Author & Speaker

Speed Kills

foote_shelby.jpgNope, not talking about meth, but about writing — specifically, writing in the twenty-first century.

Like everything else in life, writing is accelerating.  We don’t have to sharpen the goose quills and warm the ink to get started.  We pound out blog posts and e-mails with abandon.  Lots of people (not me) thumb their way through texts and tweets that are developing their own syntax and vocabulary (“text” is a verb now, for example).

I don’t want to roll back the clock, but I need to remind myself — a lot — that good writing takes time, that the increasing speed seduces me to let go of something before it’s ready, before I’ve carved it down to what it can be — should be. 

A piece in the New York Times this week reports that some bloggers are slowing themselves down, making themselves post less frequently to preserve a reflective quality in their writing.  Amen, brother.  (Of course, I know about this article only because my friend John Curry — a discerning poster of interesting writing — posted it on Facebook; thank you, technology!).

All writers have tics and quirks.  Shelby Foote, a terrific historian and novelist, wrote 500 words a day, using a fountain pen on heavy paper that soaked up the ink in a way that he found esthetically pleasing.  After 500 words, he called it a day.  Following that practice, he managed to put out six novels and three magisterial volumes on the Civil War.

In piece almost ten years ago, the novelist Richard Ford disclosed a couple of dirty secrets about writing:  (i) it’s actually not such a difficult job, compared to the dangerous, grueling ones, and (ii) you can pretty much knock off work any time, “You can stop anywhere, any time, and no one will care or ever know.  Plus, the results might be better if you do.”

That’s my experience.  I tend to be a fast writer.  My first job was as a newspaper reporter, writing sort-of on deadline.  When I once complained about not knowing how to start a story, I was told (with some exasperation), “First you write the first word, then you write the second word, and keep going.”  I took it to heart.

When I moved into a profession that bills by the hour, being a quick writer was also a virtue.  It takes a little of the sting out of the bill if the client thinks you were at least efficient in writing that epic brief for the court.

But now I find I have to fight the habit of speed, make myself slow down and review the passages over and over.  There’s nothing as gratifying as sitting down to write and discovering that I know exactly what I want to say and the sentences are already there in my head.  It doesn’t happen often.

Most of the time, I need to be sure I take the time to edit my work well, really to step outside of it and ask why I started in one place and then turned to another subject.  Could an anecdote or insight be set up better?  Should it be dropped?  Have I adhered to Elmore Leonard’s famous rule for writing (“try to leave out the parts that readers skip”)?  If the first draft is going to be flawed, the revision better be good.  But too often my own sentences sound just great to me.  Then someone else points out an obvious problem in sequitur or clarity or sense and I’m back at it.

So, I’m going to try to write these blog entries with a bit more deliberation.  After all, I’m researching a time now (the early nineteenth century) when it took weeks for a letter to be delivered.  The writing of a letter might extend over several days as the writer reflected on the most amusing and effective way to communicate.  A pretty good idea.

But then there is the paradox that in those slower times there were writers like Dickens and Trollope who wrote so many terrific books, that were so long, so fast.  I suppose there is something out there that is genius.  Also, they didn’t have to wait as long as I do for the computer to boot up.

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