Qq: Quota & Quality. How Much Is Enough?

During April, I will be blogging about how creative people can practice their craft every day and what rewards will come from the daily effort.


Qq: Quota & Quality
How Much Is Enough?

A lot has been said about how much time you must put into your craft before you “master it.” You’ve probably heard about the 10,000-hour rule. Others have talked about “deliberate practice” where you not only put time into your craft every day, you strive to improve, seek out experts to critique your work, and basically give your life over to it.

I don’t disagree with any of this, but it’s that last part that doesn’t seem to get discussed much—giving your life over to it. For me, this is not realistic. Not only because I have other responsibilities, but because I think such singular focus might come at the cost of enjoying my craft.

Part of the 10,000 rule or “deliberate practice” is about achieving GREATNESS, becoming the next Martha Graham, Beethoven, or Toni Morrison. Nothing wrong with aiming for this, but there are a bunch of other layers between greatness and “never tried.” For me, these other layers offer life-long opportunities for joy and creativity.

Although I may not aim to be a “master,” I have also aimed too low. I found myself writing the same things over-and-over-and-over-and-over again in my journal just to say I’d done my ten minutes of writing that day. “Just writing” was a far cry from “deliberate practice” and the mindless effort might have even regressed my skills. It certainly dulled my joy and interest. I needed purpose and a higher standard of quality.

So, quota and quality—how much is enough practice (20 minutes? a few hours?), and what’s good enough to qualify as effort (a quick sketch? a polished outline?). You’ll have to decide how much is enough time/effort each day and to what level your daily work must reach to count as meaningful practice.

You could compare it to exercise. A ten-minute shuffle is better than no activity at all (see L), but really, a month of daily ten-minute shuffles is not going impact your wellness much. A fifteen-minute fast-walk, however, will start to reveal improvement after a few weeks. You’ll feel muscles strengthening and lungs improving. That doesn’t mean you start training for a marathon tomorrow (see B), nor do you need to strive for anything close to a marathon.

I suppose, ultimately, in defining Quota and Quality for yourself, you’re determining what you mean by “greatness” and what level of “mastery” you’re aiming for day by day.

Find the sweet spot between half-hearted effort and strenuous straining as you figure out how much time/effort and to what level of skill the daily practice of your craft needs over the long haul.

You can change it up any time. When you’re in great artistic shape, you can set a higher standard for quality. When you’ve got a long weekend, you can set a higher quota of time. And the reverse is true; during challenging times, a few minutes and brief effort will have to suffice and will be better than no creative work at all.

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8 Responses to Qq: Quota & Quality. How Much Is Enough?

  1. Liz Brownlee says:

    I think the best way to improve is to either write or practise writing for something – a competition, a short story to send off somewhere, (particularly those places that give feedback) or to write in tandem with someone else – someone who is better than you, who will give you honest, structured feedback. Also going to a writing class where the tutor will do the same. I’ve come out the other side and have been published in many places since 2000, have my own book, and am now writing for 3 other books, but I never stop learning or improving, and even now i make myself in competition with the other two writers on the project and try to make what i am writing better than theirs. It really does improve your writing, but you do need to get feedback from someone good.

    • TRISTA says:

      What a great story, Liz. I like how competition motivates you, rather than causing negative pressure. I also like the idea of writing for a competition or a particular publication, except when I try that, my writing ends up stiff and effortful. It sounds like, for you, it’s more of an inspiring prompt.

      • Liz Brownlee says:

        Try rewriting something, taking out all the adjectives. Write for 10 minutes beforehand letting your mind go free, describing something you know well, a childhood memory, or just write a word over and over if you get stuck. Or try rewriting something from memory as if you were telling someone the story, not taking your hand off the page. i think you might find it will flow better.

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    Agree with you here, for sure. I know that for me personally, I need to dedicate full days to the practice of something to get good at it. (Most recently, I had to give up a week of time to learn the ins and outs of app development for a magazine I volunteer for, and finally submitted the coding today! YAY!)

    I think there’s a lot to be said with learning general knowledge, and then using natural discovery. It depends on how fast you learn, though. I just need to apply myself to my writing (without killing the drive to create because I’ve turned it into a chore…) A very careful balance!

    • TRISTA says:

      Whoa … you taught yourself app development and coding? I’ve been thinking of adding a chapter to this A-to-Z collection about creative work. I have two friends who, like you, have no fear of learning–the time and effort it takes and the mistakes that might happen along the way. I think this is also important to the daily practice of art–the willingness to teach yourself something new you need to know to further your craft.

      • Alex Hurst says:

        Absolutely. I don’t do the hard coding, but I have to learn enough to navigate the program (I am also teaching myself Adobe suite slowly, and basically understand all there is to know about InDesign [for book design and interactive magazines]) I learn through trial and error. It gives me a headache, but is so, so important to learning it all.

  3. Rose L. says:

    My friends who write books believe strongly in quota, that they must put out 10,000 words a day or something like that. Then when they go through the editing process, I hear from them that they needed to cut half of what they had written. So are they writing to reach the goal of words or striving for quality?

    • TRISTA says:

      SUCH a good question! For me, a daily word count would only *maybe* work if I had a very thorough and clear outline of the whole book/essay/story. Otherwise, I’d just ramble, and like you describe here, I’m sure I’d end up cutting 70% or more. Nothing wrong with that if it gets you to your idea, but committing to an amount of time daily works better for me.

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