Why Did My Writing Slow Down?

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”  Joseph Heller

rabbit

I picked up a pen for the first time three years ago. I’ve always had stories in my head, but until then, I’d never written them down. Then, when there was a serious illness in the family, stories began swirling around in my head until I couldn’t concentrate. If I can just get them down on paper, maybe they’ll give me some peace. Wrong. Writing them down just encouraged them. My friend Eleanor experienced the same thing. She started writing to get the characters out of her head, but new characters took their place, like the teeth of a shark.

I used to write quickly. My first piece, a short novel, took three weeks to complete. A beginner’s effort, it was written in narrative exposition, using omniscient voice with lots of head-hopping. [1] As a new writer, I was able to produce 2000 words a day, mainly because I had no idea what I was doing.

Little by little, I learned the craft of writing. My sister, who’d taken a class in creative writing, said they’d been taught to Show not Tell. I didn’t know what that meant. My friend Heidi told me about point of view, or POV. I didn’t know what that meant, either, so I got myself some “how to write” books and found out.

I wrote a second story using my new skills. It took longer than the first, even though it was shorter.

In the fall, when I’d been writing for about a year and a half, I joined a writers’ group. The quality of my writing improved dramatically almost overnight. Narrative exposition was replaced by Show not Tell, omniscient POV gave way to third person limited. I was told that my characters moved through empty space, so I learned to build descriptions full of motion and symbolism.

At Thanksgiving, while the cousins chased the cat around the house with what looked like a yarn octopus suspended from the end of a fishing pole, I sat on the sofa with a pad of paper, trying to describe a rider crossing an old lava flow that blocked the road.

I could see it clearly, the reins in the man’s hand, the horse’s reluctance to leave the road, the yellow flowers springing up from folds in the grey rock. I’d been to Hawaii where I’d seen wildflowers growing in recently hardened lava, but I couldn’t translate it into words.

After I’d scribbled and crossed out for over an hour, my dad came over and asked me what I was working on so intensely. I had little to show, my finished text amounted to only a few inches of longhand on the page. My word count had dropped from 2000 words a day to something like 220, or two-thirds of a page a day.

And then I learned about Deep POV, the point of view seen from inside the character’s head. It slowed me down even more. Unlike third person limited, where the reader sits on the character’s shoulder, in Deep POV, the reader is the character. Deep POV grabs the reader’s emotions at a visceral level and is widely used in romance and horror. [2]

Deep POV made a huge difference in my writing. I started getting more fan mail than before, and it said things like, “By the last scene I was sobbing” or “Even though I knew how it would end, I was biting my nails from suspense.” Deep POV is harder to write than third person limited, and it takes longer, but the emotional impact it gave to writing was worth it. However, it came at a cost. My writing speed dropped to 170 words a day, about half a page a day of polished text.

I couldn’t afford to write slowly. I had only so much writing time, in the quiet half hour before the kids came downstairs in the morning, on the back of an envelope waiting for a school play to start, or in the five minutes before the spaghetti water boiled over.

Panicked about my plummeting word count, I began to read books about how to write faster. It was then that I first encountered PDR in Jeff Bollow’s excellent book, Writing Fast: How to Write Anything with Lightning Speed.

PDR stands for Plan, Draft, Revise. It’s a writing strategy in which you plan what you’re going to write, sketch out a rough draft as quickly as possible, and revise your draft first for plot structure, then for wording. Copyediting is not one of the tasks of PDR, and should be postponed until after the manuscript is completely finished.

The brilliant thing Bollow did was take the PDR model, originally developed to teach students how to write like expert writers, and use it to help already-expert writers write faster.

Most novice writers don’t plan or revise at all, but experienced writers sometimes revise in the wrong order. The structured PDR approach can help limit excessive revision. I started using it, and right away my word count went from 170 to over 300 words of finished writing a day. Where have you been all my life?

There was only one problem. The PDR books were written by Planners, for Planners. I had a foot in each camp, in that major parts of my stories revealed themselves while I was writing, long after the outline stage.


What Causes Slow Writing?

There are several things that slow your writing down. Skilled writing takes time, just like any other skilled craftsmanship. And no one is 100% efficient; it’s normal to throw out larger scraps than one would like or redo something that’s already been done.

Skilled Writing Takes Time  The fact is, skilled writing takes time. Anne Becker, a writing researcher at Oakland University in Michigan, observed that novices tend to write in narrative exposition, the fastest of all writing styles. “Narrative takes the least amount of effort, possibly because writers at every ability have practiced this genre since they started to write.” [3]

expertise slows you down

Skilled writers usually write in styles that take longer to compose. Action and dialogue take longer to write than narrative exposition, limited POV takes longer than omniscient, and a single paragraph of description can take hours to craft.

Furthermore, novices often skip planning and revision, while expert writers plan extensively and revise throughout the writing process.

Finally, writing researchers observe that higher quality writing takes longer to produce.[4] New writers tend to keep everything they write, while skilled writers often explore ideas they don’t end up using, then cut some of their material. Skilled craftsmanship takes time

Some Genres Take Longer  The genre in which you write can also affect writing speed. Romance novels are said to be the faster to write in terms of words per day. science fiction and fantasy both take longer, probably because they both require world building.

Action-Adventure and Mysteries  are plot-based. They need extra time to plan events and timelines and for structural revision later.

Science Fiction and Fantasy  both require world building, a planning activity that occurs either in the author’s head or during free writing.

Historical fiction requires extra time for research, to recreate a historical time and place.

Romance and horror are deeply emotional genres which often require additional time for surface revision. Since the emotional content of a story lies in the wording, these genres often need extra time for crafting language at the surface level. I’m a Fantasy writer, one of the slower genres, just one more thing that contributes to my slow writing speed.


[1] Narrative exposition, or “tell”, is the easiest style in which to write. It tells what happened without going into detail. In omniscient voice, the thoughts of all characters are known, as well as past and future events. Head-hopping means switching from one point-of-view character to another rapidly, sometimes within the same paragraph.

[2] The invention of Deep POV is attributed to Stephen King.

[3] Anne Becker, A Review of Writing Model Research based on Cognitive Processes, Ch. 3, pg. 48 (2006)

[4] K. Anders Ericsson,  “Toward a general theory of expertise,” 1991



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