Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Speed Writing

It's the midpoint of November and writers throughout the world are gathering together or secluding themselves to strive to produce 50,000 words within thirty days. NaNoWriMo, the annual November writing marathon embraced by both novice and seasoned writers provides a format and structure for: (1) focusing on a novel or a group of projects (last year, I read about a short story writer writing as many short stories as possible); (2) testing writing skills, endurance, and disciplines; and (3) connecting with a community of supporters who can offer ideas and encouragement. On the nanowrimo.org website, participants will find a strategy for producing the word count, a place to track progress, and a map displaying worldwide word counts from 2013. The daily goal is to produce 1,667 words or about six and a half typewritten pages.

The NaNoWriMo challenge brings writers the opportunity to squarely face the question: is speed writing good writing? The answer may be different depending upon the writer asked. Some find speed writing important to produce and reach the end of a first draft, which then is extensively edited during the revision process. Others suggest that speed writing is the only satisfying and inspired way to complete a project.

Jim Denny's Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly (2013) provides a number of examples, including his own, where speed writing has produced some amazing results. In 2012 and 2013, Denny reports completing seven nonfiction books, each between 50,000 to 70,000 words, in seven consecutive months, or one per month. He first began using speed writing in 2001 when he received a four book contract that stipulated he complete the four novels in four months with a $100 a day late penalty for failure to deliver on schedule. (He accomplished the task with some latitude since he negotiated a thirty day grace period per book before the penalty applied.)

Denny mentions a unique method that Ray Bradbury employed in first expanding his short story "Bright Phoenix" into the 25,000 word novella "The Fireman" in nine days. Bradbury found a room of pay typewriters at a university library and paid ten cents an hour, working about five and a half hours a day (at an average of 2,800 words per day) for approximately forty nine hours at a total cost of $9.80 to complete the novella. Later, when he was asked to turn "The Fireman" into a novel, he experienced writer's block. Not until he returned to the pay typewriters in the library did he add 25,000 words to finish the book, again in nine days, which became Fahrenheit 451. Denny says the moral of the story is: "If you want to write brilliantly, write quickly."

As further evidence, Denny points out that John Steinbeck penned the first draft of The Grapes of Wrath in June through October 1938; Agatha Christie completed the first draft of her first novel in two weeks; Barbara Cartland, at her most prolific phase, produced twenty three novels in 1983; and during his thirty-four-year-writing-career, Charles Dickens averaged 175,000 words per annum.

Denny notes that most professional authors aim for 2,000 words per day. He quotes a journal passage from the time when Steinbeck was writing The Grapes of Wrath: "There are so many things to go into this book. . . . I'll get them all in if I just relax . . . and only worry about the 2,000 words of each day's work." [John Steinbeck, Robert Demott, ed. Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941 (New York: Penguin, 1990).] Denny suggests that in the beginning, a writer set a goal of 500 words per day. If a writer begins January 1st and keeps to the 500-word-a-day schedule, he will have 100,000 words by July 19th.

I found two other books that provided insight for improving daily word count totals. N. P. Martin's 1,500 Words Per Hour: How to Write Faster, Better and More Easily Using the Simple and Powerful Speed Write System for Writing Mastery (2014) is a short book with the major premise of "do all your thinking before you write." Martin also advocates planning before writing.

Similarly, Rachel Aaron's 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of What You Love, which originated as a blog and later was expanded to an ebook, describes her process in going from 2,000 words per day to 10,000 words per day. One suggestion made by both Martin and Aaron is that a writer begin each writing period by making a thumbnail sketch of what he intends to accomplish in his writing for the day.

What's your opinion about speed writing? Have you tried it? If so, do you recommend it?


  1. I have reservations, Paula, which is the reason I've never participated in NaNo.

    Forcing yourself to write everyday will induce a wonderful habit. Being able to turn out 6-7 pages per day doesn't sound like much, but if done day after day after day--I can understand how it adds up to produce a first draft. From the examples you've provided, I can't argue with success.

    However, I think before anyone starts out on such a mission, a complete outline must be finished. I can't imagine a pantser trying to accomplish this mission. The amount of revisions that must be done after November or when the first draft is complete, must be daunting.

    I've found revising a hard process that must be done from a distance. Being able to step back from the page to look at the work as a whole is a must. Which means that, although you might finish the first draft in thirty days, in the long run, it might not speed up the entire process of producing a polished novel.

    How much craft can be produced during the crunch is also questionable. Of course, seasoned professionals would do better, but for most writers, the entire novel would have to be rewritten, I'm afraid--the reason I don't participate.

  2. I have not tried speed writing except a few times when I had a tight deadline. Then I was happy just to get it done. I can't talk about the quality. I would be willing to experiment just to check it out.


  3. I think it works for some, Paula, but I never wanted to do nanowrimo because I have too much going on in my life to commit to that many words every day. For instance, because of Thanksgiving, I have two book clubs on the same day, One will be in the morning followed by lunch and the other will be some distance away with dinner and wine along with the book discussion. No time or even a desire to write that day especially since my blog will be up that day, too.

    Also, I am a pantser, and like Elaine, I need to think about my next chapter and where I'm going with it. I send each chapter to my critique partners and when I get their comments or edits I revise that chapter - if I agree with what they suggest, and do a final edit at the end sending each chapter to them again for their comments. As I go along sometimes I get an idea that means I need to go back to some previous chapters to add or revise, too. However, I know it really works well for some, like one of my critique partners and that is a good and positive thing since she just sent me three new chapters I can't wait to read.

  4. Thank you Elaine, Warren, and Gloria for such thoughtful comments. Both Martin and Aaron emphasize the need to outline, even briefly, prior to starting the process. They agree that an outline may be a work in progress. I appreciate to hear about your experiences and how you approach writing.

  5. Hi Paula,
    Nano is intimidating! I tend to write in scenes, so word count is secondary. I'm starting to think I'm a bit weird that way….
    How interesting about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and its journey from short story to novella to novel. I drew a different moral from the story. Not write quickly, but stay on your writing budget. Perhaps if I found an internet cafe and paid by the hour to use a computer, it would boost my productivity!

  6. I tend to write quickly in general, but do have some idea where I'm going beforehand. Short stories are usually a bit different, but even then I have the ending before I do much of the other parts of the story. I've never done Nanowrimo, either, because I have too many distractions and I tend to work on several things at once. But I've seen how it's helped others actually get publishable books, so if it works for you, then go for it. :-)

  7. This is a fascinating post. I have a goal of writing 1,000 words a day, and can almost always make it in about an hour on the days I do write. And I've often wondered how anyone can write more than that a day. Now I know the secret--planning in advance. I do that sometimes, but mostly I don't even think about the story until I sit down to write. So, the take away is that if I want to write more, I have to plan more. And that adds to the actual writing time which actually more important to figure out than the words completed every day. As for NaNo, I'm never been very tempted. I figure something would happen to break my rhythm, and then I'd become discouraged. Better to keep to my 1,000-a-word goal. But again, I found this fascinating. Thanks!

  8. I tried NaNo twice, but had to drop out both times because of mechanical failure (my wrists!).

    I do set myself a daily goal by calculating how many words a day I need to do to reach my desired number on my desired day. As I surpass the goal sometimes, the number magically comes down--love that!

    It's important to me not to take too many days in a row away on first draft. Almost every day, when I reread what I wrote the day before, I have some up with things, usually during the night, that need tweaking before I go on. Seems to work.

  9. I've never considered doing NaNo. I'd be a wreck. I also don't set word quotas. Sometimes I might spend a few days going over the comments of one of my critique partners as she sees things differently than I do. Putting pressure on myself is not something I enjoy. I fear writing that fast would result in disaster as far as quality. Not that I write brilliantly any other way at any other time, but I'm sure it would be worse.

  10. I think speed writing leads to a lot of revision.

    Whether that's good or bad depends on the author. Some first drafts are quickly done and do need thorough rewriting. Others are more carefully done and just need tweaking. (Lots of it.)

    For myself, I don't adhere to the write the whole first draft before any editing. When I realize I need a correction, regardless of where it is and where I am in the story, I go back and make it, or it will nag at me. I usually begin a writing session by reading over what I wrote last time. And of course I see areas that need to be redone. So I redo them.

    My feeling is that whatever works for you is "right." It will be different for everyone, and even different for the same person at different times.

  11. I tried NaNo once and managed to write 37,000 words. I used an outline, but still ended up with a mess. I might try it again one year using a more detailed outline or scene cards.

  12. Shari, I'm like you. I write and think in scenes as opposed to a particular word count. Maybe that's the short story writers in us!

    Bobbi, I try to use some of the recommendations from NaNoWriMo and each year I have a project planned, but I can't say I've met the goal in a month.

    Jan, the Martin and Aaron books had some really good suggestions for increasing word count. While Denny seems to have been very successful with it, his process is more rigid than I could follow.

    Kaye, wrist fatigue has become a problem for me, too. Your system must be working with your excellent quantity and quality of work!

    Polly, you do write brilliantly. Please keep following your course!

    Kathleen, I think you're right. The important thing is finding what works for you.

    Kara, I like your idea about scene cards. I need to try that approach.

  13. I am sure I could write faster if that were my goal. My goal is to enjoy writing and produce works I think are sufficiently good to share with the world. Perhaps there would be no conflict between writing faster using the methods others espouse and my objectives, but I’m unwilling to risk it and find I do not enjoy the writing process.

    That's not to say I think those who embark on the NaNoWrMo are wasting their time. I am a pantser and believe in the necessity of finishing the first draft and then revising. I don't care how bad the first draft is, I can revise it.

    I can't revise a blank page.

    ~ Jim