Work Hard at Your Writing—But No Harder Than You Have To

[NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. —J.D.]

Some years ago, a publisher offered me a two-book contract to write the text for a pair of lavishly illustrated books. The acquisition editor gave me a stack of similar books his company had already published. Looking through the stack, I gauged each book to be about 15,000 words in length. Yet he told me he needed about 35,000 words per book. “Are you sure?” I said. “That seems long.” He assured me that was the number.

I wrote the first book and sent the manuscript in to the managing editor (the acquisition editor had moved on to another publishing house). I had hit the assigned word count practically on the nose — 34,800 words. The managing editor read the manuscript, then emailed me: “The book looks great, Jim. Only problem is it’s way too long. We need you to cut the book down to about 18,000 words.”

I groaned. Relying on the assurances from the acquisition editor, I had written twice as much text as I should have. I spent additional days cutting text I never should have written in the first place, first cutting entire chapters, then sculpting the text paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word. I left half the book on the cutting room floor — but it was a learning experience.

When I began the second book, I slashed the amount of research I did, I wrote 18,000 words, and stopped — done. Most important of all, the second book was better written than the first because it didn’t need to be trimmed with a chainsaw.

The moral of the story: Work hard at your writing, but don’t work harder than you have to. Improve the quality of your writing by eliminating unnecessary work.

Write Fast Enough to Stay Ahead of the Doubts

In his Hollywood noir novel A Graveyard for Lunatics, Ray Bradbury writes a scene in which the unnamed narrator-protagonist (a fictionalized version of Bradbury himself) hands a movie script to Fritz the movie director (a composite character based on Bradbury’s friend, director Fritz Lang, and Bradbury’s Moby Dick nemesis, director John Huston). The shocked director gulps his glass of wine and can’t believe the writer has produced this script in less than a day.

“Cut the comedy!” Fritz says. “You couldn’t have written that in a few hours!”

“Sorry,” the narrator replies. “Only the fast stuff is good. Slow down, you think what you’re doing and it gets bad.”

This is not just a scene in a Bradbury novel. This is the essence of Bradbury’s philosophy of writing, and it’s the way he approached every story, novel, and screenplay he ever wrote. As he told Writer’s Digest in a February 1976 interview, “The only good writing is intuitive writing. It would be a big bore if you knew where it was going. It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘Don’t Think!'”

And Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, also wrote about the need for speed: “With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”

It’s true. The faster you write, the more confidently you write. You must write fast enough to stay ahead of the doubts. When you write quickly, you’ll find you write brilliantly.

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler put it this way: “The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

Let your words pull you. Let your creativity and confidence flow through you. Write brilliantly. Write fast.