Should a writer spend their time honing their craft, working towards producing work of the highest quality – OR – should they focus their time on building their audience, connecting with others, and building their writing career?
This is a questions I have seen posed many times in many places in the past couple months. I often see people come back with a passionate answer of:
IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK. DON’T WORRY ABOUT MARKETING UNLESS YOUR WORK IS AMAZING.
And yes, that resonates with me, that is something I can nod my head to. When I look at the great work of our culture in stories of all kinds, I find them to be breathtaking, and on high rotation in the playlist of my life.
But should writers ONLY spend their time head down, locked in the attic, creating and revising their work until it meets some standard of greatness? The more I consider this, the more I am convinced that honing your craft and connecting with your audience are not mutually exclusive activities.
So I wanted to explore this topic today. I will say up front: there are no right answers except for what works best for you personally. Whatever feels right in your gut: go with that. Okay, let’s dig in…
A Romantic Vision of the Creative Process
Oftentimes, we have a romanticized view of the creative process and success. We look for purity – we want to think our favorite singer became popular because of their sheer majestic talent alone, that there wasn’t a team of producers crafting their work, that they didn’t throw out 20 songs to come up with one amazing tune, or that they started out as goth before going alt-country.
We don’t want to know about the corporate machine – the business – behind art. The idea of the lone artist resonates with us, that they are creating their work in a cabin in the woods – completely pure. And then, magically, the world discovers their work, validates their effort, and shines a light on their gift. This is how we dream success will happen.
Oftentimes creating great work is akin to how sausage is made. You do not want to know what went into making that hot dog – you simply want to know it tastes yummy at a summer picnic.
When you hear your favorite song – it sounds impassioned, personal, it speaks directly to your heart. But even one verse can be made up of 20 takes, could have been processed in subtle ways (not something as obvious as auto-tune), and be composed of dozens of nuanced layers, all while being debated endlessly by the artist and collaborators. It’s been road tested at a dozen live shows, it’s been shared with friends for months, collecting feedback, slowly improving the performance, the rough edges.
The point is: creative work is often a long process of revision, of sharing, of iteration, of slowly adding and removing layers. In the music world, it is expected that bands will tour and play live shows endlessly before they “make it” – they hone their craft right in front of their audience. They are constantly learning about their fans, how their work connects to people, and are becoming not just better musicians, but better storytellers in the process.
For writers, yes, I love the image of JK Rowling sitting alone in the cafe, creating her little world. I. LOVE. THAT.
But I don’t want to pretend that is the only way for creators to produce quality work. That you are not allowed to come out of the attic with your work until it is amazing. I have been a writer, been an artist, been a musician. When did my work improve? When it was shared. When I took the training wheels off, and took a leap of faith to share it with someone.
Planning vs Doing
You learn so much when you share your work, connecting it with others, and listening to not just the feedback of others, but to how you yourself react to your work once it is free in the world.
This process begins to help define you as a writer, or artist, or musician or other creative. The work lives, it has been unleashed, it can’t be taken back.
For some, this is the start of their career – of their identity. They learn how to share, how to deal with reaction, how their own vision evolves, changes, and grows.
Consider the difference of practicing basketball by yourself, perfecting your moves and shooting vs playing in an actual game. The difference is night and day. It’s the same with music – the difference between spending thousands of hours practicing alone, perfecting your technique vs the experience of playing with a band. BOTH sides of this equation are useful. But something special happens when you experience your craft with others, you see it from an entirely new light. Oftentimes, it is the difference between planning and doing.
There are some things that you can’t learn until you experiences them – with real people reacting to your work, with the insights you gain that make your next piece even better. This often works best if you build it slowly over time, instead of rushing out of the gate with something to sell six weeks before your book comes out.
So how do you create quality work? By doing. By sharing. By publishing. By repeating that process.
This is the principle around the “lean startup” process for launching a business. That, instead of getting an idea for a product, and diligently building it until it is what you want it to be and THEN launching it, you launch little iterations quickly. The idea is that things rarely go according to plan. That what you think is perfect when you launch, after you have expended all the time and resources to create it, is often missing key elements. That you can never predict how people will react to it. So you should launch small “good enough” versions, get feedback, and quickly improve the product to meet the needs of others and improve overall quality.
When you share, you learn so much not just about those who do or don’t react to your work, but about the work itself, and about your own understanding of your vision and abilities.
Storytelling is a Process
For most of us, our work gets better over time. What this means is the first work we create may often be of, say, lower quality than we would like. We mean well, but we simply didn’t have the experience to craft amazing stories, or songs, or works of art yet.
But, as the saying goes, it gets better.
We try, we share, we connect. Just as bands tour their work – they learn, they grow, all through the process of creating AND sharing. It is not an event, it is a PROCESS.
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, reflects on his process of finding and sharing great stories:
“All we do is look for interesting stories, and there are 7 or 8 of us now. I have to say, more than half of our week is engaged in looking for stories and trying stuff out. We’re really good at our jobs, we are as good as anyone who does this sort of thing. Between a half and a third of everything we try, we kill it. By killing, you will make something else even better live.” (meaning they record and produce it, and then they throw it in the trash.) Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.”
It speaks to the process of creative activity. That it is a cycle of creation, of sharing, of creation, of sharing. Ira and his team aren’t sitting in a room, alone, making one story better and better. They are out there, in the world, researching, listening, creating, broadcasting, and in a constant process of creating and connecting – because both sides of the process increase quality over time.
The Subjectiveness of Quality
Let’s just say you have written one of the greatest works of your lifetime – a book that will electrify an entire generation, become one of the biggest sellers of all time, and create a billion dollar empire. Here is the reaction that JK Rowling’s literary agent got when they approached publishers:
“The agency sent Rowling’s 200-page script to 12 publishers, all of whom, to their eternal regret, turned down the book. Harper Collins showed interest but was too slow in formulating a bid and so the first book by the most lucrative writer in the world was picked up by Bloomsbury for an advance of £1,500.”
Or how about another writer’s story. After being rejected by more than 20 publishers…
Early in 1965, Frank Herbert received good news from a surprising source. Chilton Books, best known for publishing auto repair manuals, made an offer of $7,500 (plus future royalties) to publish the three Dune segments.”
Once these writers received 10 rejection letters, should they have gone back to revisions, back to their cabin in the woods, to somehow increase the quality of what have since become classics?
The Confidence Game
Oftentimes the biggest the biggest barrier to someone who wants to create something is themselves. They create a document on their computer – a story, a song, a poem, and image, a video – and they never share it.
Success relies on more than the quality of work. Lots of quality work goes unnoticed. Lots of brilliant people die alone, unknown, without any measure of success or legacy.
Being successful is often as much about confidence, as it is about anything else. Confidence to create. Confidence to share. Confidence to persevere.
I have found that if you share something you are working on with JUST ONE PERSON, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. We live in a world where having “only” 32 followers on Twitter is disappointing. Imagine that – 32 FANS! Never before could you do that, especially on your own, without affiliation of a larger entity.
This is well summed up in this mention from Nathan Bransford’s blog/forum:
“Comment! of! the! Week! I really liked Cathy Yardley’s answer about what she wished she had known when she started writing, because it’s something I believe in wholeheartedly:”
“I wish I’d know that everybody writes alone, but nobody becomes a writing success that way. Not just the critique aspect, but the support. It’s too tough a business to lone wolf.”
Clearly – the goal is to produce quality work – stuff that will shape our culture, touch our hearts, inspire others to greatness, and leave a legacy long after we are gone. And I think that what I am describing in that post is one process to achieve work of the highest quality.
Is this hard work with no clear roadmap? Oftentimes, yes. But I will leave you with this quote from comedian Louis C.K.:
“I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work. I remember seeing this thing, a documentary about a Los Angeles coach [John Wooden], the guy who coached UCLA to huge wins, so they couldn’t be beat for three seasons. He’s a very legendary coach, but a very unassuming guy with thick glasses. They just won and won and won. They talked about the difference between him and, like, Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi. He didn’t make winning speeches. He never made speeches about being winners and being the best, like, “This is our house,” that kind of horsesh*t. Never said it. He said that to focus on that, to win, win, win, is worthless. It just has no value. He’d address all his players in his little voice, “If you just listen to me, and you work on your fundamentals and you apply yourself to working on these skills, you’re probably going to be happy with the results.” I think about that all the time.”