Monday, April 11, 2016

Speed vs Quality: The Eternal Writing Debate

Feeling much better, but I'm glad I don't have to go into work today. My SM3 has been giving me more trouble. After installing a brand new ribbon on its metal spools, I noticed that the impressions were rather faint. I fixed it only after slamming each key down like I was trying to wring out a wet towel. This is completely opposite my usual typing experience on the SM3, and reminded me more of the SM7. I finished copying a story and my hands were tired. Do I just have a bad example of an otherwise great design? I can't seem to figure it out.

Meanwhile, I've decided to break out "The Chief," with the Hermes 3000 serving as backup.

All of this got me thinking: does volume really count? Does it matter how much I can type quickly, or is rapid typing more a product of the office world and not the creative mind? Compared to a word processor, I'm already going slow, but there are times when my hands are desperately trying to keep up with the brain and I'd like it if my machine could do so.

But then, the other side of me says, "Quality is all you should be worried about! Don't get into the fast lane. This is an art!"

I've decided to lay out some notable examples of each, and I'll be anxious to see what you guys think.

We'll begin with some speed typers who abilities are just...scary.

Exhibit A: John D. MacDonald 

The Selectric, the speed typer's ultimate weapon. John MacDonald was a Florida crime writer, best known for creating Travis McGee. While serving in the Navy during WWII, he wrote a short story and sent it to his wife, who sold it to Story magazine for $25.

Here's the scary bit.

"After his discharge, MacDonald spent four months writing short stories, generating some 800,000 words and losing 20 pounds (9.1 kg) while typing 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He received hundreds of rejection slips, but finally a $40 sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective set his career in motion. He would eventually sell nearly 500 short stories to the detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and science fiction magazines. Several times, MacDonald's stories were the only ones in an issue of a magazine, but this was hidden by using pseudonyms." –– Wikipedia

Granted, he was doing this full-time, but sheesh. Fourteen hours a day? I don't have enough ideas in my head to fill that kind of time! I'm assuming this early work was done on a manual machine, since electric typewriters were still on the fringe and very expensive. 

I can't comprehend how a mind like that works. Did he just type without thinking about spelling or word usage and edit it later? Were these stories the result of idea that gathered during his time at sea and just came gushing out? 

It's important to keep in mind that this section of the biography is labeled "pulp career." Pulp fiction was printed on the cheapest paper available at the time, and the stories were often cheap quality too. In this case, MacDonald's output is impressive, but one has to wonder if any of his early stories would hold up today.

Exhibit B: John Creasy 

A British mystery writer. Over five hundred novels. Over twenty pseudonyms. According to one story, he could finish some novels in a single day.

But if it hadn't been for Stephen King's mention of him in On Writing, I may never have heard of him.

Exhibit C: Jack Kerouac 

Here's a better-known example. Kerouac's claim to fame is still his Beat Generation magnum opus On the Road. We all known it was written in three weeks (which is astounding in and of itself), but it's even more amazing once you consider the length of the novel. According to the website I found, On the Road clocks in at 116,000 words. One of my manuscripts is about 98,000 (first draft) and it took me fifty days to finish, and that was when I sat down to write at least 1000 words every day without fail (except sick days or Sunday). There's an urban legend that Kerouac was high on amphetamines and the drugs gave him the super-human endurance to keep going. Then again, one of his friends said in a documentary that he was an excellent typist. Either way, it's amazing.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin...slow and steady.

Exhibit A: George RR Martin

Yes, the above really did happen. During the 2014 Emmy awards, Weird Al Yankovitch parodied Martin's work with a musical performance. Afterwards, one of the actors gave him a manual typewriter and urged "write them faster!"

Martin is best known for A Song of Ice and Fire. The series began in 1996, but didn't received wide-spread attention until the third or fourth volume became a best-seller. With the monumental success that's come with it, Martin's writing techniques and habits have become the topic of scrutiny. 

It only took two years for Book 2 and Book 3 to be published, but then there was a five year gap for Book 4 and a six year gap for Book 5. Book 6 has been delayed and some fans are dreading the possibility of HBO's TV adaptation of outrunning the books and spoiling the whole thing. 

Be that as it may, Martin is considered one of the premier writers in the industry. A self-described "gardner," his method doesn't involve a lot of detailed planning or outlines. 

Exhibit B: Harper Lee

(Photo credit: Oz Typewriter)
This lovely lady had just one story to tell (one novel, that is), and she told it well. Mockingbird is a rare example of a book that most readers feel is "perfect" the way it is. At 100,000 words, it took Lee two years to finish it, and that was after her editor secured enough funding to let her quit her day job.

It was only one story, but it lives on like no other.

One story...

Don't tell me otherwise!


I work a full-time job. Sometimes it exhausts me. Sometimes I get sick. There are days when I get little writing done. I'm usually in bed by 9-930 each night, so that gives me just about five hours. Managing five hours between reading, writing, paying bills, and making sure my lovely wife gets the attention she absolutely deserves (because no work is worth the price of human decency), can be difficult. 

There are times when I think, "If only I could write faster, then I could edit sooner, pitch quicker, sell more." 

But, more and more, I'm starting to wonder if I'm missing the point. Sure, if a writer wants to succeed financially, he has to produce. But I sold Nimrod Lexicon after agonizing over it for a month. I had another story short-listed in a competition, and that one took me just three days. I've spent over two years getting Lightwitch ready. Will it be good enough with the time I've invested? We'll see.

Does speed matter? Should I care when I'm not working under anyone's deadlines but my own? Perhaps it's a symptom of our modern culture, where everything is sent at 186,000 mps over the airwaves. Maybe the speed typers above astounded their peers because it wasn't the norm, and there wasn't the same expectation. 

The las two days weren't great for my work. My head cold made me lose focus. I was so upset because I didn't get clear enough impressions on the page, or I misspelled a word, that I forgot to care about what those words represented. I wrote a 3700 word short on my Hermes Baby and my outlook changed. It took several hours, but I spent time pondering the words and what I was writing about. 

This is why the key to writing is to write, because it's the only way to learn.

So, what do you guys think?


  1. It's a very interesting subject you've brought up here, and I believe the only true answer is that everyone has their own unique writing style which either allows for a book being produced in a single day, or a book in five years. There is no proper speed/quality ratio to attain.

    A few years ago, when someone mentioned that there was this show on TV called "Game of Thrones", my inner "The Books Are Better" mentality got me to waltz over to the bookstore and purchase the first tome of A Song Of Ice And Fire. I was beyond impressed, and in quick succession purchased and read all the remaining novels. Now, it being about two years since I finished, I eagerly await the next one by Mr. Martin. And though I would like to have it, and the final novel, delivered to bookstores today, I understand and appreciate the fact that he writes slowly, but with so much quality that the angel heralds sing praises every time he touches the keyboard on his 80s writing machine. Because of such wonderful quality, I am more than happy to wait for the master to finish his masterpiece.

    Now, in regards to my own writing. Being in college, my time is slightly limited due to the amount of time required to get through senior level classes and prepare for the CPA exam, and so I don't find the time to write everyday. Nor do I feel the inspiration to do so, and so have to wait for my inspiration to strike before I continue my work. What this means, of course, is that I write at a very slow pace. But what I do write when I write is, so far as I can confirm despite personal bias, relatively good quality. Alongside this, the way I write is slow in itself. My methodology is as follows:

    When I am creating original copy, I write with pen and paper. Though I am thinking far faster than I can write, this forces me to get the general idea and flow down without thinking too much about accessory information.

    After that is complete, I revise what I have by hand, and it is this part which takes the most time and creates the best work. Oftentimes, I scribble out 80% of a page, and triple the original wordcount with my additions and changes between the lines, up and down the sides, and all the way onto the back of the sheet. A friend once thought, upon seeing one of my edited pages, that I was insane.

    After this is done, I grab a typewriter (75% of the time my loyal blue Royal, 25% of the time my LCSmith flattop) and begin to type out the edited version, while making any other tweaks that I feel are worthwhile at the time. This copy is double spaced because...

    I then edit this again. And once more, it becomes a page of crossed out words and penned in additions.

    Then I type it out again.

    And make more revisions.

    And I do this until I feel that what I have is what I want, and worthy of being read. However, if you consider the time spent, it means I am beyond a slow writer. I have around 10 versions, each one progressively more edited than the last, of the very first chapter of my work.

    All in all, it comes down to whether we are happy with the fact we created something tangible or not. If I wanted speed, I would use a computer as I can type at a little over 65wpm on a keyboard. On a typewriter, I hit roughly 40wpm. By hand, I have to assume even less.

    Don't let the modern ages need for speed and efficiency stop you from realizing that at a point, it gets too fast and too efficient.

    1. This is one of the best comments I've ever gotten on a post!

      I too, finally succumbed to the urge and read the first two volumes of Ice and Fire (don't ask me why I haven't read the others yet...I will!). I was blown away with how organic they were. Not a single unnecessary chapter. Something reverberated out of those pages, something I'll be hard pressed to bring out in my own work. It was like eating a soup that's been cooking for hours with just the right ingredients.

      I've been keeping notes on my story ideas in a little book in which I handwrite, but I couldn't go back to that. Even though my arthritis is under control, I still can't use a pencil or pen for extended lengths of time without pain, or maybe I just have an aversion to handwriting because of previous pain. In that sense, the typewriter saves both my eyes and hands from a lot of woe. John Steinbeck I ain't, but if it was a choice between handwriting in spiral notebooks and never writing again, I'd happily buy up as many pencils as I could get.

      I guess that means I've plenty of new things to discover, and that's always exciting.

      But I am shocked, SHOCKED that you didn't mention the Fox typewriters that you're so fond of!

    2. I absolutely love the realism Mr. Martin captures in his writing, and just how unique and believable his characters are. Nobody is perfect, nor safe from being killed off outright for the sake of keeping to the realism. I had thought Ned Stark to be one of the main characters of the first novel, but then suddenly whoops hes dead. I don't know of many novels willing to drastically alter the POV list like ASOIAF. Alongside such, he just has a wonderful way with detailing situations and events that is hard to come by.

      I'm sorry to hear that you're afflicted with arthritis. That would certainly make jotting down anything more than a page or two of copy harder than it should be. Though I don't have arthritis, my wrist/hand usually becomes fatigued after roughly 4 to 5 pages of serious writing.

      And though I love my Fox's dearly, I don't actually type all too often on them. I don't use the portables for anything other than short letters or the like due to the damnable shift-to-print-a-period and the fact that I am used to that key being two spaces from the M, whereas on the Fox its one space away (leading me to accidentally always make a - or & instead of even a comma). And though I enjoy using my Model 25, I have just always preferred writing on portables, and have always used my loyal blue Royal for serious sessions.

  2. Speed to get you out of the blocks, then slow and steady as you do more and more laps around the track. :)