I read Zen in the Art of Writing this week, in which Ray Bradbury says his strategy as a young writer was to write a story every week. He believes that quality will emerge from quantity. This got me thinking...
There's no denying that practice makes perfect. But is 'practice' the same as 'quantity'?
I think 'practice' implies effort; striving to improve. It has connotations of gaining the knowledge and skills that enable improvement. For me, 'quantity' lacks these connotations: it suggests mass production with little attention to what is produced.
Examining my own work, there's no doubt that my earliest stories are much, much worse than the recent ones. However, the most dramatic improvements in my writing occur at times when I'm consciously trying to improve every element. It might be when I'm engaged with a particular author's work or writing manual, or during a writing course. It's no coincidence that the stories I've written as assignments are generally better than what has gone before.
So what do these stories have in common? I've pushed myself.
When you know you're going to get either validation (i.e. a good mark) or humiliation (i.e. 0% and a comment along the lines of 'I can't believe you wasted my time with this crap'), you realise taking risks can pay off.
A good teacher can also pinpoint the parts that don't work so well, which is invaluable and often hard to discern in your own work. Their critique will offer both encouragement and suggestions for improvement. Your story won't be hanging in limbo because you don't know whether the risks you've taken have resulted in something brilliant or terrible.
Of course, this is just an excuse.
Thanks to the internet and good friends, I know I can get any kind of critique I desire. I could shell out for a professional critique, if I was that bothered. The truth is, there is no excuse for not taking risks.
Thinking about the issue of quantity vs quality has resulted in some mini-epiphanies:
1. The effort you put into writing and improving your craft results in better writing. Even when it doesn't feel like you're improving.
2. Taking risks and pushing boundaries pays off. You might learn what doesn't work more often than what does, but it's just as valuable.
3. Writing more, (assuming a basic level of awareness of what/how you're writing - and how is it possible not to have this?), produces better writing. It might be such a gradual improvement that you fail to see it in your day to day life, but it's still progress.
I find this inspiring. And kind of annoying, since it proves what we knew all along: there are no excuses - all you have to do is write!
(Which means it's time for me to quit writing this blog and work on my dissertation stories...)