I have always longed to be a prolific writer, to write fast, to soar on waves of creative energy.
But I also want to write well, which usually means taking my time. I am always seeking a balance: to avoid taking more time than I really need, while maintaining high quality. I have no interest in churning out sub-par writing in order to meet an arbitrary time limit.
The problem is a “quantity versus quality issue,” a phrase suggesting that anything you rush is likely to turn out mediocre at best. However, I have a lot of ideas for stories and novels, and I would like to execute as many of them as possible. Is it too much to hope that I can be both a fast writer and a great writer?
The science fiction author Isaac Asimov gives me hope. Isaac Asimov wrote over a hundred books without sacrificing quality on the altar of speed. In order to avoid fussing over language, he developed a clear and simple style that permitted him to write prodigious quantities of text quickly.
But Isaac Asimov was Isaac Asimov. is it possible for writers like me to be both fast and brilliant? In the world of writing advice, I have found two conflicting points of view. One says that fast writing is the most honest writing, and that when you overthink, spontaneity breaks down. The way to write well, these writers claim, is to write reams of text quickly, because the more you write, the better you will get. In other words, if you focus on quantity rather than quality, the quality will eventually take care of itself due to skills gained by practice. This attitude is the spirit of NanoWriMo: Churn out a first draft as quickly as possible to liberate yourself from the paralysis of perfectionism.
The other viewpoint is expressed in the adage “Good writing is rewriting.” As much as the first perspective appeals to me, the “good writing is rewriting” strategy works best for me. The “write quickly” injunction is good for rough drafts, but rarely does anything I write come out perfectly the first time.
My first drafts are just fragmented sketches of my content, penned in a spiral notebook, but the real magic happens when I type it into my computer, making changes as I go.
However, I have recently been accused of fussing too much over my work. I have heard, “Stop pushing words around. You should be able to finish a short story in an hour,” “If you give yourself two days to write a story, it will take two days,” and “There is no relationship between the quality of writing and the time you spend on it. You need to let go.”
Although I disagree with the argument that time has nothing to do with quality, it is true that in the final polish stage of my writing, I tend to agonize over my word choices. While I am writing, I am totally relaxed and focused. I am unaware of time passing. However, at the very end, when it is time to share my work, I will sometimes have a crisis of confidence. Writing that I loved a day ago suddenly seems unworthy. I have actually rewritten big passages only to realize, days later, that my first version was the best.
While obsessive-compulsive writing habits work against me, writing a great story in a hour is unlikely, and even if I accomplish it, I will end up with only the simplest stories. An hour is not enough time to create nuances of character, build suspense, or explore serious themes. Each writing project has its own time requirements, depending on the scope of my ambitions.
This is what I have concluded: If I do set time limits, they should always be liberating, and never constricting. It should free me from the need to “fuss” over my work so I can move forward, but if I fail to finish in a certain time, I refuse to beat myself up over it.
Despite my obsessive revision habits, I have not been “stuck” by any means. I have three books that will be published this year: two novels, Paw and The Ghosts of Chimera, plus a new short story collection. I may not be as prolific as Isaac Asimov, but I am far from being blocked.
I still dream of being super prolific, but only if I can continue to enjoy my writing. It is hard for me to enjoy it if I feel rushed. If I am fully concentrated on what I am doing and making steady progress, I believe I am on the right path, regardless of how long it takes.
If I find a way to write faster and still write well, I will do it, but if I have to choose between quantity and quality, I will go for quality every time, not because of any work ethic, but because writing that allows me to do my best is the only kind I can enjoy.