I’ve always been a slow writer. In the 1990s, at my first job as a reporter, I would take hours to finish a 500-word column that should have taken an hour or two after sifting through my notes. I would return from a school board meeting or a run-of-the-mill press conference and toil over the lede (first sentence of a news story) and every sentence. I would rewrite and rewrite until everything was just right. Of course, accuracy is critical in journalism, so I checked, rechecked, and made my quotes perfect. Still, my editor pulled me aside one day, and while assuring me I was doing a good job, she said I needed to produce more quickly. They were paying me by the hour ($5) and wouldn’t be able to afford me if I kept up this tortoise pace.
Thankfully, I learned to speed it up. After putting in more than a decade in busy newsrooms, I can say I have never been fired for missing a deadline. (Admittedly, as I work on this post, I see out of the corner of my eye on the TV, three episodes of Seinfeld have passed in addition to at least half of “Dirty Dancing” so we’re moving in on three hours and I’m only halfway finished.)
Several years ago, I made the transition from a “Just the facts, ma’am” reporter to a personal essay freelance writer. Today, I make my own deadlines – a dream come true for a writer, but with the autonomy comes discipline. So I’ve turned to other writers for guidance.
Frightfully, at a cocktail party, I overhear one writer say she jumps out of bed at the crack of dawn to get her butt in the chair before the family begins to stir. Similarly startling was the time a fellow scribe tell me he neurotically crosses off “Wrote 1,500 words!” on his daily To Do list. Getting up before the roosters? Hitting a daily self-imposed word count? Is this discipline or competition?
Well, it’s actually not that magical but I put a lot of stock in how I am feeling. I am a productive writer, but these laments make me feel stressed out and depleted. Am I really a writer if I don’t adhere to these routines? I had left the busy newsroom grind and didn’t want to replace it with tortuous rules that seemed to leave me with a wet blanket of guilt draped over my shoulders.
- Write when you feel like it. If I go a day or two without writing, I don’t beat myself up. I trust my body to know when I need a respite. Often, I will have a marathon writing session later in the week so I consider the earlier rest period a necessary recharge.
- Writing is writing. Period. Some days I'm bummed out that I haven’t written a lick on an essay I’m been mulling around. Then, when I reflect on the day, I see 27 emails in my Sent folder. Writing is writing, whether it is an email to client, a pitch to an agent, a handwritten sick note for your kid, or a FB post asking for travel advice. I consider all of these ways in which I am exercising my writing muscle (I actually love writing emails).
- Do a 7-day reset. Take off an entire week from your writing schedule and habits and allow yourself to do whatever feels right. Maybe you write one day and then not come back to a manuscript for two or three days. If it feels right to get up at the crack of dawn and put in some butt time, then go for it. Or perhaps writing feels really good at 3 pm with a cup of coffee as the afternoon light reflects off the trees. Give yourself a full week to see what develops for you and use that as a baseline for your writing habit. This is your “natural” schedule so use it to your advantage to be productive.
Not only do I hold the dubious distinction of being a slow writer, I am also a slow reader. I take months to finish a novel (although I did finish “Fifty Shades of Grey” in three days…shhh). So I try to mix up my pleasure reading between fiction and a nonfiction magazines so I am getting a regular dose of different genres including some longform or “slow” writing.
Here are some resources and examples I recommend.
- Delayed Gratification magazine: http://www.slow-journalism.com/
- Longform magazine: https://longform.org/
- Excellent storytelling by Matt Wolfe: “The Last Unknown Man”
- Mac McClelland, former Mother Jones writer
This post originally published on Dec. 19, 2016 on Red Wheelbarrow Writers website: http://www.redwheelbarrowwriters.com/blog/slow-writing-why-i-write-at-a-snails-pace/