The secret to writing quickly and well

I discovered the other day that Isaac Asimov – one of the most prolific writers of his day in America – published 21 books in 1981 alone. Even he lost count of the number in the end: his net total was somewhere over 500, not including 117 to which he contributed, along with innumerable short stories, articles and so forth.

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…

That puts him up there with Barbara Cartland (722 books) and Enid Blyton (600+ books) though I’d class Asimov as a far better writer than either – and certainly more versatile (his books are listed in 9 of the 10 major Dewey classification categories).

On my own experience, being seen as ‘prolific’ makes authors a target for cheap shots  – to this day I recall the time the Professor of Military Studies at Massey University tried that one on me, alas without first contacting me for the facts.

That still begs the question – how DO people write quickly and well? It’s a well known phenomenon. Take Asimov, for instance. He usually only produced two versions – a rough draft, then a final. And it was all brilliant. On a bad day, he was still brilliant. Yet other great authors take forever to produce something, constantly tinkering – Tolkien springs to mind.

There can be no questioning the quality of Tolkien, either. That said, some authors write very quickly – and very badly. And others write very slowly – and very badly. There’s also the issue of authors writing a lot, but without too much content. I still recall chugging through Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ SF alternate history and thinking that it was well enough written – but could have been a tenth of the length.

So what’s happening? Writing is all about concepts: about initiating a concept, and then about the translation of that concept – of the simultaneity of idea, which is how we think, into a linear thread. You can see where I’m going – people who come up with good concepts and who can translate those quickly to written word are going to write quickly and well. Asimov, for instance. Those who come up with good concepts and can’t translate them so fast – such as Tolkien – come up with the good stuff in the end. And there’s also the writers who have a good concept, can translate that concept easily into a linear thread – but who then stretch it, thin. On my experience the hardest part of writing is that translation of concept to linear thread – most people struggle with it, and it’s probably from this that the idea of ‘speed = shoddiness’ emerges. But it’s not true. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


7 thoughts on “The secret to writing quickly and well

  1. If I remember right, in his last memoir Asimov estimated his writing output, over his career, at something like one thousand new published words per day. His rate had been increasing, though; the last two decades of his life it was something like two thousand new words per day. (He was able to do a lot of recompiling of old material into new books, though, and he had quite a number of anthologies with other authors’ work in them, keeping his book count so high.)

    1. It was a remarkable achievement. On a good day, I can knock out a “first draft” of maybe 4-5000 words. But then it needs revising, during which time the daily word count drops to zero. I had to do it – taking 1984 as a start-point, when my first book was published, I discover my average daily published word count, roughly speaking, is 185.59, which isn’t even 20 percent of Asimov’s…

  2. I wonder if technology in the future will change things? I can for example type much faster than I can write. With voice recognition technologies becoming more and more accessible to all, will that make a difference?

    1. It’ll definitely change the style – spoken and written English are two totally different things! There is a real knack to being able to speak in ‘written’ style – I knew of a journalist on the Christchurch “Press” who could dictate stories down the line to his editor, but it’s a real skill. On the other hand, books in “spoken” style might become the vogue in future…

  3. I’m still working on that translating part. I’ll get there eventually, I hope. Great post. Prolific writers aren’t necessarily bad ones, and slow writers aren’t necessarily good.

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