How to be a faster writer: Don't

There’s a Slate article making the rounds on “How to be a faster writer,” which has lots of good advice, including some that a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate (like: you don’t become a good writer over night; you grow into it, like any other cognitively challenging skill.) It’s also got some not-so-good advice:

The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

If research, outline, and so forth are actually part of the writing process, I think they can be smoothly integrated with the art of writing itself (as I write this, the Slate article I’m responding to is on the right and the Textmate window on the left, letting me look back and forth).

When I was writing completely unpublishable novels, I didn’t use outlines, and I ended up with piles of words that utterly lacked narrative tension and the many good qualities that stem from narrative tension. Such piles of words didn’t have much point, which more astute readers observed. One told me to think about writing a novel in which something happens.

So I went through a three-novel phase during which I’d heavily outline, and I’d usually have the outline on one screen (or one side of the screen) and a main document on the other. This prevented me from getting “stuck” or from writing off into nowhereville without the structure of a scene. A lot of amateur writers have trouble with plot: they think their novels should resemble famous ones they’ve read in school, in which characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings in a very deep way, or the sense of being lost, or the ennui imparted by the modern world. There’s nothing precisely wrong with this sort of writing, if done well, but most people seem to like reading (and writing) novels where something happens in a series scenes that build to a climax better. Sure, a lot of novels you’ve read in school don’t really do that for various reasons, some very good, but if you imitate them, you’ll often be doing yourself and your reader a disservice. If you’re unconsciously imitating the boring novels you’ve read in school, that’s even worse, because you don’t have enough command over your craft to know what you’re doing.

These days, I still make a bit of an outline, but I can do a lot of the outlining in my head—the last novel I finished, One Step Into the Labyrinth, really needed an outline because the plot was complex; about half a dozen literary agents have the full manuscript or a piece of it, so you may yet see it in bookstores near you. The novel I’m working on now isn’t as complex, and although I’m not using an outline, I’m still writing in scenes that build up to something. In essence, I’ve learned how to write in scenes without necessarily needing an external structure to guide those scenes and make sure they work towards a whole. I suspect this to be a sign of growth, and, I hope, not a malignant sign, like cancer.

My Dad doesn’t write proposals using outlines. He’s internalized virtually everything he needs to know about delivering human services. When I gave technical writing students a proposal writing assignment for the Department of Education’s Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) Program, however, I knew I couldn’t expect them to write like my Dad did, because what’s appropriate for experts isn’t appropriate for amateurs. I couldn’t just give them an RFP and let ’em rip—I had to get them to think about how services should actually be delivered and real-world constraints; many had a charmingly strong vision of the power and competence of volunteers. Others wanted to hire 30 staff people on an RFP that offered a $230,000 / year grant. Virtually all had to be taught to read between the lines. My Dad—and these days, I—will do that automatically.

Slate says that, during writing

the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

That’s basically what I’m describing above. Is something that took me a long time to grow but now that ability to be a writer, editor, and audience simultaneously exists. Even before it did, however, I used notes, outlines, a miscellaneous file, doodled; sometimes I had, and have, a chunk of text that I know will fit in a particular spot, as long as I find it, usually by digging through a miscellaneous file. In the novel I’m working on now, I’m still using two screens, as shown in the screenshots to the right (click to make them larger). Note: because this is work-in-progress, try not to read the text, because it’s not particularly important what it says and the conversation I was working on last night doesn’t make sense or have the same resonance out of context.

Anyway, as you can see, one screenshot shows my main window: I’m trying to use a program named Scrivener for the first time, which has a somewhat steep learning curve but is probably very useful for a novel with multiple speakers. The other is a second, 23″ Dell monitor which has a list of characters and a miscellaneous file where I drop notes, phrases, ideas, and so forth. I’m using Word at the moment, but I’ve used Mellel and all manner of other writing programs for this purpose. Nothing even remotely sophisticated is happening on those screens, so the word processor doesn’t matter much.

I can go for long stretches without referencing the second monitor, depending on the situation. But the second monitor, if anything, helps me stay in active writing mode. If I get an idea tangential to the main thread that’s developing, I don’t need to do a conditional jump and then try to find my way back to the main narrative. I hit the miscellaneous file, dump a couple sentences on the idea, and return to the main workspace. Sometimes I will read a lot of sentences on the second screen, comparing them with ones on the first. I don’t think this makes me move into strict “reviewing/evaluating mode,” because that’s part of the way I imagine “how [my] imagined readership will interpret what’s being written.” This might be something that comes from skill.

I’ve gone on long enough about a minor point of contention. I’d like to tremendously agree with some of the other points made in Slate, like this:

Second, read everything, all the time. That’s the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you’re searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.

When people ask me what they should do to be good writers, I tell them to read a lot and write a lot. And, ideally, find a good editor. It’s nice to see that “science” agrees. If you pay enough attention to writers and would-be writers, I think it becomes apparent that a lot of them don’t quite have enough knowledge to pull off what they’re trying to do—yet. In her interview with James Franco, Terry Gross says that “I think that every young writer or painter actually goes through that […] putting out everything inside them, but there isn’t much inside them yet because they’re young and unformed.” And Franco agrees that he experienced the problems or possibilities Gross describes.

I should also explain why the last word of my post title is “Don’t.” I put it there because you don’t learn to become a faster writer through some kind of trick that will make you magically produce text faster. You become a better writer through experience and through reading. Those aren’t things you can do in a day or a week or a month. They’re things you do over years. The only way to start if you haven’t already is to start now, especially since the greatest value in writing isn’t always in writing for other people. I’ve been rereading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which was even better the second time around than the first (probably because now I have the background knowledge to really grok it). He says:

[I]t is never a waste to write for intrinsic reasons. First of all, writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so that they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyze and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.

“A disciplined means of expression” is available to anyone, even someone with no readers. Csikszentmihalyi gets that writing isn’t just about writing: “If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. [. . .] It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.” It’s about generating ideas that emerge through an attempt to express those ideas (Paul Graham says something similar in The Age of the Essay). Given that writing is about itself, we shouldn’t be as worried about how fast we’re writing; as demonstrated in Flow, when we’re really writing well we often won’t have a sense of time, because we’ll be in a moment-to-moment existence in which our task demands complete concentration and little else matters. Doesn’t that sound better than merely getting words on the page? It sure does to me.

By the way, you shouldn’t valorize writers and writing too much, because writing can have strange effects on the mind. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp describes “the midnight disease” that writers suffer from,

[…] which started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too: all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work: but for writers, they’re writing about people, which is odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true for many of us.

By the way, most of those delicious quotes come from DevonThink Pro, but they’re still evidence that I’ve done a certain amount of reading and thinking about writing that enabled me to write this post over an hour or so (back to Slate: “It’s obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well”). If I was 19 and writing this post, I simply wouldn’t have been able to write it. Not like this, anyway. If you look at the blog archives—I discourage you, but if you must, you must—and compare early posts to the posts I write these days, there simply is no comparison. That’s because I’ve learned how to write blog posts effectively, or somewhat effectively, anyway. I’m capable of doing things now that I simply couldn’t do then. Want to really write faster? You can teach yourself how in ten years.

One response

  1. I really like this article. There are clearly a lot of books that I need to read, still, and thank you for giving me many recommendations that I might not have heard about otherwise.

    Writing faster hasn’t really become an issue for me yet. I know that, if pressed, I can crank out a thousand words in a half hour. But they aren’t good words, and knowing that that speed is available to me even as I take things a little slower is just a nice reminder. My current issue is with writing itself – whether I consider myself an artist or a craftsman, and how to improve in either case.

    Thank you for sharing, I appreciate reading about another writer looking more deeply into the process.


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