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Should You Write “Faster” or “Better”?

When I was shopping for an agent, a question came up with such frequency that I began to ponder its import. It was:

How long did it take you to write your first novel?

After two completed novels and a novella, the query has now become: How long does it take you to write a novel? It’s a fairly innocuous question, until you start to appreciate the nature of the business and the author / agent relationship.

The swiftness and efficiency in which an author is able to ply their craft greatly increases their marketability.

We can bemoan this all we want, but the truth is that novelists who take a long time to write typically don’t make a lot of money. Or perhaps I should put it this way — their potential for making money is greatly diminished. Of course, the longer one spends on a story the more chance that story will shine. However, in today’s market, authors that write well don’t seem nearly as attractive as authors that write quickly.

Sure, writing slowly is not necessarily an indication of good writing. It could be evidence of laziness, poor time management, or crippling nit-pickiness. But publishers appear to wink at mediocre craft far more easily than they do plodding perfectionism. Ideally, the publishing industry wants authors who

  1. Write Quickly and
  2. Write Well, in that order.

In some cases, the gap between those two might be considerable.

So I’m knee-deep in writing my third full-length novel and thinking a lot about my tendency toward tedium. You see, I am a slow writer. I am slow not because of laziness, procrastination, or poor time management, as much as because of perfectionism. In a way, I cut myself slack because I’m not a full-time author in that I have a 40-hour a week job outside the home and, like many authors in my situation, must cram writing into an already busy schedule. It’s an accomplishment, I guess, to have had my novels published at all. Nevertheless, I am constantly feeling guilty about being such a slow writer and suffering a deficit of efficiency.

Apparently, other authors experience such guilt. In How to Write Faster, Michael Agger, culture editor for the New Yorker and Slate contributor, breaks it down to a scientific level:

Professional Writing Expertise,” by Ronald Kellogg, contains enough writerly insight to fuel a thousand Iowa workshops. And the opening words could not be more comforting: “Writing extended texts for publication is a major cognitive challenge, even for professionals who compose for a living.” See, Dad! This is hard work. Kellogg, a psychologist at Saint Louis University, tours the research in the field, where many of the landmarks are his own. Some writers are “Beethovians” who disdain outlines and notes and instead “compose rough drafts immediately to discover what they have to say.” Others are “Mozartians”—cough, cough—who have been known to “delay drafting for lengthy periods of time in order to allow for extensive reflection and planning.” According to Kellogg, perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity.

There it is — I am Mozartian. The comforting part, however, is in knowing that “perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity.”

Problem is, knowing this doesn’t help me meet my deadline.

Nevertheless, at some point an author is faced with a decision to, as sci-fi, horror author Laird Barron suggested,  sacrifice “…maximum efficiency in favor of indulging an aesthetic ideal.”

But do these values exist at opposite poles? In other words, must artists constantly struggle to balance “maximum efficiency” against an “aesthetic ideal”? Granted, that tension may be a direct result of the current industry climate. (Did Poe or Austin or Dostoevsky worry about maximum efficiency?) But at some point even the most perfectionistic of writers still wants to actually finish something and move on to something else.

Anyway, if those opposites were to exist on a scale, it might look something like this:

MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY………………………………….. AESTHETIC IDEAL

+10……………+5……………0……………-5……………-10

The negative signs are not meant to indicate that an aesthetic ideal is necessarily bad, but that the higher our ideals, the more tedious and time-consuming the process takes to actualize them. Again, that distinction may be artificial. After all, it’s possible to produce a well-written story in a minimal amount of time. It’s just, I haven’t discovered how to do that! That’s why on a scale like the one above, I am definitely in the deep, deep minuses.

All that to say, maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking so long to write. But I do.

* * *

QUESTION: If you had to choose between writing faster or writing better, which would it be? And, in the long run, do you think an author benefits MORE from achieving MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY or AESTHETIC IDEAL?

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Richard Mabry January 16, 2012, 8:32 AM

    Mike, I fall somewhere in between, I suppose. Each time I sit down to write, I re-read the preceding chapter, editing as I go. Not sure that helps, since there still seems to be a significant amount of editing to do after I’ve finished, but it gives me the illusion of producing a better first draft.
    I took almost two years to write my first published novel, mainly because I was still looking for an agent and a publisher, in that order. The second was almost done by then, so it was no problem to have it turned in by six months. But deadlines of six months each thereafter stretched me–but I made it. I guess I’m like a horse responding to the whip. If no one were after me, I’d take my time.

    • TC Avey January 16, 2012, 9:04 AM

      Richard,
      As I’m still looking for an agent then publisher, I relate to your comment. I have my first book completed and am seeking representation. In the meantime I am about half way through with the second.
      I guess I should spend more time seeking representation or editing my first novel, but the inspiration is flowing for the second in the series and so I find that I am putting aside my first project at the moment. Don’t know if this will work out for me in the long run or if I am just spinning my wheels, but it is comforting to know you too worked on a second novel while seeking to get the first published.
      Thanks for sharing.

  • Tim George January 16, 2012, 8:42 AM

    Some of this really does depend on the writer and the genre. If an author chooses to write in a heavily formulaic genre, the odds are he or she will be able to write much faster. Romance and straight mystery come to mind. Both lend themselves to extensive outlining and story-boarding.

    Some writers, simply choose to write their own way rather than what is taught in practically every conference and book you can spend your money on these days. Both Dean Koontz and Athol Dickson take a very different approach and speed is not their goal. Koontz for example edits and re-edits as he goes and seldom looks back once finished. Dickson doesn’t believe he can write the kind of novel he write at a 2 a year pace so he doesn’t try.

  • Kessie January 16, 2012, 8:49 AM

    When I was at the top of my game, I could churn out about 70000 words in 3-5 months. But that was only a first draft. Does this question only consider the first draft or does it take into consideration the editing and drafting?

    Because that might take me nine months to a year, again, when I’m at the top of my game. When I’m not, it takes longer (like when I’m pregnant and lack a brain).

  • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2012, 8:54 AM

    Love the Beethoven/Mozart analogy. I suspect this kind of relates to being a plotter vs pantser.

    I’m definitely a Beethoven, though I do plan the high points of my books. But it also correlates with my overall personality. I set a goal, then don’t stop (and cannot SLOW DOWN) until it’s completed. Glad to know that my tendency to write/revise quickly is a plus in this difficult industry.

    I’m hypothesizing that perfectionists probably take longer to write, thinking things out and making sure their words are perfect before they’re even on the page. I’m more OCD, thus the push to just GET IT DONE. In the revision process, I definitely polish it up and pull it together more. Being the insane narcissist writer that I am, I still think it’s practically perfect the FIRST DRAFT. But I’m learning to take my revision medicine and make that first draft better. Okay, LOTS better. But I still revise fast.

    It’s like when I play Mario Kart or any racing game–I have one speed–fast. I never use the brakes.

  • erica January 16, 2012, 10:24 AM

    Maximum efficiency would work well for me because in writing a series I can not wait to tell the rest of the story and readers want it yesterday not way down the road.

    Just remember good editing goes a long way in either case.

  • Travis Thrasher January 16, 2012, 10:44 AM

    Great post. Here’s my two cents.

    I’d say the number #1 thing publishers want are Authors Who Sell Well. Then, yes, they want authors who write quickly next, and then authors who write well.

    Ideally, if publishing weren’t a business, then it would be authors who wrote well. So many editors and acquisitions people I’ve known struggle with the art of writing verses the business of writing. Yet in order to keep a job and do what they’re supposed to do, they have to sometimes do what’s necessary. That can mean publishing books that aren’t always the best in terms of quality.

    I think art is subjective (I know you might disagree but that’s another blog post). And I can’t claim to be the best writer out there. I think I’m a good writer who tries a lot of different things.

    As far as writing quickly or spending a long time at a novel, I’ve done both. And frankly, I don’t think the quality is that much different between projects. One novel I spent years on. It was going to be my novel for the general market. I rewrote and tweaked it. When it was finally published (Sky Blue), it was ambitious. But as far as quality goes, it’s really hard to say.

    I think an author needs to know their strengths and weaknesses. I’m a quick writer and that bodes well for me as someone trying to support his family on writing. I’d love to have the talent of Leif Enger. But that’s not who I am. I have all these stories swirling around in my head and I get to tell them. One day I hope and dream for my own personal Peace Like A River. Who knows.

  • John Van Vliet January 16, 2012, 10:49 AM

    I do understand the dilemma. Commitments like work, family, and writing take up a lot of time. Writing good interferes with one of these – family. However, I have noticed that writing fast produces, seemingly, better results. More editing required, but more workable material. So the faster I write, the better I write, allowing time for the other important aspects of my life, like family.

  • Kevin Lucia January 16, 2012, 11:11 AM

    I can say this: outlining and learning to write a synopsis has done wonders. Helps me writing at least more efficiently, without sacrificing quality, I think. That being said, I wish I figured out stories quicker. That would be nice.

  • Jill January 16, 2012, 12:54 PM

    Circumventing the overly analytical brain is often necessary. I’m not so much a perfectionist as an over-analyzer. Last week, I made the decision to write as quickly as possible so I wouldn’t stop to think things through. My writing flows better this way, has a desirable rhythm that disappears when I stress the details. I guess what I’m saying is that it largely depends on your personality. You might be limiting yourself by attempting to be too perfect–because art isn’t and shouldn’t be too perfect, in the same way that natural symmetry is only an approximation and, therefore, asymmetrical, and mirror images aren’t exact. I was planning to write about this phenomenon at my blog today, but I haven’t got around to it yet.

  • Katie Ganshert January 16, 2012, 12:58 PM

    Well….what does it mean if I used to write like the wind, but ever since I got a contract, I’m slooooooow? Mental case? I think so.

  • BK Jackson January 16, 2012, 1:57 PM

    Oye. I spend a lot of time berating myself over this subject. My first novel took 6 years to write. I can’t imagine that any of the powers that be would find that acceptable. I don’t either. But I write historical, (and usually not aimed at historical romance, which to me, adheres to somewhat of a formula) which means in addition to all the research typical of any historical, I spend a lot of time examining story angles and planning several books ahead because I’m always in saga mode, and they don’t lend themselves well to a more formulaic approach, ie. require more time and world-building.

    I’ve been pushing myself since last year to start fast-forwarding my writing schedule to be more ready for the day when I AM contracted. I learned last year that sometimes forcing myself to write faster meant writing better (no time to overthink it). It’s not true all the time, just as writing slowly doesn’t always mean writing better. My point is, I’ve proved to myself I CAN write the actual manuscript a bit faster—but what hasn’t changed is the time investment for the pre-planning, story strategizing and research.

    What I don’t yet see on the horizon is the ability to finish a single manuscript (ie. final polished draft) in one year. It simply isn’t feasible for me while working full time. At least not in the near term.

  • Will Granger January 16, 2012, 2:30 PM

    This also comes down to time. I’m a teacher, and I have plenty of more time to write in the summer. I have found that you can sell more if you write more, so I’m going to stat getting up a bit earlier and get working on my third and fourth books.

  • Jenni Noordhoek January 16, 2012, 2:35 PM

    Well, it all depends what I’m writing. XD Some things go faster than others.

    However, generally I’m on the slow side. I value art over speed. I figure that I’ll always have a day job anyway – so I don’t have to depend on art for a living.

    • Alan O January 17, 2012, 12:06 PM

      I think you raise one of the critical distinctions, Jenni…. (As did Travis, above, from the opposite perspective).

      It *does* matter whether or not your goal is to earn a living by writing. Understanding the reality that most writers never attain the status of writing Full Time frees you up to write on whatever timetable you choose–Because your bread and butter is not dependent on it. But once you cross that line and decide “I want to be a full time author,” then speed of output becomes a necessary consideration.

      I love my day job…so I’m comfortable placing my focus on “Better,” not Faster. It does make me wonder, though: how many well-meaning souls out there latch on to Writing as a fantasized “ticket out” of a unsatisfying career? Like an alternative way of playing the Lottery. In other words, are they writing because they are desperate to escape something, or because they are desperate to create something?

  • Lyn Perry January 16, 2012, 8:07 PM

    I guess I’d like to write faster because the more I write, the better I’ll get (assuming we pay attention to our craft and improve with effort). So eventually I’ll be able to write fast and well – the two need not be in any particular order of priority. One caution against rewriting and over analyzing is that this work by our “critical brain” dilutes the voice of our “creative brain” and we end up with a wonderfully written, but ultimately bland set of words (Dean Wesley Smith’s contention, anyway). Makes sense to me. So I say, let the creative mind have full reign and let ‘er rip. Best wishes as you finish this third novel.

  • Jessica Thomas January 17, 2012, 7:32 AM

    Wow. Tough questions. If I had to choose one, I’d have to *sigh* choose to write better rather than faster (which means I’ll probably never make a living at it). One thing I learned about myself last year when I cranked out 70K words in 6 months is that, if I have to work 40 hours a week, there are more fun ways to do it! Including my current day job! What an unsettling realization.

    Truth is, my “full-time” writing schedule might only be about 4 hours a day, the rest of the time spent “piddling” on edits and such. I can only pull out so many words, dream up so many new scenes in one day before I become exhausted and have to quit. The rest of the day is relaxation and prep so I can write a couple more scenes tomorrow. Sure, I could push myself to do more, but I could also wind up depressed and/or crazy in a mental institution for spending too much time in the made up worlds inside my own head.

    That being said, I am striving to write better AND faster. I do think it’s possible. For me it’s about pre-planning. Spending more time thinking about what I want to write before putting pen to paper. Also, forcing myself to write every day even if it’s tripe. Lastly, to stop *over* analyzing, which is was we perfectionists tend to do 😉 and is actually our own pride and ego getting in the way. (Not saying that’s necessarily your issue, but it tends to be mine.)

    I covet Anne Tyler’s writing career. Wait, I’m not supposed to envy. But how great would it be to write a novel one year, and then “piddle” for the following year. (I heard her describe her writing process as such in an interview.) And to have gained respect and a decent living in the process!

    p.s. Last I knew you had lost your day job. Sounds like you might have found another? If so, congrats!

    • Mike Duran January 17, 2012, 7:36 AM

      Jessica, I was called back to my original job near the end of summer. Yay! I probably should have been clearer about that.

  • Rob Jones January 17, 2012, 10:10 AM

    My wife and author Karen Jones writes pretty fast but she procrastinates between the days of writing fast. I suppose that is breaking even.

    If she doesn’t read this comment I’m not telling her I said that.

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