Of all the criticisms I’ve read about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the most common one is this: telling thousands of people to value quantity over quality for a month is a horrible idea. I understand where this argument comes from. After writing at a very fast clip for a month, you do, oftentimes, end up with a lot of crap. But after participating in NaNoWriMo for seven-going-on-eight years, here’s what I think about this whole quality/quantity thing: just because you might write a book that will never see the light of day doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing. Writing is a practice. Quantity leads to quality; the two are not mutually exclusive.
Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland illustrates this important principle though an anecdote:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Suppose there were a class of novice writers. The same thing would happen: the people who wrote more would gain more experience and improve, while the ones who didn’t wouldn’t learn the same valuable lessons that come from physical practice.
All the useless pages can get you to a very important page, one that’s important and true and worthwhile. If you write 50k words in a month, they will not be perfect. Everyone knows this. But they will give you more experience wrestling with plot lines, figuring out character development, and thinking about settings, and that experience is incredibly valuable.