Who says we should write fast?
A reader of my New York Times columns asked whether I might devote a post to a subject he has been struggling with: “being a painfully slow writer.” In particular, he asked these questions:
Are there practical ways to become more prolific without addressing psychological issues? For example, you are a prolific writer. What routines do you follow? When do you know it is time to stop writing and publish or submit? Finally what is your typical start to finish process? Do you outline? How do you write a first draft? What do you do differently in the second draft and so on through your writing process?
The email came at an interesting time—I had just spoken on a panel at a writers’ conference on the topic of “Write Fast, Make More Money.” I was flattered to be on the panel, but felt like an imposter.
Many journalists, academics, and bloggers seem to pride themselves on writing fast. Many editors value these speedy types. Given declining per-word rates, especially on Web sites, it’s no wonder writers are looking for ways to cut corners—or to cut to the chase. But I have to confess: I’m not a fast writer. The articles and books have piled up, and I have a good chunk of experience behind me, but I don’t feel “prolific,” either.
I have only two goals when I sit down to write: I want to create thoughtful, accurate, beautiful stuff, and I want to suffuse the piece—whether a post, an essay, a feature story, or a book—with my own voice.
But I am a working stiff; I have to meet deadlines and pay bills. So I have learned a few things to help me do both.
First, I got over my perfectionism by working in newspapers. I used to sweat over every little word, and it was stopping me up. It helped me to have real deadlines and to learn to just do my best, even if it wasn’t prize-winning prose. I allow myself messy first drafts, and trust that each successive draft improves a piece.
Second, I realize that there are many good ways to write a story, and no one “right” way. I trust my instincts about what’s most gripping and dig in. I give a piece my best shot, and trust my editors to help me shape it.
Finally, I have learned that writing fast is about making sure that I’m not procrastinating. I have some writing rituals, which get my creative juices flowing; they are part of my process. (Sweeping the patio is a good one; I think of it as “clearing the ground.” Reading something that inspires me in the morning is another.) I allow myself these rituals, then try to be good at recognizing when I am indeed procrastinating.
The rest is “discipline”—small habits that keep me focused and productive.
I establish clear boundaries around my writing time. I work set hours, start on time, and do not leave my chair (except for stretches and lunch) until I have worked six hours. “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,” wrote the activist and novelist Mary Heaton Vorse, and I agree. (When I had an office in my home, I worked from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Now I share an office space with a community of writers, and it requires a commute, so I work 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., leaving more time for lunch with colleagues.)
Whether it is a home office, a bare table in a getaway cabin, or my current space at the San Francisco Writers Grotto, I insist upon a dedicated writing space as well as a dedicated time. I don’t do finances here, I don’t plan tonight’s dinner, and I don’t read the newspaper. I write. I have a dedicated work phone, too. My friends don’t have the number, and my husband and mother have been trained not to use it.
Because I’m disciplined about these things, I can cut myself some slack when it comes to the work. I don’t put pressure on myself to produce shimmering pages. I know that if I just show up and keep at the writing, things always start to click. Sometimes it’s not until the last half hour, but then I have a place to start the next morning.
If I’m really under the gun, with a deadline looming and some especially tough work ahead, I practice a time-management skill I call “rocks in the bucket.” I learned about it from a colleague at the American Society of Journalists and Authors, who explained it with an analogy. Suppose you have a bucket and four piles: rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand. You must put all the stuff (i.e., the work tasks) into the bucket (the work day). The best way to do it is to start with the rocks, then add the stones, then the pebbles. The sand is in-fill at the end. (If you try it the other way around, you’ll end up holding a bunch of rocks.
I make a list of all the things I need to do in the day—from reading a chapter for research, to writing an intro, to checking email, to calling my editor. I label each item according to importance. The rocks, the things I absolutely must do today, are the A’s. The slightly less critical things, the stones, are the B’s. Then I make a new list, grouping the A’s, the B’s, the C’s, etc. I give myself a time limit for each task and I stick to it. At the end of the day, I won’t have gotten everything done, but I will have knocked back the most important things, and I will have tackled them first, when my energy was best.
Discipline is well and good, but you can be very disciplined and be stuck in a rut. How do you stay refreshed, inspired? For that, see my essay “Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline.” When I need to, I take a break, letting my mind wander, letting inspiration drift in. That can be part of my six hours. And I follow each workday with exercise, which recharges me for the next day. Brainstorms for the next chunk of work often come in Lane Three of the swimming pool, in hula class, or over a garden bed.
As for the process part of my reader’s question—Do I outline? Do I follow a certain practice with each draft? How long does the whole thing take—I’ll take that up in another post. I’m coming to the end of my six hours, and it’s time to slip off to the gym.