Quantity vs Quality 4 comments

1280px-Colorful_pottery 1200 x 500 Photo by karol m  (CC BY 2.0)

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the ‘quantity’ group: fifty pound of pots rated an ‘A’, forty pounds a ‘B’, and so on. Those being graded on ‘quality’, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an ‘A’.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

…The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.

— Excerpted from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland [linebreaks and bolding added]

You have no idea how excited I am right now because I have been looking for this quote for literally years to share with you and today by sheer luck I stumbled across it in my archives!

Every artist must learn that even the failed pieces are essential. Click To Tweet

What’s the artistic lesson here about quantity vs quality? In the ceramics story, the people who tried to make one perfect pot never got to learn from failure, denied themselves the opportunities to start over, and ultimately experimented with a limited range of options and techniques. Whereas the people making as many pots as possible got to do more work (known in some artistic circles as “practice” or “rehearsal”) and get better through the course of working over time.

The problem with the lapidary approach to creativity Click To Tweet

I run into many beginning writers who want to write a “great work” right away and fall into the trap of taking the lapidary* approach of (endlessly) polishing a single screenplay or story or poem. The only problem is they aren’t learning to “write”, they’re learning to write that single poem or story or screenplay: it’s like the difference between “learning to sing” and “learning to sing one particular song.” And they aren’t learning new things, they’re mired in repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

When we're focused on just one thing, there can be a tendency towards preciousness. Click To Tweet

When we’re focused on just one thing, there can be a tendency towards preciousness. It’s a mindset that’s the polar opposite of “kill your darlings”–it amounts to “cling to your darlings for dear life because you’re banking on this one being a success”.

I suspect part of how the volume potters succeeded was that A) they were committing to the process, not the outcome (which is critical to success for me); and, B) committing to the process made them get out of their own way and get on with it (cf Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on flow, etc).

If you know me, you’ll already know I’m not saying that you shouldn’t see your projects through or that you shouldn’t polish your work.  Within reasonable limits, those are both good creative strategies.

Take risks. Make mistakes—and learn from them. Write, write, write. Click To Tweet

What I am saying is: Don’t get mired in a single project. Don’t try to produce just one “perfect pot”. Rather than theorize, create. Churn out piles out work. Take risks. Make mistakes–and learn from them. Write, write, write.

If your writing work was graded today by the ceramics teacher, would you have one flawed attempt at a perfect pot or a great pile of work that showed progress and growth? What grade would you get?

If you don’t like your answer… what are you going to do about it?

Hint: “quantity”, “failure”, and “risk” are probably key words in a good answer to that question. Those are all topics I want to explore with you. I’m also looking forward to sharing some short, easy writing exercises and collaborative writing games where you can safely take risks and have fun trying new writing techniques. And I want to look at productivity and efficiency tips to help you churn out more work than you have in the past.

But back to you: would writing more, not in terms of frequency but sheer volume of output, help you improve as a writer? (The answer for almost all of us is “yes”.) If you want to write more, what does that mean for you in practical terms and what immediate steps can you take?

If you want to write more but don’t know how to make that happen or you’re facing specific obstacles, let me know, and we can look at what to do about that, too. If you’re ready to write more, I want to see you have all the tools and support you need to do so.

* Don’t know “lapidary”? It’s a wonderful word you deserve to have in your vocabulary. Here’s a link to the definition of lapidary in case it’s new for you.

Photo credit: karol m from arizona, USA under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license..

4 thoughts on “Quantity vs Quality

  • Mark Walker

    What a fantastic story and a very true message. I think I have certainly learned that quantity develops quality. I probably spent a lot longer on my first scripts than I should have done, thinking I just had to write one good script (it isn’t) and then I would make my fortune (I didn’t).

    This would have been a great anecdote to hear when I was starting out but, even without it, I’ve come to realise that the more I write, the better I get. Simple really. If you practice anything, you will get better at it.

  • Debbie Moon

    Great post! I’m a believer in having lots of ideas on the go, not least because a few of them just won’t work out, either in development or just at the writing stage…

  • John Connor

    Honestly, this is probably the single most important (and truest) piece of writing advice I’ve ever come across. Thank you!

    21 year-old me would have benefited enormously from hearing this. I think 33 year-old me has learned it (the hard way!), but I’ve never seen it articulated so perfectly.

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