Quantity vs. Quality

This rant is for beginning writers interested in marathon writing.

Just before my marathon started, I wrote the blog “Get Off Your Butt and Write” with ideas on how to write marathon-style. However, every time I tell new writers they should challenge themselves to write 20,000 words in three days or 50,000 words in a week, there’s always a handful of writers who tell me:

“I can’t do that. I’m more interested in quality than quantity. I’d rather spend five years writing a good book than one month writing a sub-par one.”

Although this sounds like good logical thinking, it’s usually not the way things work. Especially for new writers. You can easily spend 5 years writing a sup-par book (or even a terrible book) and you can easily spend one month writing a really good book (or even your best work ever). Quality is more likely to come from your skills as a writer rather than the amount of time you spend on a book, and you gain these skills by writing as much as possible.

So, that means: quantity = quality.

As a new writer, you should focus on quantity first and quality second. Never sacrifice quantity for the sake of quality. Ever. Even if you have to trash a lot of what you write in the beginning. Your ego will tell you otherwise, but trust me when I say that quantity is more important to your growth as a writer. When you’re writing, set a firm deadline. Force yourself to write a 30 page short story in a day or a 100 page novel in 3 days. Whatever your deadline is, meet that deadline no matter what. Try to make it the best book it can possibly be, but only give it as much as time will allow. After you’re done, set another deadline for another story and do it again. Over time, you will gain experience that will increase the quality of your work. Not only that, but if you do many marathons where you are forced to work at a fast pace you will eventually learn how to produce high quality work in a very short period of time. You’ll be able to write quickly and efficiently, a skill that will be very useful if you want to write professionally.

In addition to that, I actually believe your work turns out a lot better when it is written at a fast pace. It seems my best books are the ones that I wrote in less than a week and the worst are the ones that took years to complete.

Here’s why:

1) Excitement – when you first come up with an idea for a book you’ll probably have a lot of excitement for it. You want to get that idea down on paper as fast as possible before your interest in that idea fades. If you marathon a book when you are at your most excited to write it then the energy that you put into it will really pay off. If you’re loving writing the book the reader will most likely love reading it. Finish the book before the excitement fades. If you take years writing this book your excitement will most likely fade. You will probably get bored with it. Writing the book will seem like a chore. These negative feelings will definitely have an impact on the quality of the book.

2) Focus – if you write a whole book in a short period of time, without distractions from everyday life, you’ll be able to focus more intently on your book. You will be able to live your story as you write it. You can’t do this with a book that takes years to write. The absolute best writing comes when you are in the “zone.” You can only get into this state when you are completely absorbed into your writing. When in the zone, you will forget that you are at a computer, writing the story. You’ll forget where you are, maybe who you are, and the story just flows out of you. I can only get into this state when marathon writing.

3) Memory – this is a cheap one, but if you write a book in a short period of time you are most likely to remember everything going on in the plot. When books take years to write you’ll have to keep notes and reread the thing several times, because you’re probably not going to remember everything you’ve written. If you have to reread your book several times before finishing it you’re going to get bored with it. Your book isn’t likely to be very good once you get bored with it.

4) Making it to the end – the fewer days you spend on a book, the less likely you will give up on it. I have given up on several books that have taken me years to write, but never on a book that I marathoned. On a marathon you just don’t have time to second guess yourself. If I didn’t marathon Cybernetrix or Apeshit and had time to second guess myself I would have said “There’s no way anybody will ever want to read this crap” and then trashed them.

When you start writing by deadline, you’ll probably produce some crap that will be thrown out. Don’t worry if you produce crap. You’ll still learn from it. What I don’t recommend is focusing too much on rewriting this crap. Just throw it away and use the knowledge you learned on your next book. Your time would be better spent starting a new book than rewriting the crap book, because it’s difficult-to-impossible to turn crap into gold.

This marathon-writing method doesn’t include editing and rewriting. When it comes time to do the rewriting, don’t be a perfectionist. Like you did while writing the first draft, give yourself a deadline and stick to it. Make your book as perfect as you can until the deadline is up. Then be done with it. If a publisher asks you for some revisions then do those, but otherwise call it quits. I say this because you have to know that your book will never be perfect. All works of literature, including all of the classics, are flawed. You can work on one book for the rest of your life and it will never be perfect. You have to know when to let it go and move on to your next book.

I think most people don’t believe it is possible to write a book in a week that is equal (or better) in quality to a book of the same length written in a year or two. But I assure you that you can do this with practice. Normally, I would say all writers are different and all writers have their own ways of doing things, but every single writer I have convinced to write books marathon-style have become better writers for it.

11 Responses to “Quantity vs. Quality”

  1. I’ve started doing this myself, and I can see the improvement in my writing already- not to mention I’m becoming very quick at being able to come with an idea and turn it over into a novel very quickly.

    While I owe a lot of my style to Beckett and Britton and sade, I owe my writing technique to your tips. Thanks Carlton.

  2. Grant Wamack Says:

    Very informative blog entry.Perhaps I’ll try setting some stringent deadlines for myself.

  3. Kevin Shamel Says:

    I’m very happy that you endorse the marathon writing periods–it will make it much easier for me to lock myself away: “CARLTON says it’s a good idea, Baby.”

    I was thinking about this and I realized that even with my current writing style (write when I’m not saddled with child) I really banged out Rotten Little Animals quickly. I wrote the whole thing in three weeks. If we translate that to REAL time–if I’d been able to lock myself away–it’s probably closer to two weeks. It felt really great to write it that quickly.

    I’m going to try a marathon soon.

  4. Hi Carlton!

    This is a really good post, and very encouraging. My goal has been to write two novel drafts this summer that I can edit during the school year. I’ve finished one and a quarter so far. I wrote almost all of the first one in about three weeks while visiting my parents. It was awesome to finish it that quickly and I did feel very energized, but I was starting to berate myself about it…”good writers take longer, right?” But everything you say about writing marathons makes sense. Thanks for the advice!

  5. carltonmellick Says:

    Kira, yeah a lot of readers think writers should slave and suffer for a long time over a work in order for it to be good, but actually a lot of great books were written in short periods of time. It takes you less time to write a good book than a bad book because good books fly out of you (when you know you’re writing something good, you won’t be able to stop).

  6. Chris S Says:

    Well said! I’ve been looking for something to get me back into writing and this makes a lot of sense. I may have to give it a shot.

  7. Eli Hicks Says:

    This may be the best advice I’ve ever gotten. My dream is to make a name for myself as a writer, because I’ve always loved writing and it’s pretty much the one thing I feel I’m really good at. Or, interested in becoming really good at, anyway. And I just love that feeling of getting lost in my writing and losing track of the time as my pencil gets shorter and shorter. And later on, if I review what I wrote and decide it sucks ass, which has been known to happen, it feels great to just start over and try to make a better story and get lost in it all over again. It’s my favorite way to pass the time, but I wasn’t sure it was the right way to go if I wanted to take this writing thing seriously, until I came to your blog. Thanks for the advice and the encouragment!!

  8. carltonmellick Says:

    Glad to have helped some of you with this.

    • Philip Overby Says:

      I did NaNoWriMo last year, and I was very happy I made the 50,000 word mark. My novel completely blew, but I was so satisfied I finished it. Recently I wrote an almost 30,000 page book in a month, and I don’t know how I did that. I just wrote every Sunday, without interruption, and it happened. I completely agree with you that quantity is always the better option. Quality and self-criticism drives writers mad, and they never finish anything in that case.

  9. I totally agree with writing in the moment and how much better your work comes out. I write poetry and when I write it is usually when something hits me and I start writing it down and it just flows out wonderfully. But say if I start with something and stop. I’ll never come back to it, because I can’t find the feeling I first had when I started. That’s when my work looks like i tried to hard and I usually end up hating it.

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