Writing fast versus writing well

Look at all that red pen!
Look at all that red pen!

You hear tales, don’t you, of writers who work on a chapter, perfecting every word, before they move on to the next one. I also read an interview recently with Cathy Kelly where she said if she often completes more than 300-400 words a day she’s delighted because her life is so busy. It almost made me wonder how people who write like that ever get a book finished. But clearly they do because CK’s shelf in Waterstones is very full! So this got me thinking, is it necessarily better to write fast and just get the book finished? Or is quality better than quantity?

As a former news reporter, I’m trained to write quickly and generally in short bursts. 300-350 words was usually the maximum for a page lead at my newspaper and at times you could be required to write that, almost word perfectly, in less than 30 minutes if deadline was calling. So, once I’m in The Zone I can knock out 700-800 words in about an hour. This also includes a little time for staring blankly at the wall (or the person opposite if I’m on the train – if you’re reading this, yes that’s why I’m staring at you like that!).

Is this good quality copy? By my standards, probably not. Will it remain in my final draft? Possibly not. A lot of description will be missing and there will be a lot of words to cut out, but for me that’s not the point. As an unpublished writer there’s no deadline, there’s just the challenge of getting the words onto the page. Once they’re there you have something to work with. Remember you can’t edit a blank page! I tend not to read back over my work too much (or edit it) unless I need to work out where I’m going next. Instead all my attention is focused on going forward when I’m creating a first draft.

Why do I work like this? Primarily I think it’s because at the moment I have no other way of doing it. If I were able to carve out two-hour sessions I’d probably write very differently. But also that’s how a reader should view your book. They should always be moving forward, wanting to find out what comes next. I want to keep the pace moving and keep the book going in the right direction. I don’t know if this is absolutely the right way to go – does anyone ever know that? – but so far it seems to work for me. The group of friends who read samples of Book One said it moved along well and they were keen to know what happened next. That all sounds positive to me! My other feeling is that proper editing can only be done when you have a completed manuscript. Only then can you look at the story overall, make sure that your pacing is correct, that you haven’t changed a character’s name halfway through and that all those pesky red herrings are in the right places!

For me it’s always better to have the quantity because from that you create the quality.

Are you a quick or slow writer? Which way works best for you? What benefits are there to editing as you go along? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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4 thoughts on “Writing fast versus writing well

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  1. Terrific post. It really is a terrible dilemma. I’ve tried both styles at the extreme of either spectrum. 50,000 words–heavy in research–in three days including editing, a horrendous task; and 3 months on one chapter, polished so shiny the reader slipped (including me, the author!).

    My conclusion was that the beginning chapter should be perfect before moving on. It sets the precedent for the entire book, so I wanted to make sure it was pristine. Months went past and my need for perfection had me rewrite the damn thing 8 different times.The problem is that perfection is unobtainable and I’ll never find my work to be good enough.

    Therefore, I agree with you. Shell out the work, writing when words are flowing freely, and take some inspirational time when they are not. Still, that first chapter will always be a nightmare before I consider it to be compelling enough to hold a reader in place.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s always a good idea to experiment with different methods to see which one works for you, but it’s so important to remember that perfection doesn’t exist. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn over the years!

  2. I think the first draft is just that, the first draft. It’s about getting words onto paper. Editing is where it’s made into what you want it to be. So, in that vein, I’m in the camp of getting words down at whatever speed is comfortable for you. Me? It’s hit and miss. Sometimes I’m slow, others if I’m in the right zone, lots quicker.

    1. I know what you mean about hitting The Zone. I tend to write faster at some times than others, but I never really go back over what I’ve written until the end. The difficulty of doing that is I often forget what I’ve done – my plan in future is to.. well… plan better to avoid that happening!

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