Essential writing skills: the secret to writing quickly AND well

I promised when I started this series of posts that I’d explain how it’s possible to write both quickly and well. Meaning that – despite the odds – you CAN get the basis for a quality novel in a contest such as NaNoWriMo.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

Here’s the secret. As we’ve seen in previous posts, there is a lot more to writing books than simply putting words together and watching the word-count meter rise. On my experience the ‘drafting’ component takes up less than half the time that has to be devoted to any given book, and that’s true of both fiction and non-fiction. Not least because the research needed for good fiction (or world-building, if you’re writing fantasy) is just as time-consuming as the research needed to write good non-fiction.

But sooner or later you have to sit down and get those words assembled. Everybody has different ways of doing that, of course. Some writers sweat over every sentence, polishing them up piece by piece. That’s a valid approach, though to my mind it’s quite micro-level and even if you’re working from a plan, there’s a high risk that you’ll lose perspective of the big picture and – hence – lose structural integrity. That won’t be evident until you re-read the material and discover it needs re-writing.

That micro-approach is also very slow. The faster way is to sketch out the text in much larger chunks, pressing ahead and initially not worrying too much about the wording but focussing on the structure. That means the first draft, in detail, is often quite bad – but in the broadest sense has the right rhythm, pace and structure. It also means that, except in the broadest terms (to the nearest 300-500, on a 50,000 word structure), word count is irrelevant as a measure of result. Because the words, individually, will be changed.

The time needed to polish up rough styling is usually less than what’s needed to fix fundamental structural problems. And that’s important if you’re on deadline – or in a contest such as National November Writing Month, with its 50,000 word-in-30-day pressure. It’s perfectly possible to write a draft in that time.

The accepted outcome is ‘well, it’ll be terrible’. But I figure that if you get the structure right first – paint that picture in broad strokes – it’s possible to go back later and fix the words without re-casting the whole. Get the foundation right, in short, and the rest follows. Quality, therefore, is perfectly possible within NaNo constraints – or, for that matter, some of the deadlines publishers come up with in the profession.

It’s a technique that’s been made practical by the word processor. Back in the days of typing – or earlier, when pen-and-ink was the only medium – words were a precious commodity because ink was permanent. Re-drafting also meant re-copying. Today that’s changed; words are disposable – changeable – meaning we can focus on the essence of writing: structure, and from that, meaning, which is the essence of what writing is all about.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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8 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: the secret to writing quickly AND well

  1. Your *sketch first* approach to getting a first draft down is similar to an artist’s approach to drawing and painting. I’d never thought of it like that before reading this post!

    1. Only on Thursdays between 10 and 11… Actually the photo shoot did have a hilarious side. While setting up I got sprung by a journalist who worked for the paper I used to freelance for, who’d owned an identical typewriter!

  2. Wonderful post, Matthew! At one time, I was a micro-approach writer, constantly polishing but that was when I did not write daily. Now, the sketch approach that you describe works for me no matter what I am writing. As you say, it’s getting the structure in place, rather like arranging the furniture before polishing.


    P.S. Am a bit behind in my reading but again, these writing posts are just so succinct and practical that I don’t want to miss a one. Thanks, Matthew.

    1. I used to write in micro-steps too, until I figured out the approach I’m touting here – it is, of course, very much a matter of what best fits a particular writers’ preference, so it’s great that it works for you! And thank you, very much indeed, for your vote of confidence in my blogging – very much appreciated.

      The approach, incidentally, came out of an Honours class I took under Prof. Peter Munz at Victoria University some 30 years ago now (this year!), a former pupil of Popper AND Wittgenstein. I think I’ve mentioned him before – a unique learning experience for me. Munz explained that the hardest part of any book was sustaining the argument and hardly anybody could do it. This seemed utterly obvious and caused most of the class to look at him like he’d just arrived from Mars (actually, that quite often happened when he said something), but I’d learned that Munz’s often disingenuous homilies usually had something fundamental behind them. And of course it was about the fact that micro-writing often leads to an author losing their way.

      The clincher came when I did a short writing course for post-grads the same year under Richard Adler, a Professor of English from the University of Montana who happened to be in NZ on a Fullbright Scholarship. It was one of those ‘aha’ moments, a lot of ‘how to write’ pieces clicked into place, and I’ve never looked back. I have to admit that despite my educational experiences from age 5 being akin at times to a slow-mo train wreck, I had one or two lucky breaks – and this chance combination of Munz and Adler was one of them.

  3. Definitely agree! As they say “you can’t edit a blank page” and Nano teaches you to get that story out in double quick time, before you lose momentum or forget what Character A was doing in the second chapter, or what all that nifty foreshadowing was meant to be about. It will, of course, need editing, but it’s much easier to edit when you’ve got the whole shape of the thing to work with, not just little bitty pieces.

    1. Sure is. I view it like sculpting – it’s easier to get the whole by hacking out the main blocks first, rather than trying to get the final polish on a tiny part while the rest remains imprisoned within the raw stone.

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