If you’re a writer, you will likely be able to relate to this post. Writing isn’t always easy. There are times when the words spill onto the page, but there are other times that you stare blankly at your screen. There are many techniques to help with things like writers block, but there is also something to be said about quantity. In many industries, the idea of quality over quantity usually prevails. And that could be applied to the writing industry, but I am going to argue that it’s not. Simply because writers are too in their head to know if their work is actually good. I can attest to this myself. I am generally in my head, but even more so when it comes to writing. Did that last sentence make sense? Will the readers pick up on my literary reference?
While there is merit in trying to write the next great American novel, it isn’t always that simple. Adam Grant, author of Originals notes that being productive is a hugely important part of being creative. His book overs the work of Professor Dean Simonton, a psychologist who spent many years studying creative productivity. Simonton discovered two things about highly creative people. The first is that they have no concept of whether or not their work is going to be a hit. The second is that their capacity for productivity makes them original, not necessarily their talent.
This theory is extremely interesting to me. I listen to a lot of comedy podcasts. In these, the comedians always talk about writing. Because in addition to being a comedian, they are also writers. They spend most of their time writing. The one theme that I hear emerge from all of the podcasts is that you need to do things, in order to have things to write about. If you’ve never had any experiences, then what are you going to make jokes about? I think this whole concept could be applied to writing. You can watch TV, or read other books and get ideas about a story. But in order for that idea to grow and flourish, you need to get out and do something. Or at least that seems to be the opinion of the comedians out there. And I think it is generally true of writing.
Putting your writing out there is extremely scary. I should know. Every day I wonder if people are actually reading these posts, or if it’s just a lesson in futility for me. That’s not to say that I don’t love writing. I just doubt my abilities and fear the rejection that inevitably comes along during a writers career. What tends to happen is that writers won’t put their work out there because of that fear. Grant notes “many people fail to achieve originality because they develop one or two ideas – then obsessively refine them trying to reach some kind of perfection”.
And can you blame them? I mean, writers are kind of obsessive, aren’t they? Or at least they should be when it comes to writing. But getting back to Grant’s point earlier, in order to be a creative writer, you have to be productive. And in this case, productive means pumping out a lot of material. I am not saying that I am a prolific writer. In fact, I don’t even think of myself as a writer most days, but I will tell you this. I can’t tell you how many “notes”, or half written pages I have of random stuff on them. It might have been a cute limerick that I wrote while standing in line at the grocery store. Or it could be an angry rant that spewed out of my brain during a flashback. But the point is, I have a lot of them. Or did. I threw a bunch out recently as I didn’t feel like I was in that place any more.
But this brings me to the next point in Grant’s book. This isn’t just applicable to writers. Thomas Edison accumulated 2,300 patents in his lifetime. Which means, he invented way more than that, and many of them failed. In the year that he applied for the light bulb and telephone patent, he also filed 100 more. It’s likely that Edison never thought any of his ideas were any good. But it’s equally likely that he thought all of them were good. In his case, he took the quantity versus quality thing to heart.
So where do we go from here? It’s easy to point to an author and say that he/she is a creative genius. But they weren’t born that way. Yes, talent is important, but so is practice. When writing, try to be prolific instead of creative. Hyper focusing on the creativity will bog you down. If you have an idea, just write about it. See where it goes. Maybe it gets published, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it becomes the next great American novel. But maybe it just sits on your shelf. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. Grant notes that “quantity is the most predictable path to quality”. It’s kind of the idea that practice makes perfect.
What should you take away from this post?
- A large volume of work doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not creative. Some of the world’s greatest artists, writers and thinkers are extremely productive people.
- Creatives are notoriously bad at knowing when their work has merit. Don’t sweat it. (I’m in this boat)
- Stop obsessing.
- Don’t over analyze, and do the best possible work you can do.
- And lastly, the first ideas are always the most conventional. Keep digging and you will come up with those more creative ideas.