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Set a Quota & Keep It, Gene Says [43023]

By December 1, 1984October 26th, 2023Articles

One of my favorite quotes is from Hugh Prather. “If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire is not to right.” I like it because it throws the ball right back into my court. It puts the burden back on me, the aspirant.

That prompts another quote. J. Milburn Smith said “The burden of learning is on the person who wants to learn, not on the person who wants to teach.” Combine the two and you get something like, “If you want to do it, you gotta do it, and the only way to do it, is to do it.”

            The only one who can really teach you to write is you. The only way you’re going to learn to write is to write, write, and write. If you want to learn to write, or if you want to improve the skills you already have, or if you want to keep your wit sharp, you have to keep writing.

            I began my comedy writing career as a gagwriter. I did one-liners for nightclub comics. When I graduated to writing television sketches, I still maintained one contract for the one-liners. Why? To keep that skill in trim. As I wrote sketches, I also began writing half-hour sitcom scripts as an exercise. When variety shows disappeared from the TV scene, I was ready to write teleplays. Then I began writing screenplays.

Did I have a contract? No. I did it just for the exercise. A few have been optioned, but to date none of them have been produced. I tried writing books and I’ve had three of them published, two of which are still on the stands, and one of which has been translated and published in Japan.

None of these projects, including the books, generate near the income of my basic television contract. Some of them have produced some income, but that’s not why they were undertaken. They were simply exercises designed to keep my writing skills in different arenas sharpened.

The first advice and the best suggestion I can give to any aspiring writer is to set yourself a quota. Decide what type of writing you want to learn, and decide on a pace for yourself. If you want to begin with one-liners, pick a number for each day or each week. If you want to do short stories, set a goal for a plot outline, then decide on a certain number of words or pages per day. The same applies to teleplay or screenplay. Even a novel is a finite amount of pages. Set a quota and attack it.

Your quota need not be too demanding. That would only frustrate you and make it easier to abandon the project. No, make it comfortable and realistic. Of course, don’t make it too easy or you won’t get any benefit from it, you won’t be stretching yourself. And remember that it is flexible.

If your original goal is too soft, add more jokes or more pages. If it’s driving you up a wall, back off at a touch. This is not a contest to test your endurance. It’s a learning process. So experiment and find the right goals for your writing, but once you set them, meet them.

I’m not a big champion of extreme organization. I have friends who have the rest of their life so well organized and prearranged that they don’t even have to show up for it. I do some of that, but I also leave plenty of time for improvisation and spontaneity. I don’t advise applying every spare minute of leisure to writing or thinking about writing, but I do suggest that even the most capricious personality can allow time for writing. As an example, I used to have a quota of 60 jokes per week on two separate topics. Working six days a week on it, that comes to only 10 gags a day. Monday morning, I would decide on topic number one and do some thinking about it. By doing this, I would automatically think about the subject even when I wasn’t consciously working on it.

While driving to work and listening to the radio I was working on my writing, and it cost me not one bit of time. Then I could write three jokes while having breakfast and or shaving. I might think of a joke while driving or even while working period I would jot it down. I would begin my lunch period by writing three jokes. Then I might do another three or four right before retiring. If the jokes just wouldn’t come at those times, then I’d sit down for an hour or so in the evening and work hard to generate my 10 gag daily quota, but usually, it was a lot less than 10 because of the work I’ve done during the day. The work costs very little of my free time period

Keeping to your quota is good training for several reasons. First it teaches discipline. Probably the virtue that is most important to a professional writer is discipline. You have to learn to produce on demand. You have to be competent whether or not you’re inspired. You even have to be good working on some projects that you don’t fully believe in because the person paying your salary believes in them. It’s an important tool for a writer and the time to learn it is now.

Secondly, the training is constant. It’s repetitive, so you learn faster. Weekend athletes tell you that you can’t play well when you only play on Saturday. You have to get out there several times a week to learn golf or tennis. In fact, one hour of play a day for five straight days is probably better than five hours on the weekend.

Third, by sticking to a quota, you won’t be rushed. You think about your project then work on it. Your mind begins to ponder it again, then you produce more. It’s a steady relaxed flow of creativity. Compare that to letting your daily goal slip by unachieved, then rushing to catch it up in one massive burst of dedication. You may get your work done, but it probably won’t be your best and it won’t be as beneficial a learning experience.

Most steering processes are a series of errors and corrections. You go off target and you correct. You overcorrect, and adjust in the other direction. Gradually, the error factor diminishes to practically nothing.

I remember as a child I used to wonder why people driving a car kept moving the steering wheel when we were going in a straight path. They were constantly correcting to maintain that reasonable straight path. The learning process is pretty much the same. So, you want to keep making corrections as often as possible. If you leave too much time between

corrections, you may stray so far off target that the corrections you made previously are now useless. You have to start over again. My friend, Vic Braden, who teaches tennis, has a great line for that. He says, “Some people say they should be better players. They’ve had 11 years of experience. I tell them they’ve had one year of experience 11 times.”

You don’t want that to happen to your writing, so set yourself a quota make it reasonable, and stick to it.

©2021 Perret Ink