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confidence editing first draft productivity

Write perfectly, or write quickly?

Some authors have the ability to pump out five thousand or ten thousand words a day. Some authors agonize over each sentence on the page.

What’s the reason? Is one approach better than the other? Is there a happy middle-ground?

Photo by Cris Ovalle on Unsplash

Why you should write quickly

Quick question: apropos of nothing, would you rather say you’ve written one hundred words or one thousand words? How many ideas can you prototype with each word count? How much of your characters can you explore?

Stories can change as they’re told. As we learn more about our story through the telling of it, remaining agile as a writer is critical.

Who needs perfection in a draft anyway? Neil Gaiman said that plotting a book is simple: “write down everything that happens in the story, and then in your second draft make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”

You’ll surely save time overall when you’re dashing out ten times as many words as the writers who take their time, right? That’s still true even if the majority of your words have to be moved around into their ideal place later or cut outright.

And who’s to say that a slower writer gets the words right? Writing is editing.

The first draft isn’t the published draft, right? If you can write quickly, then get those ideas down and get them down fast.

Why you should write slowly

All of that text above? Well, let’s hold on a second.

I’m willing to bet that most people view the romantic ideal of a writer as somebody who writes, not somebody who edits. Whether or not that view is accurate, there are a lot of us who didn’t get into writing so we could edit. (sidenote: I love you, editors! Thank goodness for you.)

The counterpoint to writing quickly is, of course, writing slowly.

What’s the point of writing quickly and producing words that you’re just going to cut later? Why not save the energy and kill darlings before they come out at all?

Writing slowly allows you to protect yourself against developing a lousy plot, a weak character, or an altogether failing story. By moving carefully and writing hundreds–not thousands–of words each day, you can be more mindful of your work. You’re insulated from the risk of writing fifty thousand words of filler. Every sentence can be considered individually, and every structural weed can be plucked out before it grows.

Hemingway would strive to write 500 words each day, starting at the day’s first light, and writing as late as noon. If we restricted ourselves to a hundred words an hour, surely we wouldn’t write with less quality, right?

What should you do?

There’s an easy response here, similar to asking if pantsing is better than plotting.

You should write in the style that works best for you.

Ugh, really? What a wishy-washy answer! You know what, let’s try something more helpful.

If you write quickly, try slowing down for a few days. Write carefully, and don’t hesitate to view your work critically for the purpose of writing as well as possible. Really dive into your character’s heads and examine if they’re acting naturally. Find new sources of conflict by rigorously picking apart your scenes.

If you write slowly, try speeding up for a few days. Tell your inner editor to take a vacation; they’re welcome back once your experiment is over. Try freewriting, try setting a timer and seeing how many words you can write in fifteen minutes, and try removing the backspace key from your keyboard.

Whatever you do, don’t get yourself stuck in a rut. Jump out of your comfort zone for a few days and see what you’ve been missing. If the change makes sense, you might find a new way of working! And if it doesn’t work, you can safely return to normal with no harm done.