Is Writing in Overdrive for Everybody?

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck: “Write freely and as rapidly as possible.”

On Twitter today, I tweeted a quote from my new book Writing in Overdrive: “It’s a paradox but it’s true: The faster you write, the better you write.” One of my friends on Twitter replied, “Not true for everybody.”

You know what? She’s right. There are exceptions to this rule. While I am convinced that most people actually write better when they write faster, I do acknowledge that this principle won’t work for everyone. Here’s what I wrote in Chapter 1 of Writing in Overdrive:

“To be sure, there are some truly great writers who write with painstaking slowness, polishing each sentence to perfection before proceeding to the next. Kurt Vonnegut, Dean Koontz, and George R. R. Martin are exemplars of this approach. If writing slowly works for you, who am I to tell you to change? I’m not saying this is the only way to write. Every writer must decide which techniques and approaches work best for him or her.”

Why do I believe that writing faster (in first draft) produces better writing for the vast majority of writers? Several reasons: When you write quickly, you write freely, shedding your inhibitions. Writing quickly, you silence the inner critic—that nagging voice within you that causes you to doubt yourself, the voice that says, “What will people think if you write that?” When you write slowly, you write from the intellect, you write from your inhibitions, you write from your fear of being rejected and criticized.  But when you write quickly, shedding your conscious inhibitions, you tap into the power of your unconscious mind, the source of your creativity, imagination, and dreams.

My study and experience confirm that fast writing is powerful writing. The writers I have admired most—Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler—always wrote their first drafts with remarkable speed.

As Ray Bradbury observed in a 1987 essay, “In quickness is truth. . . . The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.” And John Steinbeck said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. . . . [Writing slowly] interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

The faster you write, the better you write. I admit this principle doesn’t hold true for everybody—but it is such a powerful writing principle that I hope every serious writer at least explores the possibilities of writing in overdrive.

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5 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting idea; I can see how it applies. Personally, I am a slow writer starting out, but when I get into the groove of my prose, it goes speedily along. Writing fast is great when words are coming smoothly, but unfortunately not so if I’m having an off day. Great post!

    Reply
  2. Many thanks, EG. I certainly identify with what you say. I think its normal for things to start slowly, as the Muse, the unconscious mind, starts weaving images and ideas and patterns together in our imagination. I find that momentum is a big part of writing, and momentum takes time to build. I appreciate your thoughts, my friend. —JD

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  3. An interesting, and useful, perspective. I (try to) write everyday, but I rarely write more than 3k words because if I do, my hands hurt. With age comes arthritic fingers. Ho hum. I tend to re-read what I wrote yesterday, maybe tweak a few things, then carry on. I wonder if your ‘fast writing’ premise is based on a solid outline, so you know where you’re going, if it’s for the pantsers among us,or both? Certainly the ‘speed writing’ approach is what’s used for Nanowrimo and I agree it’s worth trying, at least once. As long as people understand that editing is the next task.

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  4. Thanks, Greta. I consider 3K to be A LOT of words in one writing session. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Robert J. Sawyer, and John Steinbeck all set goals of 2K per day. So I applaud you.

    I don’t have arthritis—yet. But I do get numbness and pain after a lot of typing and mousing (probably carpal tunnel). So I do most of my first-drafting with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

    In my book, WRITING IN OVERDRIVE, I show how the fast writing principles work equally well when outlining or “pantsing” (which I call “cliff-jumping,” after Bradbury’s maxim). Bradbury was a cliff-jumper, but he resorted to a bit of outlining when he wrote his longer works, such as Fahrenheit 451. But he essentially relied upon the Muse when he wrote.

    By contrast, Michael Moorcock, also extremely fast, is very much an outliner.

    As for myself, I’m an outliner transitioning into cliff-jumping. If I outline, I refer to the outline very infrequently while writing. The finished product often bears only passing resemblance to the outline.

    And yes, Greta, I agree—people need to understand that even if you blitz your first draft in a matter of days, you can expect to spend weeks (at least) in rewrite/self-editing. I tried to make that very clear in the book. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days (it’s a 26,000 word novella, so he averaged 8,700 words per day, first draft), but then he spent about six weeks rewriting and editing it.

    Many thanks for your thoughts and insights, Greta! All the best. —JD

    Reply
  5. I write some of the ugliest first drafts (typos, mispellings, gramar errors) when I write fast. So i thought hey, why not slow down and polish each sentence as i go. The result was as you said “written from intellect” and I for one didn’t like it.

    I agree that my best work is done fast. I usually have quite the chore reviewing and editing. But being happy with the creative flow of my writing is something that makes me willing to put up with the typing errors and etc. that I make in the first draft.

    BYTW awesome and inciteful article!

    Reply

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