Six impossible things

Speed Intervals

Last week, I ran across a writing-advice book that focused firmly on productivity, and promised to teach you how to write thousands of words per hour. The author’s method for achieving this miracle rested on two fundamental ideas. The first was taking the writing process apart so that the writer could focus on slamming the words down on the page without backtracking, fussing over word choice, fiddling with phrasing, or anything else. The second boiled down to the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, man, practice. The author had a whole schedule for practicing that reminded me of a “Couch to 5K” running program – starting with a few minutes per day of writing as fast as possible, then gradually lengthening the fast-writing time.

The biggest problem I have with this is that it’s a one-size-fits-all recommendation. There is no one-size-fits-all in writing, especially when it comes to process. And the way the book was written, it was all about using this process, with the promise of greatly improved writing speed as a result.

Now, there are quite a few writers for whom the get-it-down-fast-and-worry-about-fixing-it-later method works really well. The trouble is that there are also writers for whom “getting it down” is like working with fast-drying paint. They have a very limited window of time in which to make corrections and changes before the work sets up and becomes insanely difficult to change, which means that there is no “fix it later” for them – or at least, not one that saves time and effort. For these folks, it is ten times harder (and takes ten times more time) to go back later than it is to fiddle with it as it goes down on the page.

The second problem I had with this book is that, in my experience, every writer has a writing speed that is “too fast” for them – a production rate at which overall quality begins to suffer visibly even when that writer does a lot of revising and repair later. The exact speed varies by writer. One writing acquaintance has, to my knowledge, produced a novel in two weeks that showed no diminution in quality, while cutting that to ten days resulted in a really noticeable drop. A different writer I know is fine at a book-every-one-to-two-years schedule, but push it to less than twelve months, and the difference is obvious.

This particular how-to-write books didn’t address the quality problem at all, which I think was extremely short-sighted. I can produce words as fast as I can type for a couple of hours until my hands get tired…but typing “the to and the and the to which for the best and the to” over and over does not get me anything I can sell. Producing more words in an hour is only helpful if they are the right words.

The main problem I had, though, was with the first part of his process. In order to let the writer focus solely on getting words down at speed, this author splits the writing process into three stages: making it up and/or planning, writing it down, and editing. To achieve the promised 10,000 words per day, you have to spend a bunch of time before you start writing figuring out exactly what needs to happen in the scenes you propose to write, the order it needs to happen in, and even bits of dialog or action. None of this time counts as part of your writing time. Then you slam it all together on the page (that’s your 10,000 words in a day or two). Once it’s all down in print, you stop and go over what you wrote, cutting and rearranging and fixing up … but that’s editing, so it doesn’t count, either. Then you have to make up/plan out the next scene, and so on.

In other words, one of the key ways the how-to author gets your words-per-day count up to 10,000 is to carve off significant parts of the writing process and call them something else.

Making stuff up takes time. Planning scenes takes time. Revising scenes and chapters takes time. Editing and polishing takes time. Separating out these parts of the process and not counting them doesn’t actually make you write any faster; it just distorts your perceptions of the process. (I am reasonably sure of this because I know a couple of writers whose natural writing process is very like this, and while they do occasionally achieve spectacular 10,000-word days, it generally takes them two weeks of making it up and planning it out before they sit down to write. Their monthly and yearly production rates are not that different from the 500-words-per-day-every-day sloggers I know. I occasionally have to point this out to them when they’re having an especially good run, because as soon as they’ve had three 10K-word days in a row, they start doing math that shows they can finish their 140,000-word novel in two weeks…and they could write 25 draft novels every year… completely forgetting that it took them three months of teeth-gnashing, making stuff up, and planning out the scenes to get everything set up so that they could produce 30,000 words in a three or four day burst.)

There are also authors for whom making it up and planning the scene are inseparable from the writing it down part. Holistic writers are particularly likely to have considerable trouble applying this method as a process.

That said, taking the process apart does allow one to work on each piece as an exercise. Lots of writers get a great deal of good out of doing writing exercises where they work specifically on dialog, or specifically on description, or style, in order to improve their skill at that particular thing. I don’t see any reason why doing writing speed intervals would be any different. (Or any less annoying, if one happens to hate exercises.)

  1. Thank you! I’ve seen several books like that on offer, read reviews of them, and felt guilty that I didn’t buy and try.

    I’m a 500-word an hour slogger, and I usually get only 1,200 words a day – sometimes a bit less, sometimes a bit more, occasionally a rare 3,000-word day when I’m on fire for some undetermined reason.

    Your analysis makes clear that my process is unlikely to benefit from these speed methods. I like to write clean, and it feels natural to me. Writing sloppy and going back over it later would drive me nuts.

    Now I can stop worrying about this! 😉

    • @J.M. – “Only” 1200? For me, 1200 words in a day is cause to break out the champagne and ice cream! I’m having a reasonably good run if I manage 1200 words in a week.

      I’m right there with you on writing clean vs. writing sloppy, though.

      • Well, I’ve heard the figure of 1,000 words per hour as a typical rate of production for many writers. By that measure, I’m slow. It takes me 2-1/2 hours to get my 1,200 words. Sometimes 3 hours.

        Those rare 3,000-word days mean that the scenes were unrolling in my mind with such urgency that I couldn’t bear to stop and wrote for 6 to 8 hours. Really it’s a good thing that that does not happen too often – my wrists and forearms couldn’t take a steady diet of that amount of typing.

        My productivity has grown over the years. Back in 2007, I was writing only 3 days per week, roughly 300 to 500 words on each of those days.

  2. “Fast-setting paint”! Yes! This! A thousand times this!

    • Okay, “fast-drying”. Whatever.

      • I suspect my hind mind was thinking of concrete, which in some ways is an even apter analogy.

        (And if “apter” isn’t a word, it should be.)

  3. I’m rather partial to “Couch to 5K” type exercise programs, but I don’t think I’ll look up that book. For one thing, trying to write against a timer for me is very like trying to write with someone standing behind me and poking me in the head every two seconds. It’s not conducive to producing anything but a desire to turn around and punch said someone. 😉

    Not only am I of the sets-like-concrete type, but I’ve also found that if I try to just slam down words without worrying if they’re good, I can’t write anything at all. Creating words and making them the right words are parts of the same process for me, and if I turn off one, I turn off both.

    And as frustrated as I frequently am with my production speed, I’ve never seen the appeal of slapping down garbage or gibberish only to spend twice as long cleaning it up later.

    There are also authors for whom making it up and planning the scene are inseparable from the writing it down part.

    Yep, I’m one of those, too.

    All that said, I would like to writer faster than I do. I try to tell myself that the proper standards for speed are (a) are you making real, measurable progress, and are you producing at a speed fast enough (b) to satisfy the writer, and (c) to sustain a career/income (assuming writing professionally is your goal). I’m doing okay at (a), but (c) is shaky, and (b) frequently leaves me ready to gnaw my own arm off.

    Which would definitely not improve my productivity. ;-P

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