Saturday, December 19, 2009

On Not Writing Fast

by Scott D. Parker

I learned something while participating in NaNoWriMo last month: I don’t write very fast.

When I started NaNoWriMo, I had been reading Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Gabriel Hunt stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent made their living writing and writing a lot. Famously, the first Doc Savage novel was written in less than a month. With the type of story I was writing and the reading I was doing, I figured I could blaze through my entire 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I didn’t. Sure, there were days in which I wrote 1,800 to 2,000 words. Those were good days. It was those days that I wanted to channel more of since the words flowed like butter on a hot roll. It was those types of days I figured I could do every time I sat down to write.

Real life, however, is different. For every 1,800-word day, I had a 800-word day. There were some days, of course, where the writing was less a thing of leisure than a grueling slog. Now, all you professional writers out there know that writing is a job and, like a 9-to-5 gig, there are days when you just don’t want to friggin’ write and, yet, you have to. And you do. You’ll make it up with a 3,000-word day.

That’s not me. Yet. I’m working on a new short story and I know all the contours of the tale before I even began. I see the ‘movie’ in my head and I know the bulk of the action and the dialogue. Yesterday, however, as I was putting pixel to screen, the words emerged from me less like butter on a hot roll but more like syrup in January. A couple of passages were agony, so bad that I had to get up and refill my coffee (Eggnog Spice from Rao’s) just to get some breathing room.

It was yesterday that the realization truly crystalized: I’m not a fast writer even though I think I am. To be honest, I’m not slow either. I’m medium. Dave White, in a previous column, also commented that he doesn’t write fast. He wrote again about it two days ago.

In that realization, I couldn’t help but remember James Reasoner’s recent post that he hit the million-word mark the other day. Actually, it was 1 December. Do the math: 1,000,000 words in 334 days = 2,994 words/day. Yowza! But that’s why he’s a pro and I’m not.

But I want to be. To that end, in the coming year, for every project, I’ll be setting word-count goals (weekly, to allow for life to interfere) to reach and surpass. I may not be able to increase the speed of my writing but I will be able to increase the quality of my writing. I suspect that the more seasoned I get, the better the writing will become and, naturally, I’ll write “faster” since I may have fewer edits.

Elmore Leonard once said that he found his voice after writing around a million words. Well, I guess I’d better get started...


Merc said...

As long as you keep producing words and working to improve, I dunno, writing super fast doesn't seem like it's always necessary, IMO. Everyone has their own method...

I used to write a lot faster, but I've slowed down quite a bit as I'm working on making it better and fixing things, so I can apply what I learn and continue to improve (so is the theory). I've found I work better now at a slower pace, but I've been happier (and still productive).

So hey, I'm all for working at your own best pace, whatever it is. :) Great post, thanks.

Good luck with the wc goals!

dannielo said...

If you'd like a tool for setting your goals for 2010, you can use this web application:

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
A Vision Wall (inspiring images attached to yor goals) is available too.
Works also on mobile.

Dana King said...

I'm an ardent opponent of NaNoWriMo, because many people--dare I say most people--don;t writer well when they're just cranking stuff out to hit an arbitrary number decided by someone else. The world doesn't need more novels; we're drowning in them already. We need more good novels, and those come though consideration and thought at each writer's own pace.

Setting daily/weekly/monthly goals is great, so long as the writers sets them, knowing what's reasonable for him or her.

Chris said...

Dana, I don't really understand the idea of being an "opponent" of NaNoWriMo. I can see not choosing to do it for oneself for any number of reasons, but to actually oppose it? I don't really get that. Either that or maybe my idea of the message that NaNoWriMo is presenting is different. For me, and for many (from what I've gathered), the benefit of NaNoWriMo is training a writer to get used to getting the ass in the chair every day -- that seems more important than the ultimate word count, and is probably the most important attribute any writer needs to have regardless of their pace. That 50K is just a goal, and nowhere do they suggest that hitting it means you have a "finished" novel. Just a draft, and hopefully an experience of what it means to really dedicate effort to a project.

Different methods work for different people. Me, I do better just cranking the first draft out as fast as possible to catch my ideas. I'm not one to labor over each word and sentence -- time enough for that later. So 40K - 50K words/month when I am not editing a project seems like a more than reasonable goal, and anything less tells me I am slacking off too much. But that's just me. I'm sure plenty of people are most comfortable working just the opposite.

David Cranmer said...

I agree. The reason I personally don't participate in NaNoWriMo. I sometimes have a 1500 word day and sometimes I don't... I will add to your discussion here by adding that I feel to many short story writers are writing to fast and putting out half baked material. Quality is what counts, not quanity. Now, some writers can pull off all the above, but most can't. And it shows.

Dana King said...


I'm all for getting people to put their asses in eats. What bothers me about the whole thing is too many people like the idea of having written much better than actually writing, and they'll knock out 50,000 words of crap and think they've done something. Good writing is editing. If someone came up with an idea for NaNoEdMo I'd be for it in principle, but that would get people thinking they could edit the junk they wrote in November in one more month and they'd be all set.

There are more than enough people who really want to write; they're writing. I've seen too many of the others--those who say they want to write, but lack the self-motivation to put their asses in chairs--to worry much about them. We can say good or bad things about NaNoWriMo, but writing is all about self-motivation. Everything else wears off.

Chris said...


"Good writing is editing."

Amen to that!

I face that guy who likes having written better than writing every time I sit down, I think. I face him on the way to the gym too, for that matter!