After our last post, “The Fantastic Features of Fast Writing,” I thought it only fitting to write today about the stupendous assets of slow writing. Because if you learn nothing else about the writing life and the writing craft, it’s this: great writing usually takes a little of both.
The challenge of fast writing is to shut down the inner critic and to dig deeper into your subject through the sheer volume you create. If you can do this, the sense of accomplishment and the sheer momentum of writing a large volume in a short time can catapult your work.
But the thing I wanted to emphasize with fast writing — the thing I will reiterate strongly here — is that fast writing produces a first draft. The work will be rough, the edges will be pointy. To complete that fast first draft, to polish it up and smooth it out, takes the tedious, sometimes painful work of slow writing.
With slow writing, you rouse that inner editor, you even get him a cup of coffee, because now it’s his turn to go carefully over each word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter. Now is the time to consider whether there’s a hole in your story or a step missing in your outline.
But don’t think slow writing is just for the revision process. Whereas some projects need the jolt of a fast writing challenge, others need the patience of time and the slowness of reflection. This is the difference between Twitter and the Atlantic Monthly magazine. The former is all reaction; the latter is all rumination.
In her book The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, Louise DeSalvo writes about attending a Shukokai karate training session. She was there to support her son in his promotion test. According to DeSalvo, trainees are allowed to take a promotion test only once every four years. Students who are there only to earn a belt are asked to discontinue. It’s not about the goal; it’s about the process.
DeSalvo mentioned one woman who stood out to her that day. The woman had been practicing this form of karate for 12 years. “It was four years since her last promotion; she attended class three to four times a week; she worked on her technique daily at home; she attended training sessions; she participated in tournaments.
“I thought about what it might be like if we writers were only permitted to write books every four years — the time required for promotion from one degree to the next, and even then, promotion isn’t assured,” DeSalvo reflected. She wondered, would this process make writers more humble, would they work harder at their craft, would they focus more on the process rather than the finished product? She also suggested that this kind of writing might allow us to see each work as part of a continuum in our practice of writing, rather than just one of many individual and separate accomplishments.
Recently, I sat in on a doctor’s appointment with a family member, and to encourage better overall fitness, the doctor recommended an exercise plan of walking. But rather than specify how fast or how far to walk, he just suggested how long: 15 minutes three times a day. “Just put in the time,” he advised, “and eventually you’ll lose the weight and be in better shape.”
That’s what slow writing does for us. If we’re always focused on the goal, we’ll miss the bigger picture. We aren’t just producers of books and articles. Even robots can do that. Instead, we’re writers, and that’s a high … and slow … calling indeed.