Write It Now, Part 23: Speed + quality = can be done

The pressure’s on these days for writers to produce. Content is getting ever more transient – even print books, which occasionally gained a ‘long tail’ of years, now tend to dwindle after just a year or so. And the advent of e-publishing has produced a colossal market.

The reality of this brave new future boils down to hard work for writers – a lot of it. And that’s also brought home with challenges like National Novel Writing month – 50,000 words in four weeks. A challenge of pace even for experienced writers.

All of which is a great training ground for writing as a career – a world where authors have to be able to produce great material, to length, in time.

There is a conceit – certainly in academic communities in New Zealand – that ‘speed’ and ‘quality’ don’t go together. Indeed, the word ‘prolific’ is used as a put-down in these circles. It seems to be a given that if somebody is ‘prolific’ then their quality has to be questioned.

This is a classic false premise, of course. Different writers produce quality at different speeds – and in fact, speed and quality can be made to go together by any writer. It takes practise. A lot of practise. And in the race for quantity AND quality, the word processor is your friend. Exploit its strength – painless editing without re-typing. Now, I know there’s software out there designed to do more – Scrivener, for instance.

Personally I use a word processor like a typewriter anyway – all the planning is done on paper. There’s no absolute right or wrong. What counts, though, at the end of the day – are the final words.

My take is this:

1. Figure out the broad structure – for a novel, the plot points, character arcs, chapter divisions and so forth. If you feel comfortable, you could detail down to how the chapters are structured. This is one of the keys to getting quality quickly, because  your story has got everything it needs in the right places. If you think of your book as a house, this is the foundation, wall and roof framing.

2. Now’s the time to populate that plan with words. And here’s the secret. If the first sentence doesn’t arrive, start with another further down, using the outline as a placement. Then backfill. This keeps the pace going. If you take the house analogy, this is putting up the wall-boarding, inner lining and roof. It’s handy to do that in sequence – but, if the frame’s correctly done and the pressure’s on to proceed, not always esssential.

3. This might well end up a bit patch-work, but it’s straight forward to polish the text. Back to housing again – this is the fit-out, painting and carpeting.

This process should work to any scale, from a short essay to a 90,000 word novel. Does this work for you? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


17 thoughts on “Write It Now, Part 23: Speed + quality = can be done

  1. Very good points, and the irony is that great literary writers were prolific too. I pretty much use these steps when I write; first comes the broad outline, then I make a start somewhere, whether it be in the middle of a scene, the end or the beginning. I worry about how it all fits together in the edit – the first draft is all about just getting things down, and being as imaginative as possible.

    1. Some of the very best writing has come from people who are able to pour it out quickly. A point that gives the truth to the fact that speed and quality DO go together. Good luck for your writing.

  2. My past projects have all been “start at the start, write to the end” type deals, but with my current project I’m trying out the “outline and then fill in the words” strategy. I’m only the outlining part at the moment, but I have high hopes 🙂

    And speaking from university experience, essay writing goes a heckuva lot faster if you have an outline to work from. So, hopefully the theory holds true for fiction writing as well!

    1. I’ve done my share of university essay writing…boring though many of the ones I wrote were… 🙂 There’s a technique to ’em. On my experience, these writing skills are all transferable in various ways and absolutely should assist with fiction writing. I actually did it the other way around – I was formally trained in fiction writing and applied that technique to my university essays… 🙂

  3. I found this really helpful as it is the way that I am beginning to write. I’m on my first novel and have tried all sorts of ways to get it up and running, but have fallen back more and more onto the 3 point approach you give here. I especially relate to the bit about jumping around to write sections that do come to you and then back-filling later. That seems to work for me when I get completely stuck!

  4. Yet another fine post in your writing series, Matthew. No matter what I do, I am one of those writers who “writes in chunks” no matter the project. By that, I mean I do have a general idea of the story–beginning, middle, end–but those opening lines are the last to be written. This was even true for my blog posts when I first began blogging but not so much now but the opening is generally my last edit in any manuscript.

    I had to get comfortable with “how I write” longer projects, and for me, that means writing entire sections, and building what could loosely be called a list of scenes from those sections. On this current novel it is working pretty well for me, mainly because I’ve stopped trying to change how I write.

    Thanks, Matthew!

    1. Glad that what I’m writing here is of assistance. Yes – it’s the hardest thing in the world to compose a book, structurally. I still recall one of my professors at university, thirty-odd years ago, explaining that the hardest part of writing history was sustaining an argument to book length. But he never told us how… I found out later, the hard way – but the knowledge has stood me in good stead since and I’m hoping that what I can outline of my understanding will be of use to others, in any genre.

      The hardest part of blogging this stuff remains the gulf between the perfect concept-of-mind and the way it’s possible to express it with imperfect words. I’ve made those comments before but the dissonance continues to dog me!

  5. I enjoyed this post. You’ve shared some valuable insight. I’m new here, but I’m on my way to check out all of your other blog post in this series. I spit it all out very fast during the first draft stage, but I can only produce quick and creative work when I use pen and paper. I figure out where it all goes during the revision process and when I transcribe my barely legible handwritten notes onto my laptop.

    P.S. When I typed in my email address for this comment it automatically linked me to a wordpress site of mine that’s not in use. My long term goal is to move my blog from blogger to wordpress, but I haven’t figured out how to do it. In the meantime, my blog is still on blogger. It’s http://fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com

    1. Thanks, glad to have been of assistance. I use pen and paper myself to structure and get direction to what I’m doing – then translate that into a word processor for fleshing out. It’s a good technique.

  6. Great post. I tend to slow myself down by writing first on paper and then typing it out, but I find I can “get the words out” better (and faster) on paper than by sitting at a monitor. Plus, I’m more apt to write if I can do it anywhere, any time…something I can’t do on my laptop (can’t see that bloody screen outdoors). And that’s the key to writing, finding the best way to get those words out of your head. Because once they’re out, it’s all a matter of paperwork.

    Tammie Painter

  7. I only wish that I was able to combine speed and quality. I agree that some people can (those lucky few). Ernest Hemingway once said that he used to “Sit at a typewriter and bleed” and I can understand that viewpoint entirely. I tend to write huge amounts of text, then re-edit as I realize that it is full of unnecessary exposition, waffle and so on, then cut it down to a clearer, neater size. Unfortunately (at least for me personally) this takes an awful lot of time. I find I can write academic papers and reports much quicker, being a subject specialist in my area, but fiction novels,world building and so on, at least for me, takes time to craft. Everybody is different I suppose, there certainly are a few who possess the rare gift of speed and quality, but I know I don’t (at least with fiction novels) but fact based work, I can do it quite well. Another great and thought provoking post Mr MJ Wright. I really enjoy reading your blog posts.

Comments are closed.