Is There an Ideal Writing Pace?

What does it mean to be a fast or a slow writer?

A few weeks ago, I came across the post On Productivity by Lincoln Michel, where he talks about writers who write a little, writers who write a lot, and writers who write a ton. But it was this section about writers who spend a long time between work that caught my attention.

Of course, there are lots of great artists who produce equally great works on a much slower timeline. Authors who publish one great book a decade and musicians who wait many years between albums. What I'm getting at here is my usual spiel, which is that it all depends on the individual artist's process and temperament. Some artists need to spend a long time on a project. That's the only way they can produce great work. But other artists thrive on productivity.

I think Michel is generally correct here. Artists are individuals, each with their own process and temperament. In writing, much is said about "voice"—that quality of your writing that makes it uniquely your own. But as Michel points out, pace is another dimension of writing that has an individualized component. In fact, I think there are five dimensions that each writer must figure out for themselves:

  • Form (or, if you prefer, "genre")

  • Voice (also: style)

  • Pace

  • Scope

  • Setting

There is a particular form, voice, pace, scope, and setting that you work best in. You just have to figure out what each one is.

The first two are discussed a lot when it comes to writing advice. It's fairly obvious to most fledgling writers that time spent choosing a genre is time well spent. You want to situate your writing within the larger context of what already exists.

Personally, I prefer the "form," since genre is a marketing term. Thinking in terms of genre already limits your options since you're forced to start conceptualizing your art in market-determined categories. But discoverability is important for writers (who writes to write to no one?), so genre is an important category to consider. Choosing a genre gets you started. It's like having a map. You can more quickly get from one place to another.

Voice is a common theme for writing advice, too. Find your voice, and once you've found it, hone it. I'll have more to say about this in the future.

But the last three (pace, scope, and setting) are less obvious to new writers. How fast or slowly should you work? What level of detail should your writing have? What is the setting in which you do your best work? These are not questions writers are typically asked, but asking them—and exploring different avenues for each—can unlock your best work.

I plan to work through each of these questions, exploring the possibility space for each one.

Today, I'll start with pace.

Alone in a Room

As I wrote in my manifesto, it's become increasingly clear to me that I'm one of those writers who, as Michel says, "needs to spend a long time on a project." This was not obvious to me at first, partly because when I started writing seriously, I went looking for advice to help me on my way, and what I discovered was a lot of similar recommendations: write a lot, write every day, finish what you start, submit your work many times to many places, try different forms, and so on. As we'll see shortly, it's good advice.

But it all boils down to the same idea: go fast.

Which makes sense. Especially when you're starting out. It's inevitable that you're going to make mistakes, but mistakes are good because they are opportunities to learn. The idea is that by going quickly, you can amass your mistakes early, learn from them sooner, and improve your writing faster. There's a famous study about a ceramics class that illustrates this idea so well that it's become a mini gospel on creative work.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A," forty pounds a "B," and so on. Those being graded on "quality," however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an "A."

Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The takeaway is clear: quantity leads to quality. To make a beautiful pot, you must first make a ton of bad pots. It's better to produce a large volume of (substandard) work than try to perfect a single piece. Ray Bradbury suggests a similar idea in Zen in the Art of Writing. Rather than jumping first into a novel, Bradbury suggests that a young writer should focus on stories. He suggests writing a short story every week. He goes on to add that it's impossible to write fifty-two bad stories. If you write a story every week for a year, one of them must be decent. As Bradbury writes, "Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come."

But if we look closer at this line of advice, we see that it isn't really about pace; it's about learning from your mistakes. As Bradbury says, working swiftly to finish things is good because "Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more." The point is to learn. The more mistakes you make, the more opportunities you have to learn.

And wouldn't you want to minimize your time spent learning? The idea is that by quickly making mistakes, you can learn faster and reduce how long you spend in the "learning phase." But Bradbury also warns about writing for the ends over the means. He identifies two common, but toxic, ends that compel writers: money and fame. These are bad ends, as Bradbury points out, because they are destructive to creativity—that part of you that yearns for expression; what makes you original. As Bradbury says of money and fame, "Both are a form of lying. It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by money in the commercial market. It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by fame offered you by some snobbish quasi-literary group in the intellectual gazettes."

There's no shortcut—and there's no satisfactory end here. There's only you and what you want to express. Which begs the question: Why are you in a hurry? It's probably because you are eager for money or fame. But if you expel both goals from your practice, what are you left with?

In his essay, The Talent of the Room, Michael Ventura clearly and powerfully defines what it takes to write. "Writing is something you do alone in a room." As Ventura says, all other skills are moot when it comes to the talent of sitting in a room.

Before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years—how many years—can you remain alone in a room?

Without the goals of fame or money—neither of which is ever under your control, which means you can only debase yourself in trying to achieve them—you are left with this: a lifetime spent at your work, hunched over a desk, alone in a room.

When it comes to pace, the central question becomes: What is the right pace that keeps you in that room? Go too fast, and you burn yourself out; go too slow, and the room eats you alive.

It doesn't matter if the time spent in the room produces one book or a thousand books. You will spend your life in the room, either way.

Ayurveda Minds

What is the right pace for you? It's something you need to determine. But it's more complicated than "fast" or "slow." I want to explore some of the different ways writers write—and how it relates to pace.

I recently came across the concept of Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine from India, in the Dr. K video, 3 Motivation Styles determined by Personality. In the video, Dr. K describes three different personality styles:

  • Vata, or air mind

  • Pitta, or fire mind

  • Kapha, or earth mind

Vata mind is quickly excited by new things and then quickly moves on. The air is always changing directions. Vata mind works best in sprints—rotating projects and keeping a lot of things going. That way, you can move between projects as your energy ebbs and flows.

Pitta mind is steady—like a fire that burns. It works best for long, focused durations. But there's always the risk of burnout (if you go too quickly) or dying out (if you go too slowly). Most productivity gurus are pitta minds, I suspect, and they try to teach this style of work. Books like Atomic Habits and Deep Work are pitta books for pitta minds.

Kapha mind has low acceleration but high top speed. A marathon runner. They usually feel behind in life and will beat themselves up for their slow pace. But they have more stamina. The longer they stay in the game, the better they get. They are the ultimate late bloomers.

You can see how these categories complicate the idea of pace. Is a Pitta mind fast or slow? You can't really answer that without looking at other dimensions of speed. Namely, velocity.

Velocity—in writing terms—would be how quickly you start new projects. Do you move through different ideas quickly, or do you tend to stick to one thing for a long time? Are you energized by a blank page? Or does the thought make you sick?

I'll define speed then as the time it takes to complete a writing project—or, put another way, how many projects you are able to complete in your writing career.

Putting them together, we can create a 2x2 with four different dimensions. Ayurveda, however, has only three; let's add Water mind to fill out the graph. Water fits in with earth, fire, and air, as the four elements the ancients believed comprised the nature of existence (and which, interestingly, map to our modern idea of the four phases: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma). Many esoteric systems have four elements: astrology (air, earth, fire, and water), tarot (swords, pentacles, wands, and cups), and even Myers-Briggs (thinking, sensation, intuition, and feeling).

We can map the four quadrants like this:

  • High speed, high velocity: Air

  • High speed, low velocity: Fire

  • Low speed, high velocity: Water

  • Low speed, low velocity: Earth

In this mapping, Air mind corresponds to both high velocity and high speed. They start many projects, and they finish many projects. There's a feverish pace. For the air mind, the two are linked. In order to complete many things, they must also start many different things. They are the ultimate jugglers, energized by many balls in the air. These are the writers who produce a prodigious amount of work across many different genres. Their output is numerous, almost overwhelmingly so, and while they may be known for a couple of standout works, the quality of their output ranges considerably. Think Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Anthony Trollope.

What is it like to write with an Air mind? Witness this paragraph on Joyce Carol Oates from The Baltimore Sun in November 1998:

In October she published a collection of 27 tales of the grotesque. Her article on a fictionalized male writer who mistreats women appears in the current issue of Playboy. On her desk is a proof of the novel she will publish in July. On her mind is an essay on Ernest Hemingway she has been invited to write for the Folio Society edition of his work. In the meantime, this American storyteller is at work on yet another novel. And, yes, she continues to explore new terrain: In September, she published a children's book, her first.

For the Air mind, writing is as natural as breathing. In fact, like breathing, they would probably die if they were not able to write. For them, the idea of writer's block is a foreign (if not downright suspicious) one; the notion of craft tedious. Like sprinters, they simply go—and go fast.

At the other end is Earth mind: low velocity and low speed. These are the writers who have a single story to tell—one big magnum opus—and they may spend their entire lives slowly bringing it to fruition. They are excellent at long works that may take many years (or decades) to complete. They may be slow to start, and they may take decades to finish something. They also tend to take long breaks in between work. Their output tends to be small but highly accomplished—a couple of masterpieces and little else in between. Think James Joyce, Marcel Proust, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susanna Clarke, David Foster Wallace, and T.S. Eliot.

Witness this conversation between James Joyce and Frank Budgen, as chronicled by David Lodge in his essay, "Joyce's Choices":

There is a story well known to all students of Joyce, that one day in Zurich, when he was writing Ulysses, he met his friend Frank Budgen in the street and told him he had been working all day and had produced two sentences. "You have been seeking the right words?" asked Budgen. "No," replied Joyce, "I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have."

Joyce took 8 years to write Ulysses and 17 years for its follow-up, Finnegan's Wake. Or about 90 words per day. As Joyce demonstrates, the Earth writer is the consummate craftsman. They will linger over every sentence, carefully arranging the words for maximum effect. It takes time to do this—time they are willing to give.

Water mind corresponds to high velocity and low speed. These are the writers who start many projects but struggle to finish them. They are great in the short term as sprinters (good poets and short story writers), but they run into trouble when it comes to completing longer works. Their legacy is littered with half-completed, not-yet-finished works. Rushing streams that end in still ponds. Their output tends to be a frustrating mixture of high promise and disappointment. Shimmering works that produced disappointing follow-ups or ambitious projects left incomplete. Think Franz Kafka, George R.R. Martin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Because of their combination of quick starts and slow finishes, these writers tend to suffer more than others. Writer's block is a daily struggle for them, as is perpetual self-doubt. Completing anything is a chore. They have a tendency to view their writing as painful—a cross they must bear. Here's Kafka relating in his diary his struggles to write:

January 20: "The end of writing. When will it take me up again?" January 29: "Again tried to write, virtually useless." January 30: "The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you." February 7: "Complete standstill. Unending torments." March 11: "How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn't come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can't keep it up. The next day I'm powerless."

Some of Kafka's entries simply state "Too tired" and "Nothing." As Kafka's experience demonstrates, some writers struggle intensely to be consistent.

Opposite to Water is, fittingly, the Fire mind: low velocity, high speed. This is the one that every piece of writing advice tells you to be. Here's Lincoln Michel on the power of finishing things. The Fire mind is the consummate finisher. They finish many things because they constrain themselves from starting too many other projects. They are steady, consistent, and reliable. They are sure to finish one project before starting another. They are professional in their work. Their output tends to be strong and consistent across the board; everything is of high quality, and nothing in particular stands out. Think Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

For centuries, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has delighted readers, but some, like Charlotte Brontë, complained of it as "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden." Here we see the tension of the Fire writer: in their steadiness, they produce writing that easily endears to the reader, but that same consistency can mask stagnation. How Austen wrote her famous novel is interesting and revealing about the way these types of writers compose their work. In the introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition, Christina Lupton points out that Pride and Prejudice was first written in a notebook and that this manner of writing introduces a particular form:

For an author, writing in a notebook with the aim of making a novel complicates the normal line of chain of events, where the material limits of pages are set once a story is told. It makes writing a novel seem more like filling in a form; less a wrestling with that tabula rasa of the blank page than a following of rules. Austen's manuscript suggest she was willing to embrace this order of things and to see her stories as profitably made to fit pre-defined parameters. Many of her handwritten pages show her finishing sentences and chapters to coincide with the end of a page or a notebook.

In this analysis of craft, we see the Fire mind at work: writing as a physical constraint, as repeated exercise. Here is the secret to consistent, quality work: find your form, hone it, and repeat. Write within a predetermined form; embrace limitations.

Hopefully this exercise demonstrates there are many ways to think about writing pace—and writing advice in general. Questions of craft are important for Fire minds and extremely important for Earth minds, but almost useless when it comes to Air or Water. Neither of those types is likely to linger on a single piece for long, anyway. Writers block is a daily, existential issue for Water minds but a foreign concept for Air minds. And so on.

I also don't think these are "personalities" in the limited sense. You can have phases of your writing career that feel more "fire" and others that are similar to "water." You can also probably move yourself along one axis or another (but trying to move diagonally is likely too difficult). If you're in the water quadrant, you can probably do one of two things: either embrace the air approach and accept that you're going to have a hard time staying focused, and instead of tormenting yourself about that, what you should do instead, paradoxically, is take on more projects and cycle between them; or you can accept that you work slowly and double-down on that approach, moving yourself into the earth quadrant and eliminating (as best you can) any expectation, either external or internal, of meeting deadlines. But if you try to jump all the way into the structured, consistent fire quadrant, you're going to have a hard time.

All of this is an extension of Michel's observation: that there are many different ways to write and build a "career." Though if you want to be economically viable as a writer, you're forced into Air or Fire mode. Speed matters.

This is a realization I came to in my previous piece. There are certain writing paces that are more "professional." Paces that give you more opportunities to make money. Just like there are certain genres and styles that are trendy at different times, there are paces and platforms that can make your writing life easier or harder. But you don't get to choose what's popular, and you don't get to choose what pace is right for you. What is inside you that yearns for expression—it will come out the way it wants to come out.

It's up to you if you want to go along with that idea—or fight it.

But no matter what pace you take, the important advice is the same: don't stop. Keep going—no matter what. If that means slowing down (or speeding up), do it.

Just keep going.

Collect this post to permanently own it.
The Driftless logo
Subscribe to The Driftless and never miss a post.
#writing pace
  • Loading comments...