Quick, Quick, Slow, Speed and the Writer.

March 15, 2013 in Writing

I was asked a question on facebook about getting writers to write faster. Since my response grew into two posts plus a bunch of commentary, I’m going to pull it out, clean it up, and put it over here as well.

Part the first: Was just asked how to get a writer to write faster (not me, mostly no one worries about my speed.) My response is that it’s a bit like dealing with a weeping angel. They only move when you’re not staring at them. In my experience many, if not most, writers who are working slowly do so at least in part because they are feeling self-conscious/perfectionist about the work. Poking them about it is like looking over their shoulder, which only results in deeper levels of self-consciousness/perfectionism and even slower writing. Do not nudge the slow writer. It is not helpful.

I will also note that pushing a writer does not result in good art. Neil Gaiman, who sometimes writes slower than people might like him to had something much harsher to say on the topic a few years ago which is also germaine.

Part the Second: Further to the subject of fast and slow writing. I am a fast writer, probably somewhere around the tenth percentile—people like Kris Rusch or Kevin Anderson or Jay Lake write much faster but the vast majority work more slowly. This is useful for me in that it makes it much easier for me to fulfill my commitments and take on more work. But there’s no special virtue in it, or vice in writing slowly. It’s simply the way I’m wired. Different writers have different gifts and skills. Some of us find it easy to create interesting characters. Some build worlds without breaking a sweat. Some can weave intricate plots the same way that they breathe. Some write five times as fast as others without stretching. We all strive to get better in the places we are weak, but there’s only so much you can move the needle on some of these things.

Part the Third (in response to comment from Eleanor Sayre about my language when speaking of writing speed and the implication that it’s more an inherent trait than a skill):  To some extent that’s exactly how I think of it. I’m going to steal some terminology here from writer friends* and talk about what we sometimes refer to as the “box it came in” or “the hand you were dealt” theory of writing skills/talents. Say there are 50 things that make a professional writer. Every one of us starts out with different levels of ability in those fifty things. That’s your opening skill/talent set. Some of them can be moved a lot relatively easily, like the ability to construct a competent sentence. Some of them are very hard to move, like speed of writing.

I tend to think of any given ability as sitting on a sliding scale between talent/gift (which is hard to move) and pure skill, which is easier.

Speed seems to be very hard to move. Some people can do it, but not many and generally not without a lot of effort. I have always written fast if I can simply make the time to sit down and do it, and I can force myself significantly faster if I need to. That’s a fairly rare ability but it’s not a function of effort or practice on my part, it’s just one of the cards I drew.

*Not sure who coined each of those but I associate them with Elizabeth Bear and Jay lake.