Making the Best of Your Writing No Matter Your Speed

Making the Best of Your Writing No Matter Your Speed

I have a writer acquaintance who works very, very slowly. Whenever we discuss the craft or business of writing, I’m always amazed at the amount of time they put into every stage of the process: The research, the outlining, the drafting, the revision. They’ve been known to work on a single short story for years.

It makes me feel a bit like a slacker because I work much more quickly—I finish a short story every month and sometimes finish one within a few days, and I once wrote an entire novel in three months. As a result, I’m much more prolific, but not necessarily a better writer; in terms of quality, the speed of your writing doesn’t matter. But many writers worry about how fast they write.

There are some practical concerns with your writing speed—we’re all given just so much time on this Earth, after all, and every moment you spend on this project is a moment you can’t spend on the next one. And if you earn your living through your writing, being slow is probably a real drag on your income.

So, if you’re a slow writer, what—if anything—do you need to do about it? Well, first let’s get one thing straight—there is no ‘normal’ writing speed. Helen Hooven Santmyer famously took about 50 years to finish her fourth published novel, “…And the Ladies of the Book Club,” while Jack Keuroac wrote On the Road in a feverish three weeks (after several years of lived research, of course).

If it takes you three weeks just to write a paragraph, don’t automatically assume that you’re a freak who has to completely change how you approach your work. Take a breath and ask yourself a few questions.

Is Change Necessary

Is your writing pace actually a problem? Self-appointed gurus will be confidently incorrect about this. They will tell you that you should be writing a chapter every hour. They will tell you that a real freelance writer pounds out 10,000 words a day. But just because some wag on the Internet says it doesn’t make it so.
Start with asking yourself these questions:

What’s Slowing You Down?

Is your slow writing representative of an organic pace of thought? In that case, there may be no real reason to force yourself to speed up. Everyone’s mind works differently, so if yours requires a bit more time to work through your thoughts, there’s nothing wrong with that—or with you.

But if you’re slow because you obsess unnecessarily about aspects of the writing process it might be healthier to address those issues.

If you don’t make progress because you’re constantly second-guessing yourself, throwing away work and going back to tweak and fiddle with completed sections, you might be suffering more from a lack of confidence than anything else—a paralyzing fear of failure. On the other hand, if you’re slow because you goof off constantly and procrastinate, you’re not a slow writer at all. The key is to figure out whether you actually need to change—and what aspect of your behavior and process needs to change—before you start working towards that change.

What Are Your Goals?

Knowing whether or not your writing speed is an issue in the first place is necessary before you go any further down this rabbit hole. Slow writing doesn’t impact the quality of your work much, as a rule. Want to write a novel on spec—that is, without a contract or a deadline for a completed draft? Take as long as you want. But if you’re working on a freelance piece with a tight deadline, your writing speed is suddenly crucial. Remember: Writing speed isn’t universally important, but your writing speed might matter in the context of the goals you’re pursuing.

Make Smart Choices

If you write slowly and don’t want to increase the pace of your writing (or have found it an impossible task), ask yourself if you have any compelling, practical reason to work at this. The key question to ask yourself is whether you actually complete projects. If you finish the stories and articles you work on, your writing speed isn’t the most important aspect of your work.

If you’re a freelancer, it might affect your income, of course, but you can also consciously seek out projects that perhaps pay better for more in-depth writing with longer turn-arounds. And in some genres—most notably Romance fiction, but in others as well—readers expect (and demand) a lot of content. If you dream of success in a genre where delivering a book every few months is the norm, you have a lot of incentive to speed up your writing.

How to Speed Up

Writing speed is the result of many different and wholly personal factors—your level of confidence, your natural facility with language, your approach to organizing thoughts, and brain chemistry.

If you’ve reflected on the state of your writing career and decide you need to write faster, there’s no single solution.  Simply forcing yourself to write faster won’t work. Writing is a mysterious business to even the most experienced and talented author, so simply racing through your work will only result in confused, fragmented writing that doesn’t make anyone very happy.

It’s also not a sustainable ‘solution,’ because it will require you to concentrate specifically on your writing speed at all times. When you start to think about other aspects of the work your writing speed will naturally slow down again. And “grinding” at your writing can magically transform creativity and energy into drudgery and boredom. Just like any other part of your body, your brain can get tired, and once it does your creativity will nosedive. If your sole focus is words on the page or screen, everything else—passion, joy, surprise—will get crushed out of your work.

There are some steps you can take that might help speed up your working pace, however:

Set Micro-Goals

Sometimes what slows us down is the monolithic nature of our goals. If you’re working on a novel, for example, telling yourself that you’ll write the first draft in 4 weeks isn’t a good way to speed up your work because it’s too vague. At the end of your first few writing sessions you’ll still be so far away from that final goal it will be very easy to just give up. At the same time, a huge goal like that will require a lot of logistical planning. How many words a week? A day? Every hour?

Instead, start with something more immediate, like “I’ll write this sentence in one minute.” Chopping writing projects down to smaller chunks and then setting speedy—but reasonable— goals will eventually add up to a novel written in four weeks, without the associated stress and complexity.

Keep Yourself Accountable

Many slow writers struggle with a poor sense of progress and perception of time-lapse—in other words, they’re never really sure where they are in terms of completing a story or assignment. It’s one thing to tell yourself you’re going to write that sentence in one minute, but what happens when you blink and realize it’s now five hours later and you’re somehow playing video games in the den instead of writing that sentence?

The key is to create consequences if you miss certain goals. Different personalities respond to different kinds of accountability—some of us need the support of a writing group or a coach, people who will force us to stay on target. Having to admit to our peers that we flaked on our goals is often all the motivation we need. Other writers are more introverted and more comfortable with self-monitoring—didn’t finish that sentence? No video games for you. And now you have to write two sentences in one minute.

Contextualize

Some people simply don’t perceive time well. Personally, I think everything in the universe is about five minutes away. If I’m late for an appointment and you call for an ETA, I will say “five minutes away!” with the confidence of Tom Brady on game day—and when I drag myself in an hour later, no one will be more surprised.

If part of your slow writing is a tendency to daydream and lose track of time, get some context into your writing routine. A good way to start is to set an egg timer or the stopwatch on your phone, perhaps with an alarm. Set the timer to the amount of time you want to spend on this particular sentence/paragraph/thirteen-volume book series and get to work. Just knowing something is there tracking your time will help you stay on top of it.

Set Writing Sprints

A related concept to contextualizing your writing process is a writing sprint. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: You set a time period (anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour) and set a word count goal. For example, you might set a goal of 500 words in fifteen minutes. Writing sprints are sort of like mental exercise—you might struggle with them initially, but if you do it every day you’ll get better at it, and it will train you to focus totally on getting words down.

Stop Active Editing

For many writers, the main reason they’re slow is their tendency to edit and revise as they go. First drafts are meant to be rough—this is their purpose. Having a perfect, error-free first draft that requires no revision doesn’t mean you are a genius, it means you wrote two and perhaps three drafts simultaneously. No wonder you’re slow!

So, if you constantly backspace and rewrite, stop. Just plow on, and remind yourself that you will have ample opportunity to fix things later. And something remarkable will very likely happen: When you do go back to the rough draft to revise it, you’ll make a lot fewer changes than you would in the moment.

Be Better Prepared

There’s a tendency to think of writing as a “natural” talent, an instinctual exercise akin to magic. And in some ways, it sure can be. But professional writers are just like professional athletes: You have to build on that natural talent with a lot of preparation and practice. For any writing project, there will be research, outlining, and other planning. A lot of slow writing is due to skipping one or more of these steps. If you start a project unprepared, you’ll wind up doing a lot of backing up and correcting and pausing to clean up your thoughts in the moment. Put some more time into conceptualizing and researching and the writing will speed up.

Remember Kerouac and On the Road? Writing a classic novel in three weeks is impressive, but don’t forget about the research—he spent months driving around and taking notes. This allowed him to write his draft very quickly.

One potentially important concept for preparation is the outline: Whatever kind of writing project you’re working on, taking the time to outline it in detail before you actually start writing will speed you up because you won’t be pausing constantly to figure out what your next point should be.

Of course, not every writer likes to “plot.” Myself, I’m in inveterate “pantser” and I never outline before starting a project. But, I will outline when I think it will be beneficial to the project, and that includes starting projects with tight deadlines. If you’d rather receive a million paper cuts than outline a story or article, keep in mind there are other ways to prep. Writing character bios, high-altitude beat-sheets, or just some notes about major plot points can help.

The point isn’t so much “you must outline to speed up” as it’s “you need to get organized to speed up,” whatever “organized” means to you and your specific process. The key is to examine that process and identify the steps where you lose time, then think about the prep work you can do that will avoid those logjams.

Polish Your Notes

If you’re doing research for your writing project, instead of jotting down brief, inscrutable notes, try to write out actual sentences with a bit of polish. These can then be pasted directly into your manuscript, and while they might not be perfect you won’t have to write things out twice, which will save you time over the course of the draft.

Avoid Online Distractions

Finally, consider one of the most fundamental tricks that can speed up just about any process: Turn off the Internet. If you don’t need it, cut yourself off. You might be amazed to discover how often the little breaks you take to scroll through social media or to check your email eat up huge amounts of time. If you need one, there are “distraction-free” word processors available that hide away everything else when you boot them up, creating a calm, interruption-free environment for you to focus on your words. Two great options are Focus Writer and WriteMonkey.

How to Make Slow Work

If you’re a slow writer but it works for you, that’s totally, 100% fine. If you’ve decided to lean into your slow writing style, however, you’ll have to make some practical concessions to reality. Deadlines exist, and if you’re accepting money for your writing, whether it’s fiction or freelance, someone is going to expect you to hit them no matter how slow you work.

Even if you don’t have deadlines—even if you’re writing largely for yourself—slow writing limits how much of your writing you can release or utilize. And since writing tends to be the foundation of a huge array of creative works (every show, film, comic, and video game starts with a script, after all, and other projects often begin with memorandum, emails, or white papers), your slow writing speed is going to affect every aspect of your other projects.

So if you’re not going to change your writing speed, here’s how to make a slow approach more practical and effective:

Take on Realistic Challenges

You’re slow! If you see no benefit to changing your approach, at least avoid setting yourself up for failure by accepting aggressive deadlines you have little hope of meeting. This applies to the deadlines you set for yourself, too—if you normally take a decade to write a novel, why in the world would you sign up for Nation Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)?

Instead, seek out projects that work with your writing pace. Will this limit you a bit, especially in the freelance world? Yes. But it’s better than generating anxiety and sleepless nights as you struggle to be something you’re not.

Expand Your Writing Times

If you can’t or choose not to speed up but want more productivity, consider your work schedule. We all waste enormous amounts of time in our daily lives—for example, I took a break while working on this article to spend several hours inexplicably reading several long-form articles about The Monkees. One way to get more writing done without increasing your natural writing speed is to do more of it.

That means exploring ways to increase the number of minutes you spend writing. There is some low-hanging fruit here. A commute to and from work can sometimes offer an opportunity to get some work done, for example, and you can consider reducing the amount of time you spend watching TV at night or literally doing anything else.

Explore Automation

We’re living in the future, kiddo—explore ways you can automate or streamline your process using all the sci-fi gadgets around you. Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools like Jarvis actually exist and are capable of putting together a skeleton article that you then beef up and polish. While this can be (and should be) terrifying for any professional writer, at the moment these tools don’t pose much of a threat to our livelihood and can speed up the process of writing blog posts and other simple things.

Another idea would be dictating into your phone when you can’t type, and then using something like Otter later to create a transcript you can fix up.

Take a Breath

If you’re going to commit to being a slow writer but still experience anxiety about not getting enough work done, remind yourself of a few facts:

  1. Writing speed is relative, and small word counts add up
  2. First (and zero) drafts exist for a reason—the words don’t have to be perfect from the get-go
  3. You’re not alone. Plenty of successful writers could be described as “slow.”

While you can definitely argue that life is short and you need to get as much writing done as you can in the time you’re allotted, at the same time fast writing doesn’t necessarily equal good writing. The key consideration is whether your writing speed bothers you—whether you feel like you’re missing out on opportunities or never finish anything because you work too slowly. The good news is, if you conclude that you need to speed up your writing, there are many strategies to try.

Further Reading


Making the Best of Your Writing No Matter Your Speed
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