Writing fast, writing slow, just writing

Some things that it seems I keep hearing in how-to-write posts online:

– If you’re a real professional, you need to write fast
– Writing fast means writing 3 or 4 (or more) books a year; writing a book a year is writing slow
– No one who writes slow can possibly make a living as a writer
– Everyone who writes fast knows that we have to ignore that pesky language thing; only literary writers care about language
– No one reads literary writers
– Indeed, no one cares about language; story is everything, and story has little to do with language
– Everyone can tell a solid, compelling story writing 3 or 4 (or more) books a year, and have fun doing it
– Or else if you can’t, maybe that’s not your fault, but nonetheless you’re not a professional writer and your career surely won’t survive

This and (buried among other matters) this are merely the latest iteration of this, but they’re far from the only ones. (I only link to them in particular because they’re the links I have on hand). Just a few weeks ago I came upon a post from a writer who, with three books under contract in the next year, disdained a fellow writer who was going back to edit and reissue already published work. A few years ago, when I commented on how a book I’d read and loved seemed like the sort of book that couldn’t be written quickly, and about how in this case writing slowly was worth it, another colleague responded with a post about how no, sorry, real writers actually do write quickly, and no one else can possibly make a living at this, short of lightning striking and turning them into bestsellers. It’s a perennial theme in online discussions of business and craft, and it keeps coming back, this notion that real writers–or at least successful writers–write fast, fast, fast, and that the rest of us had better get our act together.

I don’t mind any writer saying, hey, writing fast works for me, and here’s how I go about writing fast, try it and see if it works for you.

Where I get concerned is when writers say, with a certain air of authority, this worked for me not because it’s my process, but because it’s the only real way to write, the only real way to succeed.

Because it isn’t.

In the two decades I’ve been at this writing thing, I’ve seen writers who write good books every three months and writers who write good books every three years–and I’ve seen writers build successful, sustainable careers doing both these things. I’ve also seen writers have their careers stall out doing both these things, because there are so many and varied ways in this field in which the thing that has been working can become the thing that is no longer working, sometimes without much warning.

There is no one true way. And I worry when writers talk as if there is, both because it’s hard not to have a moment of passing insecurity myself when someone says “hey, you’re doing it wrong,” and because I wonder just how many new writers who are still searching for their own best writing processes might hear that voice of authority and assume there’s only one real possibility after all–and struggle to make their own work fit into someone else’s best practices, at the expense of the work and of their own joy in writing.

There are some specific myths in the way writers talk about their “write fast, don’t worry about language much” approach that worry me, too. The biggest is that only the slowest, most uncommercial writers care about language, and that there’s no middle ground here, when actually … you don’t have to agonize for weeks over every word to care about your words, or to work at developing a distinctive voice. Voice comes from language, after all, and many readers do, indeed, care about voice.

There’s also a lot of middle ground between writing four books a year, full speed ahead, never looking back, and writing a book every decade or so. Though if it comes down to that, just like there are four-book-a-year writers who write wonderful books, there actually are book-a-decade writers who write books so beloved they make a living from them. But the important thing is, these aren’t the only options. They never were. And even in the pulp days that I’m hearing talk about ebooks bringing us back to, not everyone wrote for the pulps. That was then, as now, only one way to build a career.

No one size fits all. There are many, many ways to go about this writing thing. All of them can work. All of them can fail. There are no guarantees.

Find your process. Go with it. Know that it may change over time, and go with that, too.

If anyone tells you you’re doing it wrong, what they’re really saying (whether they realize it or not) is: that thing you’re doing, no way would it work for me. They don’t actually know what will work for you–they’re merely laying out one more approach you can try, if you want to. There’s no harm in trying out different approaches, in the search for your own best practices.

But whatever way you’re fumbling toward telling your own stories and building your own career: it’s not wrong. Especially, it’s not wrong just because someone else writes very differently.

Many paths. No guarantees. We’re all in this together, and none of us knows everything.

In the end, each of us finds our own voice and process and goes about this writing thing in our own way. And there’s nothing unprofessional about that.

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