Quantity vs. Quality

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.

Count it, guys.  That’s 7 years of serious writing.  Four Nanowrimos, three years of creative writing classes, and several fanfictions before I even found the beginnings of the voice.  If you wait until I had my voice pretty well established, you’ve got to add another two years at least.  Up to 9.
Now – I’m pretty sure that starting real writing when I was 14 had a lot to do with the lag time between starting writing and finding my voice.  Part of voice is being yourself, and knowing exactly who you are in high school and college is a difficult task at best.

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.


About Kaitlin

Kaitlin and Michael are co-authors of The Athele Series. They met in summer of 2006 and married in fall of 2009. They both teach English in South Korea. In his free time, Michael writes, plays video games, plays DnD, and idly contemplates world domination. In her free time, Kaitlin writes, runs, dances, and feeds her 'oo-shiny!' complex.

7 thoughts on “Quantity vs. Quality

  1. I think the portfolio thing was valuable because it rewarded you for finishing things, which is what a lot of writers have the most trouble with. (And I do speak from experience.) I would probably have done a lot more if I’d had someone standing over my head asking where my finished projects were. And in the act of finishing things, you do learn a lot more about the craft, which is why writing short stories is so educational. Great post!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Exactly. Though he didn’t care if they were finished, he cared that they were there. It taught me a lot about writing whether I felt like it or not though. Thanks!

  2. Excellent post. I love that you handle both sides, and point out that both sides are valid. (Though I’m totally the person who is not good at quantity. I’m too terse.)

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thank you! I have trouble with quantity in that I put too *much* in, but you can cut that stuff. As a commentator said (it could have been you! But I looked and looked and couldn’t find the darn comment :( ) You can’t edit nothing!

  3. Julie says:

    To me, that’s one of the big things that NaNo is about, getting that quantity so that you have something to work on. It’s about learning to not only start, but keep going. At the very least, that’s what I took away from doing it for the first time last year. I’d been a bit intimidated by doing 50k in 30 days, until I broke it down into daily chunks and thought I could do it. Then I found that 1667 words in a day was nothing. You’re right, with practice comes the quantity, and then more practice brings the quality.

    Besides, even if it is crap, it’s not a waste of time if you learned something from it that you can take forward into your next story. The number of writers I hear that had many unpublishable stories before they got published is strangely encouraging to me when I look back at the littered landscape and all the dead, desiccated, unfinished manuscripts that were part of me learning to write. I take comfort that it’s normal, and that they pretty much all taught me something, big or small.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Exactly. There was someone that said that you have to write a lot of crap out of your system before you get to the good stuff and they were right. (I’m really good at remembering quotes without remembering who said them. Gah.)

  4. Katie pleshko says:

    I like your article a lot and I’m writing two books right now. One about a girl named Natale who is coming home from collage because her mom was sick and her mom had died before she got there. Now she was alone. The other one is the 9th book in series called Unicorns of Balinor, because the author did not get to finish the series. Hope to see you soon! Katie

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