On output and quality

I’ve been reading a few posts lately that seem to contradict each other. What do you know – there’s no one true rule. I won’t bother linking to all those posts, at least partly because I can’t remember where they all are. But the general gist of it all was either:

Write as much as you can, it’s the only way to be noticed and have a career!

vs

Stop just writing for the sake of it! There’s too much shit out there, you need to write well, not lots.

Obviously I’ve paraphrased the general messages there. The thing is, they’re both right. The reason they’re both right is because there are many types of writers out there with many styles of work and opportunity to write. It also depends what you want from your career.

You certainly need more than one book to build a career, unless you’re Harper Lee. It’s true that the more people see from you, the more likely they are to check out your stuff and the more likely you are to build a loyal fan base. But don’t be in a rush.

If you write purely for output’s sake and you’re desperate to get as much stuff out there as quickly as possible, then you may well get noticed. The thing is, your work is likely to be fairly mediocre. Are you happy with a mediocre body of work? If so, then bully for you, but I think you’re doing a disservice to yourself and readers. There’s a lot of noise out there. That’s where the second generalisation above supersedes the first. It’s better to send out the absolute best stuff you can. It will mean you have work you can be absolutely proud of and readers will know they can expect quality from you. There are plenty of readers happy to consume masses of mediocre fiction, but is that really where you want to be?

However, this doesn’t mean that prolific writers are therefore all mediocre. Some people are excellent and prolific. A lot of that has to do with how much writing time they create. Two good examples of what I’m talking about are Ted Chiang and Jay Lake. Chiang publishes stuff very infrequently, but his skill is exemplary. Lake writes heaps of stuff, and his skill is exemplary too. Jay Lake writes everywhere he can. I don’t know about Chiang, he writes whenever he writes, but obviously has a much lower output rate. Regardless, these two are producing excellent work at very different rates. They’ve both built excellent skills over many years, not through purely getting work out as fast as possible, but by building up at a pace that suited them and ensured they put out quality stuff. (Sadly, Jay Lake has recently entered hospice care after a long struggle with cancer, so it’s good for us that he was so prolific. Vale, Mr Lake.)

So ask yourself – are you putting out the best work you possibly can, whether that means one story a year or ten? Three books a year or one every three years?

Or are you happy churning out mediocre work and just adding to the noise?

It’s really okay however you answer, but you need to make sure you answer the question honestly and then decide whether or not that’s really who you want to be.

I’ve created a lot of writing time in my life and I can be fairly prolific as a result. But I always try to make the best work I can and always improve. I like to think I’m managing that, very slowly. How about you?

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