Faster isn’t necessarily better

IMG_0240Over the years, years ago, I heard Delia Ephron repeat this sentence many times: Getting there faster isn’t necessarily better. I thought then, as I do now, that it was an important life lesson–and perhaps one might call it an important warning, where writing is concerned.

On May 19 I wrote this paragraph in a post called “Cutting, or not,” which was about the issue of whether and when to trim your own work and how much and why:

I get worried around the Culture of Brevity, as if shorter is intrinsically better, and faster (even in arriving at the end of a sentence) is an indisputable virtue. Short and fast have their places (like at the dentist), but I’d rather read smart and original.

Short, long, fast, slow: what a tangle of worries for too many writers. Quantity of pages, amount of words, number of months and years–all of this counting can get in your way and will surely add confusion to your assessment of yourself as a writer.

  • If you get a lot of pages written in a short time, then you’re a Good Writer.
  • If you set yourself a daily goal and you don’t meet it, then you’re a Bad Writer.
  • If you allot the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. for writing and you write for those hours, you’re a Good Writer.
  • If you can’t point to a pile of pages, you’re a Bad Writer.
  • If you can announce that your novel is almost finished, you’re a Good Writer.

But what does any of that have to do with the quality of your work? You have a growing stack of pages, but are any of them any good? Did faster equal better?

Rules are tools to be used if they help you focus and help you write, but they’re not goals in themselves. Some days are better spent walking in the woods (or on a city street) and thinking. There are a million kinds of writers and some of them are going to write well when they’re working fast and producing a lot. But for the most part, speed and word count don’t come easily and they never substitute for ideas or imagination, invention or intelligence.

There was a paragraph in The Writer’s Almanac a while ago about historian David McCullough asking novelist Harry Sinclair Drago (who wrote over a hundred westerns you’ve never read, like Decision at Broken Butte and Buckskin Affair) how he got so much writing done. Drago apparently wrote four pages per day, no excuses, and McCullough considered this to be the best advice a young writer could receive.

To me that’s like saying everyone should wear red. Red? What if you don’t look good in red? What works for your best friend or your brother or your mother might not work for you. The same is true of writers’ rules: what works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Half the battle of being a writer is figuring out what process works for you and sustaining whatever that process is.

Which brings me to an odd phenomenon called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s called by its devotees. And it has a lot of devotees. This event–actually a contest–takes place annually, and the goal of the participants is to write a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30. The site has lots of explanations and lots of encouragement: “We just want you to be excited about writing.” But the plain fact is that this group is endorsing–facilitating–writers who dash madly through a manuscript for the purpose of getting to the end in a mere thirty days.

Is this a constructive goal for a writer? I think not. In fact it’s a questionable concept on every level except self-indulgence. I enjoy a nice piece of self-indulgence (like marble pound cake) as much as anyone else, but I don’t extend the concept to include writing. No, let me revise: it may be entirely self-indulgent to be a writer at all, but producing a 50K-word novel in thirty days isn’t writing. No, let me revise again: producing 50,000 words in thirty days may be writing, but it’s not writing anyone is going to rush to read. Faster is unlikely to be better here.

Take a few minutes to read a hilariously pissed-off and on-the-nose piece by Laura Miller, “Better yet, DON’T write that novel/Why National Novel Writing Month is a waste of time and energy,” in the November 2010 issue of Salon. Ms. Miller skewers the contest neatly. I love this: “…it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive.”

And that is just where the preoccupation with speed and quantity will take you, with rare (and I do mean rare) exceptions: to a surfeit of undigested, unconsidered, unrewritten pages or kilobytes that shouldn’t be shared, much less published. YET. Go back and take another eleven months to rethink, reshape, and rewrite what you disgorged in a month. And remind yourself frequently that faster isn’t necessarily better.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley, PA

Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA

Book Den, Santa Barbara, CA


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