In high school, I took a creative writing class. It was one of those electives that people either loved or hated. The grade was based on your ‘portfolio’, which was nothing more than a big folder with all and any of your writing. Your assignments, your journaling, your poetry and everything else. A portion of your grade was based on your completion of the assignments. A bigger portion of your grade was based on if you had a certain amount of pages in your folder. Not what those papers were, not even if they were filled with your undying hatred of squirrels. Just that they were there at all.
It was a fun class. But some people really objected to this grading system of quantity over quality. I’ve never quite known where I stand on it before, but a commentor said something which put me firmly over the ‘good thing’ line.
Ok, here’s the thing. Writing is hard. I mean, really hard. First you have to learn the rules of the English language, which, take it from an ESL teacher, not easy. Then you have to learn a whole new set of rules which are specifically for people writing creatively, then you have to contend with your imagination so that you have something to write and then you have to learn how to edit your work and then… ok, yeah, you get the idea. It’s hard. Being a writer isn’t something you just ‘Ho hum, I’m just gonna write this thing and I’ll be famous and awesome!”
Boy do we wish.
But where to start? We’ve all heard the whole “Just write. Write anything and everything. Just do it.” adage. But a lot of people balk, saying “but I’ll write so much useless crap. Why should I waste my time writing crap when I could concentrate my energy a little more and get something half decent on my first try?”
This kind of logic works on some writing. Research papers, dissertation type things, scientific reports, technical data analysis – all of that is extremely focused on quality, as it should be. Like-wise, I think that a lot of non-fiction is this way – there is only so much story to tell, and you want to get it right. You need to get your facts across in a succinct, easy to understand way. Therefore, quantity isn’t so much the issue.
But fiction, and I mean all kinds of fiction, from literary to fantasy, doesn’t have that vibe. Fiction is focused on quality, yes, but unlike non-fictional and technical writing, that quality is not made up of facts.
Let me repeat that. The quality of fictional writing is not made up of facts. Fiction writers have an entire other field to play on called voice.
Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds has a flat out amazing post on voice, which you should go and read right now before you continue on. I’ll wait.
Ok, now go and reference number 11. This shit takes a long time. Truer words have never been spoken.
I started writing in high school. I found the first vestiges of my voice in college, but I overshot it – the stories were acceptable but my creative writing teacher always told me that my voice was not to be used as a crutch, and he was completely right. I finally beat it back from the phase of overusing the voice as a crutch and brought it back just enough that we could live in happy harmony and then went through a period of refinement wherein I was still messing around that line to find just the right balance.
So the point being that it takes an awful lot of writing before you can really get that voice which seriously marks the quality of a fiction piece.
Now, back to the argument in high school of Quantity over Quality, and the big reason that quantity, at least in the early stages of learning to write, wins. Yes. You can write a good story by taking your time and outlining and being careful with every sentence structure and thinking through every word of dialogue. But especially as a beginning writer, you are far more likely to lose momentum, stare at your blank page and then throw up your hands and walk away.
That’s not gonna make you a writer. That’s gonna make you the “oh I’ve got a half-finished book I’ll pick up again later” person. Not judging, just saying.
But here’s the thing. Once the words are on the paper, you can go back in and make them better. Strengthen the voice, erase typos, tighten scenes, fix plot holes and polish up that sentence.
If the words aren’t on the paper though, there’s nothing to do.
This is why I jumped onto the Nanowrimo bandwagon with such ferocity. I can deal with my manuscript being a mess as long as it’s a manuscript, and I’ve been tutored on the quantity side of the fence since I first started really writing.
Nowadays, I don’t even bat an eye at 2,000 words written. I know I can and I do whenever I have the time and inclination. And because I don’t have to worry about the amount of words I write, I can focus a little more on quality. I can remind myself that ellipses and em dashes in my writing will come back to bite me in the edit, I can get the dialogue punctuation right the first time. Because the quantity is up, I can focus on the quality.
So there you have it. Both quantity and quality are important in writing. But if you have no quantity, your quality isn’t going to improve no matter how pretty that blank page is.