Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect. Good.

January 15, 2015 § 30 Comments


Bhaktopur, Nepal. All about quantity.

Bhaktopur, Nepal. All about quantity.

As writers, we edit our work. More than anyone else except, perhaps, oil painters, we labor over the fixed form until it’s “perfect.” Or as close as we can get it. Tweaking sentences and swapping out words. Junking the whole thing and starting again, treading the same path, but better. Until it wins approval, checks, awards, validation.

Stop it.

In their 2001 book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell the parable of the pottery teacher:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Write a lot this year. Scribble on napkins at bars when a beautiful sentence arrives in your brain–or a terrible one. Carry a notebook, or a pad of Post-Its, or a folded sheet of paper wrapped around a pen. Interrupt your friends, and make them say something again. Turn away mid-conversation to write.

Take the essay that’s been tormenting you and shove it in a drawer until ignoring it fixes the problem. Maybe that will be in ten days, or a hundred days, or ten years. In the meantime, write some more. Write scraps and crots and pieces of broken structure. Throw them in a pile or a box or even away, but write, write, write. Until it’s not precious, or special, or perfect. It’s just what you do.

All the time.

___________________________________________

Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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