Why I Go for Quantity Over Quality in My Writing
My newsletter last week wasn’t very good.
To be fair, wasn’t, like, horrible either. But I wasn’t very proud of it. Last Sunday afternoon I was sleep-deprived and beat from travel and somehow felt jetlagged even though I hadn’t changed time zones between New York and Detroit. And I’d foolishly put off writing my piece till Sunday afternoon, even during what I’d known was going to be a very busy week.
I was a little embarrassed to publish. But I sent that piece out anyway, without a second thought. Because with this newsletter, I’ve decided to err on the side of quantity over quality. And I often advise other writers to do the same. Today, I’ll explain why.
First, let me elaborate on what I mean by erring on the side of quantity over quality. What I definitely don’t mean is to prioritize quantity exclusively, ignoring quality—taken to its absurd “logical” endpoint, that’d mean I sent a newsletter filled with unintelligible nonsense every fifteen minutes.
Rather, I prioritize quantity over quality on the margin. Ideally, I’m sending you a great (or at least pretty good) piece of writing every week. But if faced with the choice between missing a week or sending something I think is subpar, I’ll always choose the latter.
Going for quantity is a necessary counterweight to imposter syndrome.
One of my core beliefs is that it’s impossible to ever get anything exactly right in life. The best we can do is pick which side we want to err on.
I find that acknowledging that I’m unlikely to make any perfect decisions, and instead reframing each as a choice about which direction I should be wrong in, is a helpful way to look at life. Do I want to err on the side of taking too many career risks, or not enough? Trying too many new things, or too few? Dating too many people who are totally wrong for me, or missing out on too many who might have been right for me?
I’ve certainly met my fair share of middling writers who think they’re hot shit. But I encounter way more writers, myself included, who are overly self-conscious about the quality of their work—especially those on the less experienced side.
If I only sent this newsletter when I thought I’d written something truly excellent, I’d have sent it out only a few times since I started last October.
Breaking an ongoing streak has cascading consequences.
I’m the kind of person who can pick up any new habit, good or bad, as long as I do it consistently.
For example, I usually work out three days a week. But if I were to miss a week, it could easily end up being another six months before I worked out again.
I’ve now published this newsletter for 28 weeks in a row, through holidays, hangovers, and days when I just really didn’t feel like it. That’s half a year! And although it isn’t exactly rational, the idea of keeping the streak going is incredibly motivating to me.
If I were to skip a week because I didn’t think I’d written something good enough, I wouldn’t just be skipping a week—I’d be setting a precedent that it’s okay to skip weeks. There’s no way that wouldn’t make it easier for me to miss more weeks going forward.
Going for quantity helps you achieve quality too.
So far, I’ve written as if quantity and quality are opposites. But the reality is that you usually don’t have to choose: going for quantity is often the best way to achieve quality.
There’s a famous social psychology experiment in a ceramics class that illustrates this well. (Like all such experiments, I have no idea if this one has survived the replication crisis, but it’s a great allegory so I’m rolling with it anyway.)
From the book Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland:
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 scale and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 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, come grading time 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.
Whether or not this replicates, it certainly holds true in my own experience. Even being generous, I’d say that at most maybe a quarter of the 28 pieces I’ve written since starting this newsletter are truly good. But I guarantee you that’s still more good pieces than I would have written if I didn’t force myself to send something out every week.
Counterpoint: I’ve made it all about me again.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed one common thread between all of the above justifications: they’re all about how going for quantity over quality benefits me, the writer. I haven’t really made a case that this approach benefits you, the reader, other than by making me a better writer in the long run.
I think there’s an argument to be made that readers in general benefit from a larger and more diverse group of writers in the world, so writ large, I do believe more writers prioritizing quantity benefits readers in the long term. But there’s no denying that in the short term, this might mean I send you more pieces that I don’t think are that good. (Whether you agree is another matter—I long ago learned that what I think is my best work and what readers think is my best work aren’t always aligned.)
This tradeoff is real, and it’s one I’ve just chosen to accept. I’ve been open about the fact that I’m writing this newsletter primarily for selfish reasons: it’s a forcing function to make me write more regularly than I ever have before. Beyond what I call “minimum viable audience”—the lowest readership level I need to continue being motivated to send this out every week—I’m not explicitly trying to grow my audience.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d love for this newsletter to continue growing, and I feel a little tickle in my spine every time I get a new subscriber notification email from Substack. I put a lot into this, and I try really hard to produce meaningful work that connects with readers and honors your time.
But on the margin, if I’m forced to choose between honoring your time or pursuing my own goals, well… how valuable can anyone’s time really be during Covid anyway?
Yours in hoping this whole piece wasn’t basically just a big middle finger to all my readers,