The Winning Formula for Writing Success

By Mark Nichol

When I wrote the heading for today’s post, I thought to myself, “I should be making infomercials and workshop presentations, offering my ‘secret’ for a thousand dollars.” A thousand dollars a head for even a few dozen participants? That’s what I call successful writing: With one phrase and a few platitudes, I could take a couple of years off from work.

Nah. I’ll give it to you free of charge:

Quality requires quantity.

Yes? And?

That’s it. Quality requires quantity.

Oh, all right. I’ll expound.

That’s a layered statement, one that’s as deep as you want to dive. But on its most basic level, it means that an output of high quality must be preceded by an input of high quantity. In other words, a return of quality takes an investment of quantity.

The new publishing model is that, thanks to the Internet, everyone’s a writer. That’s the good news. But it’s also the bad news, because it means that because many writers in this suddenly expanded universe are not highly qualified, the universe is degraded. There have always been less-than-stellar writers, but it was more difficult for them to publish their work and sustain success.

Now, however, nonprofessional writers can be forgiven for believing that because it’s easy to type, it’s easy to write. And the remaining exemplars of great writing are lost in the leveling of the signal-to-noise ratio — if they are sought out at all anymore.

The brave new world of formal publishing is also degraded, in this case by a business model that no longer values quality — because remember, quality requires quantity (and quantity, of course, requires financial investment). So now, I can find six typographical errors stuffed into a twenty-word caption in the website for a major metropolitan newspaper (since corrected because, hey, it’s the instant Internet, and we can always fix it later!), and I can find my enjoyment of a newly published book compromised by shoddy editing (improvement of which must wait for the second edition, if there is one, and if there is the wherewithal to improve it — but that’s too late for me).

That’s why I may come across as a dinosaur about these things, because I believe that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. And because I believe that, that’s why I’m proud to remain part of the old-school old guard, editing book manuscripts for publishers willing to spend time, effort, and especially money to ensure that their products reflect their high standards.

Quality requires quantity. Oh, quality is sometimes accidentally produced with a minimum of quantity, but standards cannot rely on serendipity. The work ethic is called that for a reason: Good isn’t easy. It takes effort. Quality requires quantity.

There’s at least one other layer to the formula. Last week, I wrote a post about another formula, what I call a writing-competence matrix. Rather than explain it here, I invite you to read the post, if you haven’t already, or to review it, if you have. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

What does it take to score high on this matrix? Don’t expect to ever hit “Expert” on all three counts; many successful writers may excel in only one category. But to rate highly in even one area takes time. Remember the 10,000-Hour Rule? (That’s all right. I’ll still be here when you get back.)

If you want to be a great writer, be content at first with endeavoring to be a good writer. Great can wait. But to become a good writer, you must invest quantity in your quest for quality — quantity of time and effort. And you must be willing to labor not only longitudinally, putting in years of skill development, but also latitudinally, massaging, refining, and polishing each piece of writing along the way.

Remember this truism: If it’s easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Quality requires quantity.

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15 Responses to “The Winning Formula for Writing Success”

  • Michelle Dear

    Thank you for writing this article. I am an editor for indie fiction authors. My colleagues and I endeavor, with little success thus far, to educate the industry that even traditionally pub’d authors go through all stages of editing (no matter how poorly edited the copyediting may be.) I beg them to at least go through line editing, if not copyediting.

    You are right on target with respect to the quality of work available these days and the reason for it. Because of the lack of gatekeeping, especially in fiction, the readers are challenged to find quality indie fiction because of little to no true and honest.

    As an example, Amazon requires little for individuals to self-publish, and relies on readers to be the gatekeepers for quality in authorship. Although they stipulate that they may pull a book for poor editing and/or content, it appears that they only review those books that are within the top XX on their lists.

    Price point has caused issues too. Many of us had hoped that the industry would shake itself out based upon poor quality. Unfortunately, readers are not using the sample feature for 99 cent books (as an example of Amazon again.) The price point is so low that they are willing to pay the this 99 cent price. This current paradigm precludes the weed-out of poor authorship. Even though one reader may not buy another book from that author, there’s always another reader willing to take the chance; and few readers are willing to write a review for a book that they only spent 99 cents on, so the gatekeeping system upon which Amazon is relying (or rather, didn’t really care to implement) isn’t working.

    That’s my 99 cents. Or at least, my 1st freebie, in hopes that you will buy my next comment for $2.99. 🙂

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Perfect timing. I have some doubt in the status of the world as far as writing goes today, being a lost voice in the wilderness as it were. I think this can apply to everything from working to writing to someone trying to sell you something you can’t believe. We all work too hard, but hard work is good for the soul and breeds character.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Mark.

  • Genevieve Graham

    YES! YES! YES! Please forgive the semi-orgasmic response, but I agree entirely with you on this article, as well as most of your others. People ask me lately what my biggest suggestion would be for aspiring authors, and my number two suggestion (after “Write, then write more”) is DON’T WORRY ABOUT PUBLISHING. Just write. If you’re not being picked up by an agent, that’s because you need to go back and write. Edit. Make your quantity into quality. I hadn’t thought of it in those words before, but I like that very, very much.

  • Wayne

    Dear Mark
    Thank you for your article, it is always good to utilize the information obtained from this website. However, there is one thing that concerns me and that is the rather derogatory tone of this article. I am sure that you are a brilliant writer and I can gather from your article that you are infuriated by the level of writing on the internet, however, I believe that this anger can be articulated in a more sensitive manner as the sarcasm here detracts from the excellent insight provided in the article.

  • Claude Nougat

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Mark! At first I wondered what you were driving at – mainly because I equate quantity with poor quality. Editing is a matter of weeding out the bad stuff, the repetitions, the unnecessary hyperbole etc. But of course you meant “quantity of work”, and with that I’m in full agreement. I seem to spend more time editing my work than writing first drafts!

    The only place where I allow myself to stick to my first draft is my blog (well, almost – I always re-read several times and cross things out…). Indeed, I think that writing a blog is an excellent (nearly daily) exercise in writing and lets you branch out and take in things you wouldn’t normally include in your fiction writing.

    So in terms of quantity you’re dead right. It takes a lot of writing to get to that perfect piece. A lot of patience too. And that’s what makes it so hard. But once you’ve got your novel finely honed, you’re still nowhere. With the current tsunami of self-pubbed titles, you’re liable to sink to the bottom, overwhelmed by what is really indistinguishable from the “slush pile”.

    That leaves the problem of discoverability whole, doesn’t it? I’d love to hear your take on this!

  • Lillian Kennedy

    Thank you for a grounding article. It’s easy to get off track in the hurry to make a mark / living. The soul nourishment of beautiful work sustains so many of us – yet we get caught up in junk that makes us unhealthy. It’s the same with art, and I am going to quote you in my painting class today.

  • Donna Martin

    Thank you, Mark, for such an insightful post! Although I have been writing for the past 40 years, I have only recently begun to consider myself a “professional” writer. Your words of wisdom reaffirms what I knew all along…ANYONE can slap words on paper, throw it on the internet through any of the self-publishing avenues available these days, and call themselves an “author”. But it takes years of practice and dedication to improving one’s literary skills every day in order to truly call yourself a WRITER.

    Thank you for all you do for the writing community!

  • Marianne Peters

    I’ve always told myself and my writing students, “You have to write a lot to write a little.” There’s just no substitute for daily practice and steady production. I work on creating new content every day – priming the pump of my creativity. It may sit in a journal, only to be burned at my death, but every word is an investment in my craft. The longer I work at being a writer, the more important my daily practice becomes. It’s so easy to dry up creatively without spending some time each day letting my mind wander and the ink flow.

    (If you’re truly a writer, though, you can hardly go a day without writing! My family can tell when I need to go write something, because I’m a grump if I don’t).

    I try to be as professional as possible when I present my work to clients and editors. I’m mystified by writers who present shoddy workmanship and expect to be taken seriously. I’m more interested in a body of work characterized by consistent excellence and dependability.

  • Rosanne Dingli

    I am keeping all you post… daily. I find your lists so useful and perceptive. But this made my evening – thank you. I can say I agree with most of what you say here. I rarely read many writers’ blog posts right to the end, but this one was worth it. It confirms everything I have thought since this explosion happened. I have been writing since 1985, and it’s impossible not to agree with this if you have years of experience and understanding of books and writing.
    Thank you, Mark.

  • Bernard

    I sometimes find it as easy to write pages and pages as if I were riding on my old bicycle. But sometimes a couple of important paragraphs may require days and days of fine tuning.

    Yes quality requires quantity not only in terms of the number of words we write but also time spent focusing on choosing these words.

    It’s almost like working four years on the Sistine Chapel like Michelangelo did!!!

  • Ogozi John

    The dearth of quality is truly disturbing, with all the crap i see online everyday and even in established newspapers! I prefer reading old novels written with well strunged-up words (though some are archaic). I want to be a great writer, that’s why i make costly and conscious efforts at being a good writer, and i’ll be keeping this post in my ‘toolbox’.

    It is just discouraging that these days, people are always looking at getting their work edited at a low cost, thereby, fostering the proliferation of low quality writings.

  • ken

    Excellent post.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    “Now, however, nonprofessional writers can be forgiven for believing that because it’s easy to type, it’s easy to write. And the remaining exemplars of great writing are lost in the leveling of the signal-to-noise ratio — if they are sought out at all anymore.”

    But you might expect that the degraded quality of so much writing would, by contrast, make great writing _more_ attractive. There’s another step in the degradation process: mediocre style is increasingly _aspired_ to. I don’t yet completely understand the causes, but my best shot is “Plain-talk” writing: The new literary obfuscation” (http://tinyurl.com/3glcy28/.)

  • TheScarab

    I wasn’t necessarily excited when the whole internet publishing deal came out…. Okay, I wasn’t excited in the least. Call it a writer’s “clairvoyance” but I had a feeling it would make publishing easier, which is great and all, but it depreciates the industry as a whole. The easier it is to do something, the less flair and determination it requires to perform. When you take the flair and determination out of a writer, you can expect their work to slack off.

    Making something a challenge to achieve(author-dom) drives aspiring writers to improve the quality of their work to achieve it. Now that publishing is a walk in the breeze, many aspiring-writers—or people who think they have an idea worth some green—are slapping a bunch of words together and point-clicking for a copyright. Now the famed slush pile is doubling in size, and the work worthy of publishing is slipping between the cracks.

    I myself haven’t published, and I know old school publishing isn’t a breeze, but that eggs me on to improve my work. Online publishing is a cheat and it’s killing the industry. It may just be teaching our younger writers that it’s perfectly fine to have horrible grammar because “Little Timmy, you can publish on Amazon!”

    Thank you for the wonderful article.

  • Jashodhara

    It is really inspired me a lot ‘Quality requires Quantity. Wonderful article. As a non professional writer this is the best tips.If the quality of writing is good,then it does not count quantity.Though I write on my own blog often yet have to learn many more things of creative writing.

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