Is More…Better? With Thanks to Seth Godin

We’re constantly told we need to achieve a certain quantity of published books before we can be taken seriously as a writer. The number varies from three to six to twelve to…never mind we’ll never have that many books in print. I’ve wondered about this advice for a long time, having bred and shown dogs for decades. The quantity of dogs in your yard has no bearing on the the quality. The only connection is d irectly to your bank account. More dogs cost more to keep.

Can we draw the same parallel to quantity of books over quality? I’ve seen so many new and not so new ultra prolific authors produce a multitude of books, publishing within a month of finishing. They tell me they edit as they go along. They tell me they don’t need to let the book ‘rest’ so they can review it with a clear eye. Their goal is production and sometimes their sales numbers agree with their goal. Sometimes they don’t. Sacrificing quality for quantity?

Seth Godin’s Blog today spoke of this most eloquently, though his blog is geared more toward marketing than writing…

Not even one note  Seth Godin

Starting at the age of nine, I played the clarinet for eight years.

Actually, that’s not true. I took clarinet lessons for eight years when I was a kid, but I’m not sure I ever actually played it.

Eventually, I heard a symphony orchestra member play a clarinet solo. It began with a sustained middle C, and I am 100% certain that never once did I play a note that sounded even close to the way his sounded.

And yet…

And yet the lessons I was given were all about fingerings and songs and techniques. They were about playing higher or lower or longer notes, or playing more complex rhythms. At no point did someone sit me down and say, “wait, none of this matters if you can’t play a single note that actually sounds good.”

Instead, the restaurant makes the menu longer instead of figuring out how to make even one dish worth traveling across town for. We add many slides to our presentation before figuring out how to utter a single sentence that will give the people in the room chills or make them think. We confuse variety and range with quality.

Practice is not the answer here. Practice, the 10,000 hours thing, practice alone doesn’t produce work that matters. No, that only comes from caring. From caring enough to leap, to bleed for the art, to go out on the ledge, where it’s dangerous. When we care enough, we raise the bar, not just for ourselves, but for our customer, our audience and our partners.

It’s obvious, then, why I don’t play the clarinet any more. I don’t care enough, can’t work hard enough, don’t have the guts to put that work into the world. This is the best reason to stop playing, and it opens the door to go find an art you care enough to make matter instead. Find and make your own music.

The cop-out would be to play the clarinet just a little, to add one more thing to my list of mediocre.

As Jony Ive said, “We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”

It’s much easier to add some features, increase your network, get some itemized tasks done. Who wants to feel failure?

We opt for more instead of better.

Better is better than more.

****

What do you think? Should quality or quantity take precedence? Or do we forever balance on a thin line between the two?

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Is More…Better? With Thanks to Seth Godin

  1. Thanks for this–you got me thinking. Your intro and Seth Godin’s post make good points about quantity for the sake of quantity and the difference between producing a lot of mediocre works and producing a few very good things. But, to me, the most important point Godin makes isn’t quality vs. quantity. It’s this part:

    “[P]ractice alone doesn’t produce work that matters. No, that only comes from caring. From caring enough to leap, to bleed for the art, to go out on the ledge, where it’s dangerous. When we care enough, we raise the bar, not just for ourselves, but for our customer, our audience and our partners.”

    You can be very good at something, but if you don’t care about it? The heart is missing. The heart is what drives us through that 10,000 hours of practice, what makes us go deeper until we’ve hammered something onto the page that’s as close to true as we know how to make it… and then rip it up and start again. It’s what keeps us writing at 3 a.m. when we can’t see straight but just have to get it out, and it’s what makes us claw our way back to our desks after a brutal critique or a string of rejections.

    Talent and heart are not the same thing. That symphony orchestra member may have been able to play that sustained middle C from the start. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. It would never have mattered, though, if that player didn’t have heart to fuel her through the rest of the things she had to do to reach that symphony orchestra chair.

    The writers who pump out three books a year and the writers who slave over one book for three years all work hard. I have a suspicion that the things that prolific writer learns from the books that fail may well be the same as the things that the slow and careful writer learns from his endless revisions and agonizing over craft. The authors who succeed are the ones who care enough to keep going no matter how many books sell and how long it takes. Those authors may use different methods, but they share the heart. (And the stubbornness, and the patience, and all of the other traits that keep us going.)

    So, in practice? I think both methods are valid and both have their pitfalls. Too many revisions and you never publish. Too many books published and you never have time to learn from your mistakes. But, there’s a huge range of sustainable styles between those extremes. I think each writer has to find her own balance.

    Anyway, thanks for the Monday inspiration. 🙂 Hope your writing goes well this week!

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    • GREAT observation. Success comes when we refuse to give up. If you write with skill but no passion you might turn out books but few people will want to read them. If you write with passion but no skill, people might want to read your stories but give up.
      Or as Paul Gillette once told me: “I can teach you HOW to write. I can’t teach you WHAT to write.” He could teach me to refine my story telling but he could not teach me how to tell a story. That one comment held me up through years of stumbling around.
      Passion? I can learn and teach in writing, dogs, horses. I still can’t remember the periodic table of elements.
      Keep writing, I want to read

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