Balancing Productivity and Art

If you are producing anything—toy dolls, bread, vacuum cleaners, or novels—there are some variables that you have to work with. Ideally, a publisher would like you to bring them in 1) quickly, 2) beautifully written, 3) and at a low price.

But buyers will almost always be willing to make trade-offs. Your goal is to provide two of the three. For example, I used to know an editor who handled a series of novels based on a major television series. A couple of times he asked me, “Could you write a novel for me in two weeks? I’ll pay you twice what I normally do for it.” In other words, he wanted a good novel quickly, and he was willing to pay through the nose. He wanted two out of three.

I told him “No” every time. The reason was that I felt that writing a novel that quickly would hurt the quality of my work, and ultimately a sub-standard novel would damage my reputation. In the short term, I might make some good money, but in the long term, it would hurt my career. I’d rather write one great novel than ten bad ones. (Besides, I wasn’t a fan of that particular series, so it seemed a distraction.)

Yet more and more, it seems, this career demands that you be productive, that you up your word count. For many writers, that might seem frightening. They might feel that they are being pushed to write too quickly.

But the truth is, that pushing yourself often yields great results. If you push yourself and fail, at the very least you’ve exercised your writing muscles. You’ve considered how to write a story and found out some ways that don’t work, so that next time you can write more quickly. Your mind becomes more nimble.

After having been a professional writer for more than 25 years, I find that my mind is far more facile than it was when I first began. The ideas come more quickly, the stories that I write are better, and it’s more fun to write now than it was back then.

So by pushing productivity, we may actually be creating a generation of better storytellers.

What I find so exciting about this is that I’m seeing the writers today rising to this challenge. It suggests to me that writers today are developing a strong work ethic.

The truth is that, in this industry, if you can write fairly quickly and to a high quality, you can make a great living.

I was talking to one author once who said, “I’m the world’s slowest writer. I can only write about twenty words a minute. But if I sit down and do it for eight hours a day, I can still compose five thousand words per day.” Think about it. That’s a novel in a month. To the world, that seems “blazing fast.”

You don’t have to write quickly to make a living, you just have to be consistent.


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