Quantity Over Quality: Master the First and You’ll Achieve the Second (Theoretically)

There’s a story of a ceramics teacher (and if I had the gumption I’d find the source for it) that carries a lesson for us all. It goes as follows:

It was the end of the year and the teacher gave the class two options for their final project: they could choose to have their work graded by quantity or quality. Those who chose quantity were challenged to see how many pots they could produce in one week’s time. It didn’t matter what the pots looked like, only that they were completed. The students who chose quality only had to make one pot, but it had to be the best pot they could create.
Half the class chose quantity and began churning out pots right and left. As soon as one was done, another was started. And so on. All week long.
The other half of the class spent their time working out their designs, analyzing their methods, pondering and planning and pouring over every detail, in order to create their one perfect pot.
At the end of the week, the results were graded and an interesting discovery was made. Not only did the “quantity” group produce the most pots, they also produced the best quality pots. Over and above the “quality” group.

Reason being, or so we can infer, they focused on the process rather than the results. And because they kept churning out pot after pot, they were learning and correcting errors as they went.

Ceramics teacher
Let’s pretend this is the ceramics teacher. He’s kind of cool, don’t you think? (Photo by Mahir Uysal on Unsplash)

The article wherein I found this story related it to our own creative endeavors. Whether writing, painting, quilting, woodwork, music — anything we do where we hope to improve — the key is to focus on quantity over quality. Push yourself to produce as much as possible.

Want to improve your writing? Push out story after story. Your drawing? Create five or more drawings every day. Your photography skills? Take pictures everywhere you go. Really annoy the hell out of everyone you know.

You get the idea.

This concept was driven home to me a few days ago. I was working on a project, actually it was the “Bible Stories in Text” project I mentioned before, and I wanted to include some limericks and silly rhymes for it.

How hard could that be?

Turns out pretty hard. I spent one hour alone on Jacob and Esau and still didn’t like it. I was about to give up when I thought of the ceramics story. For the next hour I produced five more rhymes. None of them particularly good, but at least they were done. I shut the laptop and left to run some errands.

I had to go to my credit union because like a dope, I left my debit card in the ATM when I last used it. (No worries, nothing bad happened other than a dent to my ego.) On my way home I decided to stop at the park and sit on my favorite bench, the one under the willow tree. And though I never noticed it before, this time I read the inscription:

In Dick's memory

There was something about “Tuesday Bridge Club” that tickled my fancy. I grabbed my notebook — another article I read said you should always carry an idea notebook — and jotted down:

written in notebook

Soon 15 more lines appeared under it in some semblance of a poem. (I’m guessing since I spent the morning in rhyme, it just naturally flowed out that way.)

Not knowing anything of Bridge, I googled the rules and added a few references; once I got home I finished it up and within the next hour had that bad boy ready to post.

My point is, I’m fairly certain that had I not spent the morning focused on those silly rhymes, had I not pushed myself to produce several even though I was dissatisfied with them all, Dick’s tribute poem might never have happened.

Of course I can’t prove any of this, but it feels right and I believe it so. Plus I’ve got that ceramics teacher backing me up.

Here, let’s look at the guy again:

Ceramics teacher

Quantity over quality.

Now in truth, none of this is too surprising. If you want to improve at writing, write. If you want to improve your singing, sing.

All together now: Duh.

But the fact is, however much we know this truth we still fail to put it into practice. Or at least, that’s the way it is for me. Maybe you’re self-disciplined to the core, wake every morning at the crack of dawn and write 20 pages before your first cup of coffee. In which case I don’t like you very much and I think you should go away now.

For the rest of us, we need reminders to keep going in spite of the drivel we produce. To push on, produce, finish our stories and trust the process. Let go of our need to produce lovely rhymes or charming stories, to let go of our desire to like everything we’ve written. Eventually — hopefully — we’ll like what we’ve written, but we’ll probably produce plenty of crap before we get there.

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. — Anne Lamott

I have a stack of messes. About five or six unfinished stories I found while unpacking, one of which I barely remember. Each one began in a fever of creativity, that much I remember, but as soon as the going got rough they came to a screeching halt. As I look at them now… well, they’re not horrible. Some spots are quite good, others maybe not so much, but overall they don’t suck.

So here’s the thing: I’ve decided I’m going to dig them out, one by one, and give myself a timeline for finishing them. Let’s say one story per week.

They may appear in this blog — that part I haven’t decided yet. I’m not in the habit of printing much fiction here, so I’ll give it some thought.

(Okay, technically, I suppose there’s fiction here. For instance, I have no idea if Dick liked white wine or if he was a bourbon man.)

Mainly I thought that if I told others what I was doing — Hey guys! I’m spending the next 6 weeks writing 6 stories! —  I stand a better chance of actually doing it.

The key is, and golly I sure hope I remember it, is to finish them even if I don’t like them. Because maybe by the sixth one I will.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever shown you the cover of my idea notebook:

my idea notebook

I’m not expecting too much here, believe me. I just want to get the stories finished. And if you’re reading this, I expect you have something unfinished to work on as well, or some skill you wish to improve?

Quantity over Quality: Ready, set… go!

Author: CJ Hartwell

After spending most of her life in Phoenix, Arizona, CJ Hartwell moved to the middle of Minnesota. Is she nuts? Probably. For updates on her sanity, click on the link to follow by email.

40 thoughts on “Quantity Over Quality: Master the First and You’ll Achieve the Second (Theoretically)”

  1. Fascinating result in the class of ceramic makers. I did produce many poems a day
    when it all began, a constant whisper of words. I write every day but not always poetry.
    Good luck to you and I look forward to your posts.


    Liked by 3 people

  2. Yeah, those people who get up and write at 4 am every morning are really irritating, aren’t they? I produce best in lay afternoon and evening. I keep a calendar of word counts to keep myself accountable (motivated?).
    I agree that doing it over and over and over does lead to improved technique, if not content. 😏

    Liked by 3 people

    1. People who get up at 4 am are fine in my book as long as they shut up about it. 😉
      Your last statement is exactly on point. In fact, you’ve taken my 1,000 word post and condensed it to 18 words. That’s quality right there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have read that, at least for writers the trick is to let it rip without concern for content, grammar, etc, then edit the heck out of it. I suppose if you have enough cycles of write and edit, the let it rip should improve, much as your potter’s pots.

    I don’t know if that really works for me, I tend to edit as I go. Too many years of writing code I guess, there’s just not enough time to write slop in that genre. Even in photography I don’t bother shooting unless I think it’ll be a good shot, but again, maybe that’s all those edit cycles and a sense of what I like.

    Ultimately you can’t win if you don’t play (and here my internal editor is warning me to avoid cliches), so break out that playbook and finish those stories!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I tend to edit as I go too. I think it was my stint as an editor that did it, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t freeze my fingers in the process. Right now all I’m aiming for is “better done than perfect.”
      Maybe I’ll put it on a t-shirt.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is nice to learn the back story for your creation of Dick’s Tricks. For me, some simple advice I once heard about becoming a travel writer is that you have to travel and you have to write.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yes, thinking in ryhme/verse leads to more rhyme/verse, at least for me. I have periods where lots of things translate to rhyme/verse in my head and eventually it flows effortlessly – and sometimes annoyingly 🙂
    Today I “inked” – and had a great day doing so – it was just for the pleasure of doing it, with no expectation about how it would turn out, and I am happy to say I like all four triptych sets I created. Sometimes it works, somethimes it doesn’t – but if you don’t do it, you won’t know.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I figured you’d know what I was talking about! Working on those rhymes put my brain on a certain kind of rhythm, it felt kind of cool!
      I’m a little behind in my blog reading (again), I hope you posted pics of your sets. I’ll get to them soon! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a wonderful post. Funny thing is, in my draft folder entitled “Seedlings” (as in seeds of ideas I may want to write about), I’ve written “Quality over Quantity” as a sort of mantra for my blogging. You just turned that on it’s head for me. Thank you for the inspiration, friend!

    Liked by 2 people

          1. Because I loved this post so much, I shared it on my Facebook bloggers group. And I’m working on a post which piggybacks off of this post (and will give you a mention). Hope that’s cool with you!

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Before the weekend I began sorting through my drafts folder. One of every four pieces had sufficient potential to keep. The other three went to the recycle bin. In a sence I chise quality over quantity. But this Lamott fan still has just under a hundred drafts to fall back on whenn needed. The blogging discipline helped me get over myself, stop demanding perfection and enjoy the process of writing. Thanks for the reminder, Christi 💜

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We can all use a reminder, friend. Whenever I go through my draft folder, I feel like I’m either suffering from amnesia or else a stranger somehow got control of my account and wrote a bunch of slosh while I wasn’t looking. “Where the heck did THIS come from?!” 😲


  8. I think I’ve babbled about this before: I always have multiple stories going at one time, so if I run into a snag with one project, I immediately shut it down and pull out another one. Yes, this does waste a little bit of time, in that I have to shift mental gears to get from one plot to another, but it is much more satisfying to be doing something instead of nothing. (Trivia: I just checked my “Incomplete or Never Posted” file, and there are 29 gestating items. And that doesn’t include the book drafts, which have their own little sub-directory home.)

    I should also point out that the NaNoWriMo experience “trains” you to write without editing, as you don’t have time for such or you will never meet your daily word count. (Or at least I wouldn’t.) I end up with a lot of crap, but I also capture some great ideas that I might not have had if I wasn’t doing the “stream of consciousness” mad rush to just get words on paper.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think I read something about Ray Bradbury, as soon as he was done with one story he immediately moved on to another. And he always had two or three going on at the same time. (Or was that Isaac Asimov? Honestly, I get them mixed up.)

      I did NaNoWriMo several years ago. I wasn’t working at the time and it was both fun and maddening, but mostly fun. Definitely can see how it would give your internal editor the boot.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great message, AND, thanks to your posting that picture twice, I was delighted to discover that Albert Einstein threw pots in his spare time. The point being: you’ll not only get better at pottery making, you’ll solve the Unified Field Theory.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right?! And just imagine what he could have accomplished had he not given up those clarinet lessons.
      I’ve no idea if he had clarinet lessons, but I did and I gave them up. Hence the sad state of the world today. It’s the cross I bear.

      Liked by 1 person

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