Quality vs. Speed

During my MBA, one of the problems that was often discussed is the tension between having quality information with which to make decisions versus having timely and fast information with which to make decisions.  In an ideal world, your information is both timely and accurate.  It’s hard to make good decisions unless you have information that is both accurate and timely.  But in the real world, there is a trade-off between timeliness and accuracy.

I offer this by way of analogy.  This holds true outside the world of business and MBAs as well: in whatever field of interest or endeavor of human activity, there is always a tension and a trade-off between the quality of something and the speed it can be done.

Author Dean Wesley Smith, who has become something of a self-publishing advocate, talked about this in a recent guest post gig he did on the “Fictorians” blog.  I found it interesting, then, that he took a stand against one of the most commonly-cited positives for new authors to choose self-publishing over traditional publishing: speed.

The argument goes this way: traditional publishers suck because you write a book and then a publisher accepts it and then it’s like two years before the book comes out and before you sell a single copy.  Or, you self-publish and the book is out tomorrow and you’re selling like hotcakes.

And hey, I can dig that argument.  I mean, yeah, two years is a long time after you’ve already invested whatever into writing that novel in the first place.

Which gets to the heart of Dean’s argument: you did invest time and learning into writing that novel, didn’t you?

His point is that many fans of digital self-publishing today are jumping in before they’ve learned to swim.  They’re dashing out stories at such a breakneak pace that none of those stories is getting enough care and attention to make sure the work is the best they can make it, and as high a quality or better than anything a traditional press might publish.  There are writers who haven’t earned their chops, who haven’t honed their craft, who haven’t figured out how to write a truly satisfying story.  And some of them, they figure that they can self-publish so they might as well justdo it.

Dean seems to be putting a stake in the ground here: that in the world of fiction, quality matters more than speed.  Overall, I think I agree with him.  Sure, I’d love to go faster.  I’d love to write faster, and to get published faster.  But I’d rather be good than be fast

And so I take my time.  I try to pay attention to my craft.  I try to learn how to write better.  I’m in no hurry to make my publishing debut.   Whether ultimately I end up traditionally published, digitally self-published, or some combination of the above, I have no reason to jump before I’m ready.

Some people can write faster – heck almost anybody can write faster than I do – and learn these lessons faster.  But skipping the lessons just to get your next ebook out… probably isn’t going to land you on the digital best-seller lists.

What do you think?  Quality?  Speed?  How do you balance these?


14 thoughts on “Quality vs. Speed

  1. To play devil’s advocate a bit, more writing and editing doesn’t always equal better writing. Sometimes, yes, but not always, because you write differently when it will be public in the immediate future (or you should). I wrote about that here: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=156.

    That being said, I expect he’s right and some cookies are being put on the plate that should have spent more time in the oven. 🙂

    • I think one point of difference is that the “cookie” Dean is talking about isn’t necessarily a given work – it’s the author’s entire collection of skills (although how that is expressed in the quality of a single given work is part of the argument). And more so than the cookies not being ready to come out of the oven (hey, some of us like our cookies a little gooey), rather the author hasn’t spent time pulling together the right amount of salt and sugar and chocolate chips, etc – to beat the metaphor into a bloody pulp. In the example you talk about in your link, Trey Parker is at a point where he’s got the right ingredients, and now he can think about specific work process preferences – and he prefers the sort of process he gets in television. Others might prefer the longer, more considered process of theatrical film development. I think the metaphor works well for the competing paradigms of publishing and Dean’s argument, too: there are different work processes in place in the two different methods, but there are certain key ingredients that an author needs regardless of which publishing path they choose. They’ll need the right set of writing skills and the ability to tell a compelling story (the right ingredients) And with rather few exceptions they’ll probably need a certain amount of developmental editing and copyediting (the right preparation method and cook time). So Dean’s argument doesn’t argue against or invalidate either of those options – it just clarifies what some of the basic ingredients and preparation methods will need to be, regardless. At least, that’s how I read it.

      • Ah, yes, I’ve seen this. Not so much typos or overall storytelling (major publishers put out books with those problems all the time), but basic grammar. I’ve seen all sorts of problems in indie books that you seldom see in books from Big Pub, things like misuse of words, confusing pronoun antededents and dialogue attribution, problems with tense, etc. It makes me cringe. (And I’ve seen indie books which were completely clean, too.)

        People who are serious about indie publishing are always told to hire an editor, but that’s no substitute for learning your craft yourself.

  2. I agree, in that I think quality output is vastly more gratifying and edifying than quantity output — both from a writer’s and a reader’s perspective. Some might argue, and perhaps rightly so, that they can make a better living in the here-and-now by churning out more and being a bit less concerned with refinement. But in the long term (which is more where my interest and focus lies), I don’t have any doubt that quality will win out.

    • Yep. None of which is a knock against quantity and speed, either. If you can maintain quality at a high rate of speed, then more power to you. That’s the stuff dreams are made of. But within certain physical, mental, and temporal constraints, I personally prefer to choose quality. And that goes doubly so as a reader: I just don’t have time to waste on anything of even mediocre or average quality (I don’t read fast enough or have that much reading time) so I won’t apologize for giving stuff a pass or not taking the time to give it a chance.

  3. I’ve been thinking about that article all week. Some people write fast, and polished, but others don’t. I think however, that before the point of publication (self or not), a writer should have honed their craft, and therefore figured out their process, and what reasonable output could be expected.

    Perhaps ‘speed’ here could = impatience. It’s likely people can’t tell when they’re ready, or what quality their writing is at. Maybe that’s not a terrible thing, and a lack of sales will replace traditional rejections if the self-pub route is taken.

    How do you balance the two? I think it’s up to you to know how fast you work, and figure out what level of quality is acceptable to you (right now), and set deadlines based on that. Also, an aside, maybe it’s a good thing (in general) to write that million words of garbage as fast as possible, to get it out of the way, and really understand the craft. Then again, not everyone learns the same way.

    • Yeah, like I said in my reply to Joseph above… I don’t think this is a knock against those who can write fast and polished. To someone who can do that, and do it consistently, that’s a wonderful blessing and gift to have. Personally speaking, I don’t have it. I’m slow. Part of my slowness is time-related: I don’t have nearly as much writing time as I’d like (this week so far: about 2 hours of fiction time, overall). But part of it is just my compositional speed is a little lower than some people’s, and that I take a lot of time at the sentence-level and word-choice-level even in first draft. I’m still much more amateur than professional, and I’m still learning the craft, and I acknowledge that. But I absolutely agree that different people will strike that balance in different ways according to their own preferences and abilities. But where I think Dean’s article is most useful is in saying: “Look, kid, just because you can rush that story to publication on [insert self-publishing platform of choice] doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can write five novels in a year doesn’t mean you should rush them all to instant publication. Think before you leap. Build your toolkit and capabilities as a writer and hone your craft. Be the best you can be at what you’re doing and only then can success follow.”

  4. I’ll take quality over speed any day. 300 words of pure gold in an hour beats 3,000 words that I’ll have to scrap. (Although if I ever managed 3K in an hour, I admit I’d be impressed.) And how long it took to get a book from an author’s imagination and into my hands won’t make me love the story any more or less. Read, write, read some more, write some more, and when you’ve got a book you’re honest-to-goodness proud of, then think about getting it published. And feel free to savor the process; having fun takes time, too.

    • Yeah, I think there’s definitely something to be said for speed – writing fast is definitely not a bad thing, not by any means. But if I had to choose either one or the other, that’s how I’d choose. The depressing part is the part where I stop and realize: “Aw heck. I write slow and the quality of my work is nothing to write home about.” When you’ve got neither top-flight quality, nor groundbreaking speed… Well… that’s where your point about having fun has to kick in, because the fun of it is what it was all about in the first place, anyway, right?

  5. Apparently this subject is in the air this week:

    The problem also is that there are apparently commercial rewards if you can produce a lot of books in a short time (no matter how you publish). And while it’s true that the only way to get to be a better writer is by writing, I think “writing” in this case doesn’t mean writing at a feverish pace, with little rewriting, in order to get more books out there. I don’t think that’s the best way to improve as a writer. (Also, it wouldn’t seem to allow much time for reading.)

    Let alone the question of enjoying any part of the process, of course.

    • Yes, there do appear to be strong commercial incentives to write fast – and some may take that as a cue to the market values speed over quality. I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I think the market expects high quality as a minimum, and then demands that same high quality at faster speeds. I agree with you, too: just writing to get stuff out there and not spending time thinking about the work and enjoying the process doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity to growing and improving as a writer, reflecting on craft, and producing better books. I think having fun with it is probably one important ingredient in producing a certain acceptable level of quality (though very clearly not the only or even the most important ingredient).

  6. I chose self-publishing because after 30+ years of unpublished scribbles I had enough material to put out 20 books last year and 30 this year (from short stories to max90K novels). Only some shorts were actually written last year, the longer works were already complete. But I’ve been writing for 30+ years and only 1% of my stories is unfinished. Most are rubbish, but there are a few unpolished gems to dust off and put out.
    But newer writers shouldn’t rush out to self-publish – it’s not a gold rush. BUT at the same time, please don’t get stuck in rewriting hell where you lose track of your story while you try to reach that quality perfection that is impossible to achieve. Some people will love your story, some people will hate it, no matter if you spend one month, one year or one lifetime on it.
    Write your first draft with your creative mind. Put it away for a month or two – while you write the next story! Reread it and edit plot holes and whatnot. Send to beta-readers. Check their comments and do a final pass. Query or publish, and move on.

    • Well, I’m not sure that a single round of revision/edits is the only alternative to “rewrite hell”. Different authors have different processes and systems and achieve different levels of success. Some of my favorite authors will go through four, five and even more rounds of edits and revisions on their novels – I’ve seen some even make note of even 10 or more revisions. Honestly, I think the extra care and attention shows through on their published work. And they’re still getting those books and stories out, so taking the time and care to produce a high quality doesn’t seem to hinder their success nor prevent them from ever getting a book finished. So I think that’s a useful counter-point to the idea that the best way is to do a minimal amount of edits before pushing a manuscript out the door. On the other hand, I don’t have a lot of data on how much care and attention the best-selling self-publishers are doing and how that impacts their quality and success. And on the third hand – most of those favorite authors of mine who do so many rounds of revisions and edits… most of them write first drafts pretty fast already. When you can pump out good quality drafts in a couple months, maybe you can afford the time to take a little more care with more revisions and edits to make sure you get it right. On the final hand, I know I’m not a good model for any of this myself. My first drafts are slow (I only have a few free hours a week in which to write), and not particularly astounding or remarkable. And with one book, the oft-mentioned “novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever”, I’ve started writing the first chapter from scratch at least four times and the most recent version of the book is still in poor shape. I don’t call it “rewrite hell”, though, because each version has been vastly superior to the version before, generally by a very wide margin. But that’s still a lot of redrafting. (Yeah… I’ve only been writing for 20+ years, not yet 30+, but I’m just not where I want to be, yet, in terms of quality, though I’m closer than ever.)

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