Quality versus quantity

At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with wordcount. That’s what happens when you embark upon a writing challenge such as WriMoFoFo, which comes complete with a Nifty Spreadsheet (its creator should patent it!) to keep track of words produced, owing, and averaged.

What’s good about this: It makes me keep going and going and going until I reach my daily goal. I’m trying to bank words at the moment, partly to account for the four days lost at the beginning of the challenge, partly to account for a couple of days coming up where I have things scheduled that will prevent me from writing at all. (Well, okay, I could get up at 5am but it’s not going to happen…)

What’s bad about this: Sometimes I get in a tangle trying to reconcile quality versus quantity.

My natural (default) writing process is to take it fairly slow and focus on writing to the best of my ability, starting with the first draft. But often the idea with writing challenges like WriMoFoFo (and its parent NaNoWriMo) is to push yourself to write more than normal, to give yourself permission to ‘write badly’, to let the story out.

Somehow, though, I have a great deal of difficulty letting myself ‘write badly’. I’m not saying everything I write is perfect (far from it), but generally I put a fair deal of care and thought into writing, so that it’s hopefully as good as I can get it on any given day. I would actually love to be able to let my hair down and allow the story to develop more organically, but that doesn’t seem to be my process.

Nevertheless, writing challenges like WriMoFoFo do have me experimenting a little; because in order to push myself, I either need to write for more hours (perfectly legitimate) or write faster.

Because I am currently not working, it’s tempting for me to simply write for more hours. Essentially this is what I have been trying to do anyway, to take advantage of the fact that I have few other demands on my time. It’s far more relaxing and enjoyable for me if I just take my time, plug away until I’m happy with a paragraph or scene, without worrying about wordcount.

It would be so nice to never have to worry about wordcount, to just play with the words. But unfortunately that’s not a technique conducive to actually finishing anything in a timely fashion (in my case), so since my non-working idyll cannot last for much longer, I am trying to ‘let go’ more and practise writing faster.

I don’t think I ever will be an organic writer, with words flying from fingertips to keyboard without pause for sometimes hours on end. My mind doesn’t work like that. But I know I can learn to be a little less precious with the first draft. (Because there is nothing more frustrating than spending hours/days on a scene that is ultimately deleted because you decide it’s either superfluous or heading in the wrong direction.)

One method I’ve been practising is envisaging a scene, or part thereof, and splurting that out in very rough form. If I can knock out a page or two in this manner, I then allow myself to go back over it and edit — essentially a rewrite or heavy edit. I know many writers wouldn’t bother editing at this point, they’d just go on with the story, but it feels wrong to me to leave a chunk of very rough copy, particularly if it’s in the midst of more considered material. I don’t honestly know if this ultimately ends up quicker overall — possibly marginally — but I figure it’s good practice in ‘letting go’.

I’ve also been trying to obsess less about the actual words during the first draft. Occasionally I’ll succumb and go back for a bit of polishing, but I’m trying to minimise this during the writing, and focus more on the story than the words. This holds for the rewriting and editing of splurted material mentioned above (and is actually something I’ve been working on for a while now).

Finally, somewhat surprisingly, I find that writing in cafes speeds things up. Whether it’s the absence of the internet, the change of scene, or the ‘writerly image’ to be portrayed, I seem to be able to generate words at a faster rate in a cafe for a couple of hours than when at home. Go figure.

For me, the quality versus quantity debate is something I’ll no doubt continue to get tangled in; it’s by no means cut and dried. Most likely I’ll always feel a little uneasy pushing myself to write faster than I’m naturally inclined to do, but sometimes it’s good to see what you can accomplish. And as if WriMoFoFo wasn’t challenging enough, I’m now being encouraged to try The Rabbit Hole, run by the Queensland Writers Centre from 8-10 July, which aims for a mighty 30,000 words in three days!

3 comments

  1. With technical articles, I always take my time, because I never expect to rewrite them at all. What I finish up with is generally the end-product (potentially with minor tweaks). Of course, others might then wade in and make changes, especially if I’m ghost writing.

    Technical articles are very different because they’re shorter and less textured. They’re also generally linear and the most important aspect is flow of logic and clarity of communication. A very different beast, although care is still required to get it right.

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