In college, I spent a semester in Washington, D.C. as an intern at the Washington Times. The department I worked with covered cultural trends, which gave me the opportunity to do my favorite kind of writing—in-depth features. I loved the newspaper atmosphere and I enjoyed my assignments.
But looking back, I wasn’t very productive. I worked something like 12 hours a week, and in that time, but I only managed to produce a total of around 15 articles during the 14 weeks of my internship. And a few of those were short daily news stories.
That pace wouldn’t have been acceptable if I were a cub reporter, but there are some perks that go along with being an unpaid intern.
To be fair, my editors liked my features, and they generally escaped heavy editing. But man, they took a long time to write.
I’ve adopted this dog-slow pace every time I’ve tried to write anything in my entire life.
Until now, that is. Now I’m making a concerted effort to write quickly, and it’s gotten me wondering: Why am I such a slow writer today? How’d I get here?
I think it started in grade school. Or rather at home, because I was homeschooled. There are lots of advantages to homeschooling, but one major disadvantage is a lack of deadlines. There was no impartial, outside authority waiting eagerly to give me an F for handing in a paper that—while well written—was a week late. I could take as much time as I wanted, and in some cases, I delayed assignments indefinitely with no real-world consequences.
In college, I did a lot of writing under deadline pressure, but I managed to cope with my slow writing speed by planning around it and managing my time well. I was always amazed to hear stories from classmates (and occasionally professors) about banging out 30-page papers in epic, Mountain Dew-fueled all nighters. Although I pulled a couple of long nights to finish papers that I’d started earlier, I could never manage to write a long paper in one session. I think my approach was ultimately better, but it didn’t help me learn to write fast.
And I continued that practice when I took a writing job after college. I just planned in extra time to accommodate the glacial speed at which I produced copy.
Looking back, it’s astonishing how much writing I’ve managed to do, given how slowly I work. And it’s a little sad to think of how much more I could have accomplished if I’d realized what was possible.
But that was part of the problem—low expectations. I thought my pace was normal, that writing should be agonizing and slow.
As a result of my low expectations, I never spent much time trying to improve my writing process so that I could write faster. My “process” was pretty laughable, actually. I was great at the research phase. I’d immerse myself in everything I could find on the topic I was planning to write about and take lots of free-form notes. For a feature story, I might end up with a stack of printouts half an inch thick, and 10 pages of typed notes. It gave me a lot to choose from when I started writing, and as a result, I’ve never struggled with writer’s block.
But when I sat down to write, I started by nudging those big blocks of notes around, grouping them in logical blocks. And then I’d start writing in the space between the disparate sentence fragments.
I let my notes dictate the structure of my article, and since every set of notes was different, it was like I was starting from scratch every time I wrote an article.
It wasn’t the worst possible way to work, but it wasn’t conducive to writing quickly, either.
But while lack of practice, low expectations and poor process have all contributed to my history of writing slowly, I’ve realized that they haven’t been the main problem.
The real reason I’m a slow writer is simple: I bought into the idea that good writing meant slow writing. I secretly took pride in my slow pace. After all, aren’t all good writers tortured souls who manage to peck out just a few words a day on an ancient Smith Corona?
You can’t rush art, right? It takes time to craft elegant sentences, choose the right words, piece together a compelling story … Doesn’t it?
I know better now. Many excellent writers are also able to produce massive amounts of copy in short order.
Now I don’t have that excuse anymore, and it’s clear that the only thing standing between me and the ability to write like a fiend is a lot of hard work.