Sunday, October 7, 2018

Writing Output—Is Size Important?

I came to the conclusion years ago that I need to write faster. Actually, I should qualify that by saying, ‘faster without degenerating into rubbish’ because I’m sure I could rattle out thousands of words a day, if I wasn’t bothered about which words…

All I need are more words...
The quality of what I do is always uppermost in my mind, however. It’s the thing I worry about most (probably) as I write. I’ve heard all the advice that says you can fix a page but you can’t fix a blank page, but find this hard. Once I’ve written a scene, I find it incredibly difficult to pick that scene apart and slightly alter the slant of it. Far easier to point it in the right direction to start with. (In this case, the word ‘easier’ is used in its loosest sensein the same way that it’s far easier to prevent the glaciers melting in the first place than it is to reverse global warming. You get the idea.)

The result of this is that I tend to manage around a thousand words on a good day when I’m in the midst of a book. I have writer friends who can apparently produce ten times that amount. And yes, amazingly, they are still my friends!

Some of them use dictation software to achieve this. I’ve tried this method, but my somewhat mongrel accent seems to utterly confuse it, plus the delay between words spoken and some form of them appearing on the screen is disconcerting. I find myself quickly distracted.

When I learned to touch-type they still had manual typewriters in college classrooms. This is back in the days when the word ‘carbon’ was followed by the word ‘copy’ rather than ‘footprint’ and Cut and Paste involved a printed page and a pair of scissors.

The result of this is that I’m a fast typist who doesn’t need to look at my hands while I do so. Indeed, there have been times when I’ve been typing at my keyboard while turned away having a conversation with someone else at the same time.

Also, when I’m working on a book I perhaps think in written words not spoken ones. I like to pick up a word, see how it feels, try it on for size, then maybe backspace and nudge the sentence in a slightly different direction instead. I self-edit as I go, so thundering through sentences on the grounds of knocking them into shape later goes right against the grain.

Plus, did I mention that I get distracted?

Ooh, look! Red squirrels!
I’ve tried reading writer self-help books that promise to get you up to 5000 words an hour by starting in five-minute timed stints of writing without doing anything else—no editing, researching, social media browsing, etc—and then working up. I shall persevere with this, as even 500 words an hour would be a big improvement.

I find it does help if I have a clear idea of where I’m going and what happens next in the story. I need the structure worked out in detail beforehand, and I also find I work better from pencil notes about the scene ahead. Even just the back-and-forth of the dialogue, which I can flesh out with narrative as I put the words on screen.

But sitting down and just winging it, with no clear idea of where the scene needs to go in order to move the story forwards, that doesn’t seem to get me anywhere on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean to say, of course, that there aren’t the odd occasions when inspiration strikes, leading to unexpected twists in the story. Sometimes, these even make it into the final draft.

Back when I was a motoring photojournalist, I remember watching motorsport and being told an old maxim about racing drivers. “You can tidy up speed, but you can’t speed up tidiness.”

You can tidy up speed...
If you are writer, which camp do you fall into? The ‘get it down as fast as possible and tidy it up later’ or the ‘self-edit and polish as you go’ method? What is a good word-count day for you? And to what do you attribute your output?

This week’s Word of the Week is enchiridion, which is a handbook or manual containing all the words on a particular subject. It comes from the Greek en-meaning within, and kheir hand.

I have been invited to take part in Noir @ The Bar London ‘Chilled To The Marrow’, which takes place on Monday, October 22 from 7:00–10:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:00 p.m.) at The Urban Bar, 176 Whitechapel Road, E1 1BJ. The line-up is Susi HollidayWilliam ShawMark HillDerek FarrellJay StringerJA MarleyAlex CaanBarbara NadelZoë SharpLiz (Elizabeth) MundyCaroline (Caz) FrearFelicia Yap, and a Wildcard chosen on the night. It’s hosted by Nikki East.


  1. I fall into both camps. In first draft, I blast through as fast as possible, or I lose myself and get too distracted (and there be dragons, for sure). In editing, I mull over the words and change things around so the rhythms and the plot are where I like them.

    Like you, my train of thought, once derailed, leaves nothing recognizable in its wake.

    1. Hi Susan. I sometimes wish I could do it that way, but experience has taught me that not having the book in the shape I want it as I go means I lose all faith with it the further I get. I think Stephen King said you should write the first draft with your door closed, meaning just you and the words, and the second draft with the door open, accepting editorial input and criticism. Clearly, he has far more confidence in his abilities than I do!

  2. 5000 words per hour? That's 83 words per minute.
    That's 100% insane. That's not WRITING, that's transcribing. A good typist might hit that speed for a minute or two or five, when a scene is already fully in their head. But for an entire hour? For 4 or 6 hours per day? That's an entire novel in 12-18 hours. Can it be done? Sure. Will it result in something that will stick to anyone's ribs? Not a chance.

    Speed and quality (in writing) TENDS to be an inverse relationship. There's a huge difference between TYPING and COMPOSING (thinking, imagining, building ideas and relationships, etc.) Sure, different folks have different strokes (talents and skills :-), but NO ONE is going to write "great literature" (a good story) at 5000 words per hour. All that will result in is cardboard characters being moved around on the stage by an all-too-visible hand-of-god, and all too forgetfully.

    I'm not saying there aren't "tricks of the trade" that CAN improve output and quality at the same time. But anyone who promises that you'll lose 50 pounds in 5 days is selling you a bridge...

    Great column, by the way. :-)

    1. Thanks, EvKa. You make some excellent points!

      Apparently the fasted recorded typist was a woman called Stella Pajunas in 1946. She clocked up an incredible 216 wpm on an IBM electric typewriter, not even a computer keyboard!

      The average speed is 41 wpm, with 92% accuracy. (I wish I'd thought to look all this up before I wrote the blog.) The world's fastest speaker is 637 wpm, so I can see how dictation might be quicker than typing.

      I'd be very happy at 500 words per hour, I confess.

  3. I write and rewrite as I go, without anything more than the wisp of a general idea where I'm headed until nigh to the end. I aim for 1000 words a day, but at times I can hit 3000/day--when I see the end in sight and I'm running on all 10 fingers. If I hit that pace I must take care to accept 1000/day as an average for the week or else run the real risk of incurring the ire (and absence) of she-who-must-be-obeyed.

    1. Hi Jeff. Yes, if you're not careful, you forget to have a life around the writing. I'm in the process of updating and revamping the backlist books at the moment, and don't tend to leave my desk from when I get up in the morning to late into the evening. I have very rarely hit more than 2000/day, but 1250/day is a useful amount to keep the book making forward progress.

      And, if I may say so, you would be crazy to want to incur the absence of your lovely Other Half, in any case.

  4. Well, I wrote 1000 words today and edited them. Somewhat. Stan and I have a rather different process to one-person writers: I write and he rewrites and vice versa.
    But neither of us writes 1000 words a day seven days a week - not words anyone would like to read anyway.
    As to outlining, we've done it both ways. Our first book was totally seat of the pants and people seemed to like it. For the second, we had a decent outline (Harper wanted one for the two book contract) and we actually followed it and it worked. For the third we started that way, it didn't work, and we went to a sort of hybrid.
    I think your approach is much more efficient. But for us, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

    1. I'm fascinated by the process you have with Stan, writing in partnership. When John Lawton and I wrote AN ITALIAN JOB together, we were in different countries, so it was one scene after another, with edits as we went.

  5. I'm weird.
    I work all day doing stuff while thinking about murder, then come home and outpour all my thinkings onto a keyboard. 3000 words at a time easily ( in 2.5 hours in the evening), but as I can't type they are illegible to anybody but me. When I correct/edit that section, it will double in word count and that will be first draft!
    Then the confusion sets in.

    1. Yeah, back when I had a day-job, I managed to get more written in shorter stints, Caro, although nothing quite as impressive as you manage! I definitely need to improve my technique.

      (In all manner of areas.)

  6. Zoe, for first drafts, my goal is 1000 words a day, but like Jeff, when the story is flowing along, I have been known to writer faster, occasionally more than 3000 in a day. I have only a vague idea of where the story is going, and it feels to me more as if my fingers are typing what the characters a doing and saying. The more they surprise me, the better I feel. In drafting, I don't worry about the music of language, or the grammatical structure of any sentence as I go along. If I have to leave off the story for more than a few hours, I go back and edit a few paragraphs, to pick up the thread. Then I am off and running again. The first edit fixes the arc of the story. And then I polish the prose. And polish it. And polish it. And pol....

    1. Hi Annamaria. Wow, another of my fellow blogmates whose production puts me in the shade. I try to have the story arc more or less sorted at first draft stage, but then, I try to have more or less everything sorted at first draft stage, so I guess this is why I'm a slowcoach compared to the rest of you!