you understand what I’m not saying: I’m not saying writing lots is better than writing well. We’re not talking about any specific point in time, at all. We’re talking about trendlines. We’re talking about the grander scheme, okay?

One piece of advice you hear over and over from established writers is, “Write every day.”

It’s good advice.

Practice makes perfect, and the more you practice, the better you’re going to be. The number of writers who spend hours or even days agonizing over a piece of writing is astoundingly high. The only way to get better is to write more.You should still be learning to write better, but that’s going to happen as you increase the limits of your own potential.

The other thing, of course, is that you never really know if a concept works until you’ve put it into action, so the more ideas you try, the more ideas you’ll have that work. Generally speaking.

Quantity Quantitized: Fun With Numbers

Let’s take a concrete example using actual numbers.

Let’s say we have four people who want to be writers. They’re starting from the same level of skill and talent, give or take just a bit.

We’ll call them Alice, Bert, Chris, and Dave.

Alice writes five hundred words a day, Bert writes one thousand, Chris writes two-and-a-half thousand, and Dave writes five thousand.

A comparison of four people writing for a year.
The differences really, really, add up.

In a year, Alice has written 182,500 words. That’s maaaybe two books worth of writing.

Dave has written 1,825,000. That’s eighteen books worth of material, at least.

I know, I know, two good books are a lot better than eighteen terrible ones. But remember, everyone’s starting out at the same level. Writing a book is more than just stacking words; it’s exploring ideas, developing a concept through to fruition. The only way to learn it is to do it. If Alice is learning to write well at twice the pace Dave is, she’s still only made a quarter the progress he has in this same period of time.

That’s just year one, however. Let’s spread this out over a career. Over forty years of time . . .

At the end of forty years, Alice has written 7,300,000 words . . . about seventy-three books worth of material . . . it’s probably safe to say she’s pretty good. Dave’s written 73,000,000 words. Dave’s written 730 books worth of whatever he’s doing.

Of course, Alice hasn’t written 73 books, and Dave hasn’t written 730.

That’s not how all this works, at all.

You don’t write a book. You write a draft. Then you rewrite it. You write a sixty thousand word first draft, then realize it needs to be told in first person, maybe? So you write another draft in first person . . . and decide it was better in third. So you adapt the updated and improved version of the story to the third person. Or you write a story from the point of view of one character, then you see that one of the supporting characters actually has the better viewpoint for the whole thing.

By writing ten times the quantity, Dave isn’t really creating ten times the output of Alice, he’s putting in ten times the work into what he is creating. And that’s the big lesson for writers out there, and what the pros really mean when they say, “Write every day!”

It’s embracing the truth that a bad second draft is usually better than a great first draft. Someone who puts ten rewrites into their book probably has a better book than someone who’s very carefully crafted that one version, right?

If you’re not writing, you’re not working.

If you’re not writing, you’re not working. Imagining plots and characters and settings is like imagining yourself changing a tire; it doesn’t count unless that tire gets changed. It’s not that thinking your way through a project isn’t a good thing to do, it’s that it is done with the end goal of doing the project. 

Here’s a fairly universal truth; your first two or three books are going to be bad. The sooner you get them done, the sooner you can get to work writing the good ones.

If you don’t know what to write, just write something else. In my experience, fingers in motion tend to remain in motion. For example, you might not be ready start working for the day, so you might just go ahead and write a journal entry detailing the current state of things and your concerns. Then you might wonder how much you write. Then you might decide to keep track of that. Then you might write a page for your blog where you’re going to be keeping track of that number.

Then, while you’re writing that, you might just find yourself thinking about whether quantity or quality is more important to a writer, and realize the answer is pretty straightforward.

I’m Not Saying to Write Badly

I do want to be clear that I’m not saying that it’s better to write more, badly–I’m saying to write more, better. That’s right, my writing advice to you is to “write more better” and I’m sticking to it. At any given moment, you should be creating the best work you can at the fastest rate you can. You only live once, and, damn, you’d better make it count!

All I can say is that you’ve got to take it seriously if you want to get anywhere as a writer. I promise you I am, and there are lots of people like me out there, doing their level best to be their best.

5000 Words? That’s impossible!

Well, first off, this is you right now:

You’re literally being Hamill at his hammiest. Chill.

Second off, you might be right. I don’t know your schedule, I don’t know the demands on your time. Here’s what I can tell you though; the more you try to maximize your word count, the easier it’s going to get, right? If I’m writing something that’s coming from my own brain (rather than something researched, sourced, etc.) I can reliably churn out 2,000 words in an hour without much pain or feeling rushed. That’s like 40 words a minute, right? And I’m not a super crazy fast typist or anything.

The point is, if I can shake loose two thousand words in an hour, you can, too. That means that it should take between two and three hours to write 5000 words for most folks. Maybe four. That’s a lot of time, if you’ve got a job on the side and all that. Or a family. Etc. On the other hand, there are lots of people out there holding down two jobs . . . and this is less of a time commitment than that. If it really is too much, then maybe aim for three thousand.

Cutting an hour off your TV watching time each day should be good for 10,000 words a week. That’s 520,000 words a year. Five drafts of your first book, right there. Bam! Or your first three terrible novels done, and your first two drafts of something good enough to put out there for other people to look at.

This Whole Post is a Bit of a Misnomer, OK?

Here’s the thing. This really isn’t about the words written at all, it’s just that the number of words you write is a pretty good indicator of how much time you’ve spent writing. Like, actually, really, for reals, writing. Not thinking about what to write. Not planning what to write. Not staring at the keyboard searching for that perfect sentence you’ve always dreamed of. Not dreaming of what it will be like when you’re famous and published and living on a boat.

Let me be really extra clear here: If that little blinking cursor isn’t progressing to the right, you are not writing, okay?

In our quantitative example, what’s happening is that Alice is spending less than an hour a day really writing, and Dave is spending, let’s say, four. Over a year, that means Dave’s spent nearly 1500 hours writing, and Alice has spent 365, tops. The simple truth is that you shouldn’t expect to make a living of anything that you’re only putting seven hours a week into.

If you want to make writing your job, then you have to treat writing as a job. The tricky part is that you have to treat it like a job for a good while before it actually starts to pay like one. Want to be a writer? Put in the time. Put in the work.

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