Writing Fast or Writing Slow: Which is Better?

I’ve always been a fan of writing rough drafts at high speed. Turn off that internal editor! Get those words down as fast as you can! Don’t read anything till you get to the end.

And after absorbing Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, I gave myself permission to write really rotten rough drafts as well.

So Now What?

Today I was reading a couple short chapters in writers in the Spirit by Carol Rottman. Something she said struck an inner chord with me, even though it isn’t actually what I believe. But it’s stayed with me all day, and I’m beginning to wonder. (And I’d like your reactions to it.)

First she talked about how writers used to write: slowly, on paper using a pen or pencil, thoughtfully. That regimen went out the window with the introduction of typewriters, although typing still required white liquid to cover typos. The computer came along and even eliminated messy corrections, and writers were encouraged to create right on the screen. Later, fixing and revising would be a snap.

Then Ms. Rottman said: “There may be a downside to easy writing on computers. More of us are writing, but most are not writing very well. I speak also of myself: I have become a sloppy typist and sometimes, I fear, a sloppy thinker. Knowing how easily words can be changed or rearranged, I don’t give my whole self to the first draft. I am less careful, thoughtful, and creative than I plan to be in the end product. Where once my internal editor ruled,  inhibiting all but the choicest words and  phrases, the antiperfectionist has muscled in, convincing me that anything will do.”

I know I am the same way, chanting “just get it down, just get it down” when hurrying through a rough draft. I’m beginning to wonder how wise all that hurrying is.

Is Writing Speed Everything?

Later she adds:

“Those imperfect first drafts need the clear thought of a devoted writer if they are to be salvaged by revisions. The creative front end of writing is our first drive for truth-telling. Authentic. Passionate. Perceptive. Not perfectly formed but potent.”

In the interest of not letting our internal editor stop us in our writing tracks, have we perhaps shut her up too much? What do you think? Where’s the balance between slow enough writing to capture what you want to say–and enough speed to build momentum and get the story down?

There are no right answers here. What has your own experience been?

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14 Responses to Writing Fast or Writing Slow: Which is Better?

  1. Vijaya says:

    What a fascinating observation. I do my best *thinking* with paper and pen and this is why I’ll never be without a notebook. However, over the years I have trained myself to write first drafts on the computer … I’m very slow, using the delete button often. But I’ve been musing on this as well, how in my notebooks, I see the evolution and deepening of the idea as I scratch out words, strike them out, rewrite. It’s messy! On the computer it all looks so perfect (even the drivel). I have to admit that nothing beats the entire body being involved in the writing, not just your mind or fingers, but the molecules in your arms and back and toes.

    Still, I want to write faster! And better!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Yes, it’s the old push-pull of “I want to write slowly and deeply” VS “I want to get this down fast!” I DO wish I didn’t feel such a push to hurry the writing though. I wander if it’s just a pipe dream, this “dreamy speed of writing” that sounds so fluid and peaceful. It’s my vision of the ideal writer!

  2. I see the glimmerings of a new movement: the “slow writing” movement, accompanied by the “slow food” movement and the even “slower to get to work” movement…

    • kwpadmin says:

      I had to smile at this! I love the slow food movement. And I’m experimenting with the slow writing sometimes. But I still want to get to work faster! I wonder if there’s a disconnect somewhere there! :-)

  3. McCourt says:

    Kristi,

    I remember reading a while back that Danielle Steel still writes out her first drafts by hand. I thought that was fascinating! I think there is definitely something to the idea. I also know that Gary Schmidt types his novels on an old-fashioned typewriter. He says he does it on purpose in part to help slow down the writing process. Although he did mention that finding the ribbon for it is getting to be a challenge!
    I am still in the ‘just getting something on the page’ frame of mind, but you are right – these alternate perspectives are interesting! Now that I think about it, I do have a tendency to write out my initial picture book drafts on paper. I prefer writing those by hand so I can scribble things out and move things around – especially if I’m trying to rhyme. Maybe handwriting a whole novel seems intimidating to me.
    Thanks for sharing – food for thought!
    Take care, McCourt

    • kwpadmin says:

      McCourt, one vacation when we were in the car for days and days, I had planned to write many chapters on my computer, but the battery refused to hold any power when the computer was unplugged. So it was either paper and pen or nothing. So I wrote those chapters that way. When I typed them up later and when it came time to start revisions, I couldn’t help noticing that the hand-written chapters needed less revision and had more depth to them. Faster isn’t always better. Only better is better! [And I didn't know that about Gary Schmidt! Very interesting!]

  4. Jerry Callison says:

    Hi Kristi,

    Interesting discussion! As a newbie to the writing field I find myself struggling not to make it perfect the first time. I find the backspace button to be the most used key on the keyboard, but then I think of Louis L’Amour and his concept of writing as if he was a verbal storyteller. He just let the story flow and rarely went back and revised. I know I’m not good enough for that, and we’ll see if I learned anything with my YA novel in the very near future.

    Thanks for your encouragement through your blogs!
    jc

    • kwpadmin says:

      I’m not sure than ANYONE is so good that they don’t need to go back and revise, but the longer I write, the more I enjoy revision. When writing slower, I do find that the theme seems to come clear sooner, the “deeper stuff,” for want of a better phrase. Best of luck with your new YA novel!

  5. Doug Shearer says:

    This year I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and I’m now in my 3rd day. I’m finding really difficult to not revise as I go. I guess I didn’t realize how much I did that. I also learned something else about myself. In August I took a notepad and pen into the back yard. . . no computer, and wrote an entire story that way. I’ve never done that before. It was a mess of arrows and notes written in the margins, but the next day when I type it out, it was really good. It needed very little revision and was the highest rated flash story in the workshop I use. So I’m thinking that maybe slow is better for me, and since I have to write 50,000 words in 30 days for NaNoWriMo, it’s probably the worst time to figure that out.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Doug, I couldn’t help smiling at your conclusion here! I know some writers who wrote a very fast NaNoWriMo novel, but then in the revision stage, they “redid” it by hand as a revision, much slower, and they said they got a very rich first revision that way. You might try that–or not. But yes, there is something magical for many writers about doing it longhand without the blinking cursor! :-)

  6. Mara says:

    Great article and interesting timing for me. A few weeks ago, frustrated that after 4 years or so I still haven’t been able to finish my book, I decided to try a different tactic: going to paper. So I bought an 8″ x 10.5″ college rule notebook with 180 pages (then found a purse big enough to FIT said notebook lol) and just started writing. I haven’t written much yet but it’s been slowly helping me get back into my world and I think that writing by hand is doing what you’re saying: helping me to slow down, go deeper, and be more thoughtful about my words. It’s kind of like when you might take less, but more thoughtful shots using a film camera, knowing you’d have to pay to develop the roll, versus using a digital one where you can delete all the bad photos at your leisure. What’s funny is that I found out shortly after that a friend of mine had just started to do the same thing. Great minds…. ;) Thanks for the article!

    • kwpadmin says:

      Mara, thanks for sharing! We’ve been so brainwashed for years into thinking that anything faster must be better! Not always, and writing is one of those areas for many people. Writing super fast tends to skim the surface, and slower writing goes deeper. I use a combination now. I write the first draft fast, using a good outline. Then I relax, slow down, and revise on paper like the “good old days” before I owned a computer. I put in as many hours, but I swear that it’s more relaxing too. :-)

  7. AllyM says:

    Awesome post. I usually roll ideas & stories around in my head before I write my first rough draft. It is a rough draft but it has been thought out before hand so it’s not just words on a page that need to be rewritten before it’s useful.
    With my twinkies & toddler about, my head is sometimes the only place I can “write”. Lol :)

    • kwpadmin says:

      AllyM, I had to smile at your last line! :-) That’s the only place I could write, too, when my kids were little. (Same is true the days that I have my grandkids here.) Whatever it takes, huh?

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