Write Fast, Write Lots: Why Quantity Leads To Quality

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The best piece of marketing advice for authors (in my humble opinion) is to write another book.  The second best piece of marketing advice is to write another book.  Yep, so keep writing, you get where it’s going.  It’s that simple and that hard.  You have to produce work and you have to do it on a consistent basis in order to keep the momentum going.

That means you have to be prolific.  And if you’re prolific, you’re writing fast.  And if you’re writing fast, you’re probably just churning out sub-standard crap, right?

Wrong.

If you think writing fast means writing crap, then take a look at the list below.  It’s a short list of novels and novellas that were written in less than six weeks.  None of which are crap.  If nothing else, this list demonstrates what writers are capable of doing in a short period of time if they truly want to.

Have a look at the list.  After that we’ll get into the quality vs quantity debate with a little help from Adam Grant, and his highly informative book, Originals.

 

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brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark.  Spark wrote her celebrated novel in less than a month.  Yep, less than a month.  Originally published in 1961, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is based on Spark’s recollections of her own teacher, Christina Kay.

Running Man

The Running Man – Stephen King.  King knocked off The Running Man in less than a week.  Less than four days even!  Says the man himself: “The Running Man, for instance, was written during a period of seventy-two hours and published with virtually no changes.”

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A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens.  Dickens called this his “little Christmas book” and he started writing it in October 1843.  Six weeks later, the novella was finished in time for Christmas and from there it went on to pretty much invent the whole Christmas spirit thing.  And just in case you didn’t know – Dickens also self-published this book, overseeing every detail of publication until its release on December 19th, 1843.

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A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess.  Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks.  He always dismissed this controversial novel as one of his poorer efforts and it pissed him off that out of all his books, this was the one everyone was still talking about, right up until his death in 1993.

007

The James Bond Books – Ian Fleming. It took Ian Fleming about six weeks to write each of the James Bond books.  Usually it was the same routine for the author – he’d fly down to Jamaica, set up his writing desk in Goldeneye (his private residence), and work there.  The rest of the time, I presume he had fun in the sun.  Not a bad old life Mr F.

road

The Road – Cormac McCarthy.  In 2004, Cormac McCarthy flew to Ireland for six weeks.  During his stay in the Emerald Isle, he wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road.  The project was originally inspired by a trip to El Paso with his son, but it was written during that single stint in Ireland.  As McCarthy said at the time, “It’s amazing what you can get done when there’s nothing else to do but write.”

 

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Quantity = Quality?

Let’s go back to the matter of writing fast – of quality vs quantity.  A lot of people are under the assumption that if work is churned out quickly and regularly, then the churner-outer has little chance of producing great work.  Instead, the churner-outer is just a hack, producing inferior quality work to those ‘true artists’ who labour over a single or fewer pieces for many years.

But there’s a section in Adam Grant’s book Originals, which puts forth the idea that quantity is in fact, your best chance of producing quality.  I’m going to borrow a few passages from the book below.  Most of the information that I share comes from either David Simonton, a psychologist who has spent his career studying creative productivity, or from Grant himself.

Here are a few interesting titbits that might get you thinking.

Painting Your Masterpiece

How best to increase your odds of creating a masterpiece in any given field?  According to Simonton, “creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers.  They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality.”

In plain speak for authors – that means to write, publish, and repeat (to borrow a phrase from the guys at The Self-Publishing Podcast).  But remember – you must do it without sacrificing quality.  Work fast, but work great – never release crap into the world or you risk ruining your reputation forever.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

But here’s the thing – don’t take ten years to write a novel unless your novel really needs ten years.  Ten years, five years, three years, is no assurance against writing garbage.  Time has got nothing to do with how good or bad a book turns out.

And by the way, don’t think for one second that I’m telling anyone how long it takes to write a novel or novella.  There is no set answer to that riddle.  This is aimed at those people who think it takes a long time to write a truly good book.  It doesn’t.  Quite simply, it takes however long or short it takes.

Shakespeare

The book goes on to list a few historical examples of people who produced a large body of work in their lifetime – only a fraction of which is truly memorable.  For example, there’s William Shakespeare.  Over the course of two decades he produced 37 plays and 154 sonnets.  Simonton looked at the five year window in which Shakespeare produced three of his five most popular plays – Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello – and observed that the playwright also wrote Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well in that same time period.  Simonton describes these last two as ‘among the worst of his plays…consistently slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plot and character development.’

When we talk about excellence in creative writing we often use Shakespeare as the benchmark, even though much of what he produced wasn’t excellent at all.  Undoubtedly he achieved excellence, but this was aided by the fact that (a) he was talented and (b) he wrote and produced a large body of work.

The Composers

Some musical examples are listed in Originals:

Before dying at the age of thirty-five, Mozart had over 600 compositions to his name, but only a handful of them are considered as masterworks.

Same with Beethoven.  He produced about 650 pieces in his lifetime, but when the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the fifty greatest pieces of classical music of all time, only five were Beethoven’s.

Three were by Bach, who composed over a thousand pieces in his lifetime.

Picasso

Picasso was crazy prolific.  In Originals, we’re informed that he created ‘more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2.800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, not to mention prints, rugs, and tapestries – only a fraction of which have garnered acclaim.’

Now Get To Work

There are other examples in the book – the poetry of Maya Angelou and the theories of Albert Einstein amongst them.  The point is the same.  These are talented people who increased their odds of creating something great by producing a large volume of work.

What to take from this?

Well, everybody’s different and certainly there’s no one size fits all in any given field.  But if you’re trying to write a great book, a great screenplay, paint a masterpiece, write the best song, or come up with the best ideas in whatever field you’re in – you could do a lot worse than be prolific.  Some of what you come up with will be shit, and lots of it probably worse than shit.  That’s okay.  Some of it might be alright, some of it good.  Then again, some of it might be great.

To quote ‘Originals‘ one last time.

‘It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality – if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it – but this turns out to be false.  In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.’

“The most important possible thing you could do,” says producer Ira Glass, “is do a lot of work.  Do a huge volume of work.”

Remember the list of books at the top of this post?  Look at what can be done in a relatively short period of time.  Truly great things.  You can work faster and better simply if you choose to.  Forget the old myth that quality means years and years of waiting.

Keep busy and produce, because apparently this increases your odds of greatness.

 

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