I recently found myself jammed up against a deadline most novelists would have thought impossible to meet. My normal writing pace produced roughly one polished chapter per week. Now, in order to meet my deadline, I had to write a polished chapter every day. I had to learn how to write faster -- fast.
Previously, my writing process looked like this:
- Think about the chapter.
- Write a great first line.
- Write a solid first paragraph.
- Write one or two more decent paragraphs.
- Put xxx in the places where the right word won't come.
- Put notes to myself in brackets in the places that needed more research.
- Sketch out the rest of the chapter using whatever incomplete sentences and thoughts came to mind in order to get it all down.
The result was a mess. But that was okay. Writers are often told that they should spew out their first draft quickly, without worrying about spelling or punctuation so they don't lose momentum. Once it's written, they can go back and fix everything later.
Except that for me, "later" always came too soon. Because I was writing without careful thought, my chapters quickly lost coherency. So I'd go back to the beginning and read the wonderful first sentence and paragraphs again in order to ground myself in the story.
Then as long as I was back at the beginning of the chapter and the story was fresh in my mind, I'd rework the next few paragraphs. Tweaking a word. Inverting the clauses to make a sentence read more cleanly or rewording the sentence to eliminate those pesky commas altogether. Changing "and" to "but." Changing it back. Experimenting, exploring, trying out other options as I looked for what my gut said was the best way to tell this part of the story.
And that was okay, because I was making progress. It wasn't quick, and it was oftentimes painful, but each pass through the chapter made the chapter better.
Then came my deadline. Complicating the situation was the fact that during the time I needed to be writing, my daughter was getting married in another city. I couldn't use my laptop on the plane because it was too bulky. So I bought several writing pads and pens in order to make use of every writing opportunity, and off I went.
And that's when I discovered the secret to writing faster. Write in longhand.
I'm not the first author to advocate writing by hand. But when I did walk away from the keyboard and literally take up the pen, the difference in my creative output was astounding. Instead of writing 2,500 words in a typical week, I consistently wrote between 3,000 and 5,000 words a DAY. Good words, that didn't require so much tweaking and polishing.
Here's why writing by hand is faster than writing on a computer:
When an author working on a computer makes a typo, as I just did by typing "Whey" instead of "When" at the beginning of this sentence, they stop and fix it. Why shouldn't they? The mistake will have to be corrected at some point, the author has noted the error in the here and now, and it only takes a second to correct it.
When I write in longhand, I don't write "Whey" when I mean to write "When." Occasionally, I cross out a word or a sentence, but there are no distracting typos, no time-consuming regressions.
My sentences are also cleaner. Because I write more slowly by hand than I can type, I give more thought to what I'm writing, and am thus more careful about what I put on page.
And that's the corollary to writing faster. Slow down. Think about the words before you put them to paper, and the words you write are more likely to be ones that will stay.
Necessity forced me to write the bulk of my novel in longhand. But in the process, I discovered that writing by hand is faster than writing on a computer.
Next month, I'll be attending the Salt Cay Writers Retreat, a week-long retreat on a private island in the Bahamas. In addition to workshops and one-on-one meetings with a truly stupendous faculty, the retreat promises lots of free time for writing.
I just might leave my laptop at home.