Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quality vs. Quantity

image The quality vs. quantity argument, as it pertains to writing fiction, seems to come up quite often in November. I'm always surprised at the backlash to "quantity," since I don't see 1,667 words a day as a humongous amount for someone wanting to write fiction professionally. But to each his own.

In music, there is a form much like the novel, called the Sonata form. There are, essentially, three approaches to teaching music. First, there's the quantity approach, where a new piece is taught every week or two, and you race through a lot of repertoire but never gain a deeper understanding.

Second, there's the quality approach, where it's believed that if you've learned one Sonata extremely well, then you'll be able to play and teach all of them.

Third, there's the approach I use, which is Quantity followed by Quality. Each has its own strengths to offer, its own uses.

First, quantity:

  1. Quantity gives you confidence.
  2. Quantity gives you a deeper understanding of the form.
  3. Quantity gives you a subconscious understanding of the form.
  4. Quantity gives you the freedom to write more intuitively, and the form will happen as if automatically.
  5. image Quantity gives you choices: if you want a super paragraph about bees, write 5-10 of them about bees, and then you can take the best bits, and you'll end up with one super-duper paragraph about bees.
  6. Quantity promotes creativity: My teacher once made me come up with thirty different ways to interpret a phrase. For that, you have to get creative! VERY creative!

The downside:

  1. Quantity risks sloppiness.
  2. Quantity risks bad habits.
  3. Quantity risks a superficial understanding of how the form works on a more detailed level. (I know that seems to contradict #2 and #3. It just is, even though it doesn't make sense.)

Second, quality:

  1. Quality will you give an intimate understanding of the details.
  2. Quality, if paired with a quantity understanding, will give you nuance.
  3. Quality will teach you shading, colors, voice.
  4. Quality will give you that polished finish.
  5. Quality is saleable; quantity (arguably), is not.

The downside:

  1. Quality, without quantity, risks an inability to see the larger picture.
  2. Quality, without quantity, risks an inability to feel how each detail fits the whole.
  3. Quality, without quantity, risks your work being less creative than it could be.

image I would never argue that one should learn one way or another. Writing is extremely personal. I don't think, however, quantity should be dismissed out of hand. For example, I make my beginners learn to play about 200 songs or so in their first seven or eight lessons.

After two months, those students are better at reading music than most any transfer students I get who've been playing for two or three or even more years. (There is not a lot of great advice circulating on how to teach people to read music for the piano.)

During this process, their technique and artistry is a little shaky, although we work on that separately in the hopes they'll start applying it to their sight-reading. After that, we do quantity with a sight-reading book (about 15 pieces a week), and quality with repertoire pieces (about 1 piece every 3-8 weeks) that we take to performance level.

How I choose:

  1. Quantity for a greater understanding.
  2. Quantity for more creativity.
  3. Quality for polish.
  4. Quality for nuance.

This post seems to say we choose one or the other: that's not the case at all. I prefer to keep at quantity and go for increasing quality. I insist I learn something new with each book, each chapter--heck--each day.

image At the end of the day, you can spend twenty years on one book, and you will never get the understanding of someone who has written twenty books. It's frustrating, but there is no escaping the fact that after you've written a certain quantity of books, you're going to have a different and better understanding of how they're put together.

Again, I would never advise one way or another, but I would advise ruling one way out. There is a case for quantity, too. :-)

If you want a great query letter, write ten. If you want a great paragraph for a contest, set out to write ten. If you want a great synopsis, write ten. You probably, eventually, won't need to do so much quantity, but it is a great tool.

What say you? Which pros and cons did I miss?

23 bonus scribbles:

Kath Calarco 11/15/2008 05:55:00 PM  

Wow, Spy! I don't think you missed anything. That's quite an impressive group of lists.

I'm a quantity vs. quality type, I think. All my finished mss are over 150,000 words. God, I could barf up some pages. Practice, practice, practice. I think after the quantity is over, one can bring out some quality in the edits.

P.S. On the other hand, my first college essay (last year), a creative non-fic piece, was less than three pages long. It got an A, so maybe I'm getting close to having both q's. :)

Susan Helene Gottfried 11/15/2008 06:06:00 PM  

I was never a word counter. I'd just sit down, bang out a story and not worry about extra words or this or that... I'd just tell the story. If it took a million words, so be it.

For quality, that's all about revision. That's where writing becomes a craft. A beautiful, spellbinding, infuriating, excruciating craft.

Edie 11/15/2008 07:15:00 PM  

I've done quantity, and now I'm focused on quality. Still, I want to get my word count up. I should be able to do 10 quality pages a day, every day.

By quality, I don't mean perfect, just pages I can read the next day and feel that I am a good writer.

Melanie Avila 11/15/2008 07:19:00 PM  

Spy, is this what you were doing when you said you were 'writing'? ;P

I agree with Kath, this is an impressive list. I love how you've broken down each side and applied it to how we can use each to improve. I'd much prefer quality at this point in my life, but I wholly agree about writing 10 whatevers that you need. I'll have to remember that when it's time to query. :)

spyscribbler 11/15/2008 08:40:00 PM  

LOL, Kath. You know, I usually write spare and flesh out, but I once tried writing a bunch of stuff I knew wouldn't all fit. I had to cut out a whole subplot and several scenes, but I loved that process: of writing more than necessary and then cutting.

I just never seem to have enough time to do that, so I've only managed it once. I want to do it again. I keep meaning to.

spyscribbler 11/15/2008 08:43:00 PM  

Ohmigosh, Susan, I was trained by the word counter. All my chapters must be 4,000 words in length, and I now subconsciously and automatically time my stories to hit an end-of-chapter hook every 4,000 words. It's crazy.

I am so aware, incessantly, of what word count I'm at it's crazy. Then there's the limitation of 40K per story, which I've stretched to 52K just barely.

Anyway, I loved what you said. I hope someday I can write something "beautiful" and "spellbinding."

spyscribbler 11/15/2008 08:45:00 PM  

Edie, I struggle with the same thing. I've not been happy with my word count, lately. Honestly, it seems to only flow at a certain time of month. (I'm serious!)

This morning I read my last chapter and felt like a shitty writer, LOL. Oh well. I fell in love with my story today, though.

spyscribbler 11/15/2008 08:47:00 PM  

LOL, Melanie! I was still procrastinating then, struggling along with 200 words. And then something unlocked, and I've written three blog posts, two thousand words, and I'm not even close to done for the day. Speaking of which, I better get to it.

And the thing that sparked this is that I worry whether or not I can write in another genre. I flee to quantity when I fear failure, and set myself a quantity goal, like 12 proposals in a year. :-)

Barrie 11/16/2008 12:47:00 PM  

Well, I'm sure you didn't miss a single point! How neat the way you related writing and music. My thought--you gotta write more than one book. There's just too much to be learned from moving on.

Robin 11/16/2008 01:00:00 PM  

Really interesting ideas. It reminds me of math tutoring, which I sometimes do for friends' kids. The key at first is to just do a million problems. Once certain things are second nature, they can move on to more sophisticated concepts and deeper thinking.

With writing, I definitely find that the practice is important. Even blog posts make me gradually better.

Zoe Winters 11/16/2008 02:01:00 PM  

LMAO, yeah I don't see 1667 as that much for writing fiction either.

Also, many professionally published fiction writers are churning out 2 or 3 books a year.

That's a lot of quantity. Is their argument that the quality of their own work is bad? Or are they just magical exceptions to the rule?

spyscribbler 11/16/2008 02:55:00 PM  

Barrie, I agree completely! I have this weird idea in my head that I'll be able to master this novel-writing stuff once I write one hundred novels. (Not that I'm not going to do something with the ones before that, LOL!)

spyscribbler 11/16/2008 02:56:00 PM  

Totally, exactly, Robin! I think it's that way with everything we learn.

I'm practicing, too!

spyscribbler 11/16/2008 02:58:00 PM  

Zoe, I'm not sure what the argument is. I mean, if you take 100 days off every year, and write 1,000 words every other day, then you've got 265,000 words, which is three novels. It's really not that much. I write that much while taking months off a year, LOL.

Amy Nathan 11/16/2008 03:52:00 PM  

What a fabulous post. Quality and Quantity! For me if there is no quality, it gives me nothing, I'm empty from it. So even in the midst of attempting quantity, I must muster a semblance of quality or it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It needn't be perfect or even grammatically correct, but there must be something to hold onto that makes me proud, glad that I spent the time -- the right phrase or word, the new idea, the stream of thoughts, the witty dialog.

Maybe it's the quality of the quantity that matters to me. And quantity is quantified differently by each of us isn't it?

(Sorry couldn't resist. Gotta love those Q's)

Heather Harper 11/16/2008 05:59:00 PM  

It's all about balance, IMO. If I focus on quality first quantity suffers. Vice versa. And since my rough draft is bare bones story and my own personal synopsis (I'm a pantser) I would never share it with anyone. So, I don't worry about anything except getting to the end.

Melanie Avila 11/16/2008 07:00:00 PM  

Can I change my answer to what Amy said?

Anonymous,  11/16/2008 07:29:00 PM  

Wow, this was a great post. I really do think you get better the more you do something. I can't imagine playing that many songs on the piano in such a short amount of time...whew! I guess that's why I never got much farther than "Mary Had A Little Lamb." :)

spyscribbler 11/17/2008 12:07:00 PM  

LOL, Amy, exactly! (Your tongue twister cracked me up!) I think they each have their uses, and of course should not be used exclusively of one another.

I agree, though. I want them both at the same time!

spyscribbler 11/17/2008 12:08:00 PM  

Totally, Heather. I think I focus on quantity more when I fear the level of quality I'm achieving, just so I'll keep going. It's one of the gifts of NaNo and Sven, I think. :-)

spyscribbler 11/17/2008 12:09:00 PM  

No, Melanie. Once you submit an opinion, it is set in stone and must never be changed, altered, or amended in any way.

(Kidding! ;-)

spyscribbler 11/17/2008 12:11:00 PM  

Fringe, it does sound a lot when you put a number to it, but it's like learning to read books. If you read the same page over and over, you just memorize it.

If you read a different page every day, then you learn to read!

And these are easy pieces, so they take about one minute to play. So if you imagine doing ten a day for a few weeks, then the number builds quickly. :-)

Melanie Avila 11/17/2008 12:47:00 PM  

Spy, I'm glad you explained about them playing so many songs because that seemed like a lot to me too.