Prolific writer is one of those terms that is difficult to nail down. The word prolific just means: productive, abundant, or creative. In other words, we may “know it when we see it,” but the meaning is subjective. It’s a quality that requires comparison. And by comparison, history has delivered some very prolific authors. Interestingly, a review the top forty prolific writers, reveals many names you might not recognize.
Sometimes the reason may be as in the case of the German author, Rolf Kalmuczak who wrote over 2,900 novels but did so under over one hundred pen names. In other cases, such as Barbara Cartland’s 772 novels, the unfamiliarity may be because you’ve never endeavored to read romance. But there are other names, such as Isaac Asimov and his 506 books, you may know even if you’ve only experienced his stories in movies (Bicentennial Man and iRobot). The numbers, however, make the modern day prolific writers such as Stephen King (plus 100) and Nora Roberts (plus 213) seem almost lazy.
Although one could certainly argue that quality is of greater value than quantity, the list of “who’s who” in the most prolific writers club, has plenty of quality. Of course, back here on the planet, “Lord let me just get one book out a year,” being more productive is a consistent theme for many modern authors.
When asked “how” they produced so many books, most prolific writers fall back to advice on character development, confidence in the work, or as Muriel Spark suggested, get a cat. The question of “how” appears as difficult to answer as the question of “inspiration.”
It is not that these authors are holding back some secret, it’s that they, themselves, can’t answer to the exact mechanism that creates such production. But, within their processes lies some consistency that might hold the key. There are things you can identify that seem almost—there aren’t any absolutes in most things—universal to all prolific writers.
1. Prolific Writers Are Prolific Readers
The one consistent behavior of the most productive writers is that they are prolific readers. Their love of writing stems from a love of reading. And most are known for not just reading a few books, but an enormous amount of books. To be a prolific writer, you need to have a lot of ideas, and there is no better way to find new ideas than exposure to . . . Ideas. An additional benefit is that exposure to different styles and plots also improves a writer’s own crafting of style and plots. Plus, if you want to know what good writing looks like then you have to read it.
Does that mean an author should read Classics? First, any reading is better than no reading. But one psychological theory on learning suggests that“hearing an incorrect answer” can lead to providing the wrong response in the future. In short, we remember the question and the first response regardless of the validity of the reply. Additionally, much learning is the result of modeling. So exposure plays a role in how we learn. The better the teacher, the more opportunity for the student to advance. Exposure to the Classics provides a writer with a greater opportunity to improve their storytelling than exposure to comic books.
2. Habit Over Inspiration
E.B. White wrote, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Prolific writers have a severe writing habit. They write every day. They believe that in the early stages it is the quantity and not the quality that matters. Of course, they return for editing, but they do not let a pursuit of perfection stand in the way of their production.
Creating a writing habit, like all “good” habits are difficult. But as Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, any can be formed or eliminated in three to four weeks. You just require the correct technique to create the habit.
One theme prevalent in the writing habits of prolific authors is the presence of cues.
In his early days, Ernest Hemingway struggled to complete The Sun Also Rises. A friend suggested he rent an office. Although Hemingway had very little money, he took the advice, renting a small, cold attic space and it was there he finally finished the book that launched his career.
Many freelance writers today do the same. Although you could argue that writing can occur anywhere, there is a psychological benefit to dedicated writing space. It’s an environmental cue to “write.” The space doesn’t have to be an office or a cold attic, but it should be a place that represents the business for which you attend - writing.
It’s one thing to be able to get up each morning, grab some coffee, and sit down in your office and write. It’s quite another to have to raise kids, go to work or school, do chores, and then sit down to write. Prolific writers tend to be those who had the tenacity to write no matter their current lifestyle or level of responsibilities.
Most writers began their first book with the worst of day jobs…and night jobs. Stephen King wrote stories while working in a Laundromat. JK Rowling’s well-known tale includes a version where she was terminated from a job for writing during work hours. Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership.
None waited for the perfect conditions or the ideal lifestyle to write.
Many writers discover that their first book was easier to write than those that followed. There is no pressure, no one is waiting for it, and since many of don’t have a clue of what we’re doing, we aren’t as concerned with doing it wrong. I wrote my first novel on plane trips and in hotel rooms. It was far easier to write then the three that followed. SK, she wrote hers amidst the bustle of twin toddlers. For reference, the sound of a jet engine is less distracting than toddlers.
Often it’s the subsequent books that require tenacity. The problem can stem from the little break between books. The period when we also break the writing habit. But prolific writers know that a writer writes and the best way to get the next book to completion is to sit down and start writing.
Is being a prolific writer of any importance?
It’s a personal decision. In today’s book environment there are strategic and financial advantages to having more titles available for your readers. Then again, Harper Lee published two books in the space of fifty-five years and sold forty million copies. Some independent authors publish books every month, and there are those who only wanted to write one.
It’s not a race, however, and there is no award for volume. The most important thing to know is yourself. Each writer has their own process, and part of that process is reaching a comfort level with the work—the point where we believe the story is now, “good enough to publish.” And we’ve all read books where we wished the author had gotten a second opinion on that “good enough” conclusion.
There is no point in beating oneself up over a slower publication schedule. Each writer’s measurement should be themselves. Maybe you get it all right the first time and need few revisions. Maybe you like to shift through your manuscript four or five times. Or maybe you just put the thing in a drawer for six months and revisit it later for review.
All these factors play a role in your level of prolificness. What is important is when comparing you to you is it one of satisfaction or guilt? If you truly do wish to write more, then the habits employed by the most prolific writers can help you achieve your goal. Like we said, there aren’t any awards for writing a lot, only for writing good stuff.