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Quality v. Quantity: Do they need each other?

Categories: Advice, Commentary, How to Improve Writing Skills, How to Write Poetry, Writing Poetry, Personal Updates, Poetry Craft Tips, Revision Tips Tags: Revision Tips.

Now that I’m escaping from the vacuum of National Poetry Month and another successful April Poem-A-Day Challenge, I find myself wondering about the relationship of quantity and quality in writing. Is there value in writing every day? Is a writing routine a good or bad thing for poets? Questions such as these have been swirling around my head, and here’s my take: I think quantity can lead to quality.

First, let me be clear: Quality is the ultimate goal for any of the poems I try to get published. I’m not trying to publish as many poems as I possibly can for the sake of getting published. I wrote for more than a decade before I even tried submitting my poems, so quantitative publishing is not my end game, and I would not recommend that route to other poets. In my mind, one great poem is better than a million poems nobody remembers. So, let’s not get mixed signals about my views on quantity and quality.

I do think the way to be good at anything, including art, is to practice. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re a mathematician, you solve problems. If you’re a writer (whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry), you write.

Of course, there are many other layers of complexity that can be placed on the poet’s shoulders. Poets should read other poets. Poets should revise their work fearlessly. Poets should take chances. Poets should listen to the world around them. Poets should live. But at the end of the day, poets should write poems.

During the month of April, I wrote 30 poems in 30 days (actually, a handful more than that). Am I going to hold on to all those poems? No. But I am hopeful that a few will stick around and make it into a collection after revision. Or at the very least, maybe a few lines or images will find their way into another poem or two down the line. As my friend S.A. Griffin likes to say, it’s all about process.

Here are a few reasons why quantity leads to quality:

  • Writing poems prepares you for inspiration. Inspiration strikes when it strikes, and everyone is struck with inspiration from time to time. What separates a poet from others is that the poet is ready to take that inspiration and turn it into a poem. A painter might take the exact same inspiration and turn it into a painting. A novelist a novel. And so forth.
  • Writing poems opens your mind to more poems. Some poets hold onto an image or idea until it is fully processed. I think this is great, but sometimes I lose those images and ideas if I don’t write them down. Plus, I’ve noticed when I write I clear that space in my head for new ideas and images.
  • Revision comes after the first draft. Great poems come from revision. It’s hard work, sure, but poets can’t revise unless they have first drafts upon which to play. In other words, poets need to write to revise.

Of course, there are many other routes to quality beyond quantity, but I often feel poets (and other writers) are afraid to write anything that’s not nearly perfect on the first draft. Don’t be afraid. Write, write, write. That’s the only path you can take to get to the ultimate goal: a quality poem you love.

Quick aside: I once wrote a sestina and thought it was great. For a week or so. Then, I realized that it just wasn’t working. But not all was lost. Eventually, I lifted the best line from the sestina and used it in another poem that was not a sestina. That new poem was published the first time it was submitted. If I had not written that initial failed poem, I would’ve never made it to the successful one.

*****

I’ve received more than 100 submissions for the 2010 April PAD Challenge. Poets still have until midnight (EST) tomorrow (5/5/10) to submit up to 5 poems from the challenge. Click here to read the guidelines.

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Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

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Check out this great book on writing metrical poetry! It’s called Writing Metrical Poetry, by William Baer. (Click here to learn more.)

 

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About Robert Lee Brewer

Senior Content Editor, Writer's Digest Community.

27 Responses to Quality v. Quantity: Do they need each other?

  1. Hannah Gosselin says:

    I love the conversation here. All valid and valuable view points. I especially like what Barbara Y said about thinking in poems. I find the more I write and stay connected with this gift that we share, the easier it is and the happier I am!

    Thanks to everybody for being part of all this and I appreciate all the thought and work you put into poetry and community as well Robert!

    Smiles to all,

  2. Marie Elena says:

    I just found this post. Robert, your ’09 April PAD Challenge is the single reason I’ve written every day since. That got me started doing something I would have said "I could NEVER" do. Writing a poem every day has improved my poetry skills, but has also been a huge benefit in my children’s stories, and in my ability to think and recall information. I don’t know if it is my age or what, but I’ve felt for a number of years that my short-term recall has dwindled drastically. Writing every day has been a noticable difference.

    For me, writing has also been therapeutic. Personal life issues weigh heavily at times, and focusing on writing poetry (and reading, as well) is a huge help. Thank you, Robert. Very sincerely.

  3. Sara Gwen says:

           
    blizzard drifts pile high
    flake on flake on flake on flake
    each uniquely cast
           
           

  4. de jackson says:

    For me the two absolutely go hand in hand. Even crappy poems can carry good lines that flow well into other pieces later on. Great perspective, Robert. Thank you.

  5. Marian Veverka says:

    Another help to writing good poetry is reading poetry. During the months of the challenge, I read all the poems posted. Also I agree that after a day or 2 of the challenge, we am more aware & compose little lines or groups of words our heads. sometimes they return to us automatically when we sit down and write.

  6. Sage Cohen says:

    Love this exploration, Robert. Great wisdom — my sentiments exactly.

  7. Brian Slusher says:

    When asked what do you do when you write a bad poem in your daily regime, Stafford said, "I lower my standards and keep going." David Lehman also wrote a pair of books that used poems he wrote on a daily basis called The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun. No doubt writing regularly makes your imagination more supple, and you certainly don’t need to show anyone the 99 failures that lead to the one triumph. I keep in my mind the Beckett saying, "Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

  8. Sara V says:

    Robert
    There is no question in my mind–writing poems every day is what keeps the spring flowing. Since the end of this year’s PAD, every time I walk my dog poem ideas, phrases come creeping out of the corners of my mind and I have to write them down when I get home–it’s a wonderful thing. Thank you!
    PS to Bruce, absolutely Anne Lamott author of "Bird by Bird" (which I highly recommend) says exactly that.
    Happy Poeming!

  9. Pam Winters says:

    I love that idea, Barbara, of "thinking in poems." I’ve had a similar thing happen.

    I think it’s important for me to shift to a "quality" emphasis for a while. I started doing a poem a day in March (or trying to–I didn’t quite make all the days), so with those drafts and April’s–as well as a lot of other unfinished stuff–I have a lot that I need to buckle down and refine. (Yeah, mixed metaphor.)

    One of the poems I wrote during last year’s challenge, "The Problem With Chickpeas," just got published in the Delaware Poetry Review, which is pretty cool.

    I’m contemplating going to the Dodge Poetry Festival this year, by the way, and I have no idea what to expect. If anyone wants to fill me in, please drop me a line.

    Pam Winters (aka Pamela Murray Winters)
    oncedailyasdirected.blogspot.com
    pam [at] winters [dot] cc

  10. Barbara_Y says:

    One thing I noticed last year, my first experience with "total immersion" poetry, was that after a few days I began to THINK in poems. Guess it’s the way behavioral psychology works–changing physical patterns alters mental ones.

  11. Lisa says:

    My creative writing teacher in Graduate School always said "writing begets writing." Another wise writer, though I do not recall which one exactly, said that you have to write through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. Then there is a novelist who beleives that a writer has to write a million words before they have earned their first novel. I see these philosophies echoed in Robert’s words of encouragement and find re-affirmation in the quantity = quality equation.

    Towards the end of April and writing poems daily, I experienced something akin to a runner’s high – the feeling that I could go on writing like this indefinitely. I know of no other way I could have reached such realization except through daily writing/playing/experimenting with words and allowing myself to write "crappy" poetry.

    Thanks for that opportunity, Robert.

  12. The trick is in the whittling. Making quantities and culling from it quality. Think of it as a Best Of episode, or Greatest Hits album. Something great might be lost (we refer to it as "kill your darlings!") But what you want to do is find among your quantity something pretty people want to read.

    @ Daniel Ari who brought up William Stafford: he’s a great example where the bulk of his poems never got released. If you read his collected where they published all the poems he wrote his last days alive, you see how good those poems are. The trick is realizing that if he had been alive, many of them wouldn’t have made it to a book. Quality comes from quantity…I’m not a believer that you can write a poem a year and expect it to be good, unless you mentally revise and cut from it.

    Great poems take time, and in the time between you write a lot, a lot of crap. The skill comes in deciphering the difference; what’s crap to you and others.

    As you said, it’s all about the process. And the process isn’t taught. It’s mastered over time.

  13. Linda Goin says:

    Robert, you don’t know what writing a poem per day this past month did for my personal writing – thank you. First, it’s helped me to create of habit of writing for myself the first hour I sit in front of the computer. Secondly, it helps me get through the rest of the writing "stuff" I do for the rest of the day. Words seem to flow more smoothly, work gets done faster. Finally, between jumping back into poetry with your challenge in combination with back-to-back memoir writing workshops, I’m learning how to write quantity in both genres in order to have quality somewhere in those small exchanges that flow from my head (and feelings) to paper.

    Bruce — quite a few author/teachers promote that "permission," but I never heard it until I realized that some of that crap carries gems.

  14. sheila harris says:

    This is very appreciated and timely advice,Mr Brewer.Thank you
    There is a ‘bashful’ quality about writing but becomes less so with regular writing..i think these forums are invaluable..

  15. Sam Nielson says:

    I agree about the quantity vs quality. Writing a lot improves the quality (if one make the effort to improve), but is not automatic.
    I had a poet friend that always used to say, when he was away from things poetical, that he needed to write about 10,000 lines, throw them away, then was in shape to continue writing poetry.

    I’m not so rash, but still in the same vein. I believe when you start paying attention to rhythms, particularly for fixed forms, the repetition of it through attempting it’s writing pays off.

    An example is a limerick. You hear the rhythm in your head so the ideas are easier to fit into it.

  16. Sam Nielson says:

    So Robert’s deadline of May 5th at 11:59 pm EST would be about May 6th 4:59 am GMT (or to keep my brain straight 9:59 pm MST), I think.

    As clear as a flying cloud of mud?

  17. Sam Nielson says:

    I hope this may clarify the time thing.

    Our postings show in GMT Daylight time. Which is Greenwich Mean Time, so EST time is 5 hours behind that (unless the daylight savings messes it up by an hour.) I’m in MST time which is 7 hours behind GMT.

    So this posting, if I figure rough enough, was posted at about 6:30 MST, which should be about 8:30 EST, all on May 4th, or 1:30am May 5th GMT.

    Unless the daylight savings thing has messed my figuring up.

  18. Sandra Barber says:

    If anyone is looking for a quick daily prompt, check out oneword.com

  19. Daniel Ari says:

    A good example: William Stafford wrote a poem every day for much of his life–and was an early poet laureate of the U.S.

    DA

  20. The idea of opening to inspiration when working with a daily prompt resonates with me. In both November and April, I’m on high sensory alert and notice things I might miss otherwise. Thanks so much.

  21. No, I think of midnight on 5/5 as 31 hours away (not 7 hours away). Maybe I should say 11:59 pm on 5/5 (EST).

  22. Bruce Niedt says:

    RJ – not sure about Dodge this year, as it’s coming around the same time as my son’s wedding and my other son’s confirmation, but if I can get there, I will!

  23. Pam Winters says:

    So "midnight on May 5" is midnight tonight (as in 9 hours from now rather than 33 hours from now)? Yikes! I better revise quickly….

    Thanks for all the good stuff you do, Robert. It’s been very gratifying for me to look back through all the poems this month and find better stuff than I remembered.

    Pam
    oncedailyasdirected.blogspot.com

  24. RJ Clarken says:

    You guys are so right! This Friday night, I’m teaching/leading a poetry coffeehouse for kids. This one is a small venue program. (Last summer, we did one at the library and we had over 50 kids show up for the session!)

    We’ll be reading other poets (kid friendly ones, that is ☺) and talking about song lyrics. Then the kids will get time to write some of their own poems and finally, they will stand up at the mike to read them to the other kids (and parents who stay for this.) It’s all done respectively and attentively, so everyone has a chance to experience it.

    Robert – the thing I always impress upon kids, particularly when they say they cannot write is that the more they read and write, the better their writing will be. Athletes have to practice and so do musicians. It’s just like you said. And all they have to do is look to the world around them to find subjects to write about.

    (And Bruce – Peter Murphy is awesome! I haven’t done the Cape May event (yet) but I have met him at Dodge and hope to see him this fall. Are you going to be going too?

  25. Bruce Niedt says:

    P.S.: A poet acquaintenance of mine, Peter Murphy, who runs several excellent writing seminars and conferences every year, including one I’ve attended in Cape May, NJ, says (and he may be quoting another writer): "Give yourself permission to write shit." Pardon the French.

  26. Bruce Niedt says:

    If anyone here is a role model for "quantity", it’s you, Walt, LOL! But there is truly a significant amount of "quality" in your proliferation, too. Robert, you made some excellent points. My increased productivity during these challanges is a great reminder to me that one should try to write every day, and not worry if everything one cranks out is worthy of publication. I have a tendency to "pre-edit" myself, and that sometimes inhibits the desire to just get something on the page. The challenges force me to create something fresh every day, which is often just what I need. If, out of the 38 poems I wrote last month, I get five or six that are worthy of publication, I consider it a victory. But none of the poems I wrote have been time wasted – I enjoyed creating every one of them.

  27. Thanks Robert. That piece speaks to me. They are the right words at the right time. I often question if my quantity is producing any quality. I find pieces that really give me "my money’s worth" for sure, but I had taken stock in your quote of S.A. Griffin the first time you mentioned it hear. I believe in "the process" and that guides me. I also believe that the poems that I write are almost always a poetic blurt, as it were. Just get it out and put it down "on paper". I’ll fix ‘em all later. But in all respects, write, write, write is wonderful advice! It certainly does clear that space out. (Not that it stays empty for very long afterward, in my case anyway.) At least my confidence has been bolstered with the relationships fostered here, and the guidance you make available. Both are a wellspring upon which I draw daily. Thanks again.

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