Speed vs Quality: the eternal debate

I’m probably venturing into dangerous territory with this one, but here goes.

I consider myself a reasonably fast writer. Mostly, it’s because I spend a lot of time writing, more than someone with a full-time job, but also because I think my writing process is reasonably efficient. I am, however, a pantser extra-ordinaire, and this brings a measure of inefficiency. I tried, but cannot write any other way. I could write faster if I was better organised, but my process doesn’t allow it. My process involves going over the manuscript again and again, and again just for good measure, until I’m willing to set the piece free into the world.

There are a lot of writers with different writing speeds, from really fast detective writers to writers who only complete a book every few years. There is, however, nothing that gets fast writers riled up so much as the suggestion that fast writing equates poor quality, and the suggestion that a writer ‘should’ only write two books a year.

I’m on the fence on this one. I could write faster, but I could write a heck of a lot slower.

Does faster writing equate poor quality? I’ll stick my toe in the too-hot tub and I’ll say that it does, sometimes. It does when you can tell that a piece of fiction is written fast.

These are what I consider symptoms of writing that suffers from too little time spent on it:

The introduction of each new character is accompanied by a character sheet, in other words, an infodump (usually peppered with the word ‘had’) that lets the reader know exactly and unambiguously who the character is and what events have shaped him or her. It often spells out clearly whether the character is good or bad, and what their main aims in life are. I use character sheets in-text in early drafts. Remember I’m a pantser–I just stop the show and waffle on for a page or so to get myself acquainted with the character. The important bit is that a character sheet in the final version of your novel is boring as hell. It takes any tension out of the character by taking away the reader’s opportunity to wonder and question. A character sheet is first drafty stuff and should be deleted in a final draft. If that hasn’t been done, the story was sent out one draft too soon.

Too much throat-clearing. A character spends an entire chapter musing about the past and nothing much of note happens in the chapter. This is an extension of the character sheet problem. I write chapters like this in order to become further familiar with the character. It happens at a point where I’m at a loss as to what to write, so I start bullshitting the character’s internal thoughts to get the ball rolling again. This sort of stuff doesn’t belong in a final draft.

Simplistic characters. In early drafts, characters often do the job they need to do, and little more. At this stage, they’re merely chess pieces. Subsequent drafts add depth, quirks or ambiguity. If vital characters are one-dimensional, the work hasn’t seen enough drafts.

Sloppy research or worldbuilding. Facts are untrue or inconsistent. Sometimes the facts aren’t untrue as such but lack depth. The worldbuilding doesn’t venture beyond what can be gleaned in five seconds from Wikipedia.

If you can write really fast and not do any of this, great! But I know that I can’t. For me, fast writing definitely equates poorer quality. Then again, fast means something different for each writer, and I think setting limits as to how fast is too fast is pretty silly. Too fast is when the quality suffers. End of story.

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10 comments on “Speed vs Quality: the eternal debate

  1. Interesting post and I totally agree with your conclusion. It’s interesting to read about different writers’ processes. This sort of ties in with something I’ve been thinking about recently regarding drafts.

    I’m currently re-writing the novel that I drafted during NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago. I’ve found that the structure of the plot is mostly staying the same, but I’m adding in a lot of character development, particularly motivations. Where before I had A randomly decide to ally themselves with B, now they do it because they might do it because they don’t have a choice, that sort of thing. Also a lot of setting has been added in because I have a tendency to skip over that in early drafts (oops) unless it’s directly part of the plot.

    I’ve also read Simon Haynes say that he inserts humour into his novels in the final draft.

    I’m finding it interesting to think about what constitutes the bare bones of a novel for different writers.

    • I actually wrote this post with some published work in mind. Sometimes you can tell when work is written in a hurry and not revised enough. Or not edited enough, I agree.

  2. I’m a ‘fast writer’, but–for books–I work from a ‘character sheet’ (a rough list of ‘main characters’ with some adjectives/descriptions) wedded to an ‘image outline’ (that is, a flexible framework of ‘scenes’,’character moments’,’cool stuff’,’pithy lines’,etc.), write it all down into a ‘draft’, and then (usually) add details in after a read-through. On the ‘discovery’ to ‘outliner’ range, it’s a little bit past pure pantser.

    With that said, I think that ‘quality of writing’ derives more from ‘quality of initial images’ & ‘translation accuracy (image-in-brain to words-on-page)’ rather than ‘speed from brain to page’. I would like to say that THE FASTER THE BETTER.

    I’ll support by continuing the translation metaphor. I have some experience using translators in business settings, and I’ve found that a ‘simultaneous translator’ (i.e., one who converts one language into another for the listener as the speaker speaks) is more smooth and clear–that is: ‘useful’–than a wait-n-check translator. Less chance of something being ‘lost in translation’ by ‘translator bias’ (forgetting a part of the checked statement or deliberately changing the meaning).

    The caveat, of course, is that before you sign any contract resulting from a multilingual meeting, you’d better at least re-read that translation…just to make sure.

  3. I think it’s okay to write fast, but edit slow. Sometimes the ideas flow quickly, and it’s important to get them down on the page. it’s the long process afterwards that leads to quality. And “long” is the number of hours of actual work. A year for one person could be a long time, but only if they spent the entire year working on their novel. A year for another person could be a short time if they are working full time, raising a family, etc. and trying to write their novel.

    I enjoyed your post.

    • Thank you.
      By writing fast or slow I mean the complete process. I’ve been known to write 14,000 words a day, but by the time the story was ready, few of those words went out into the world.

  4. This post is comforting. I am currently in the first third of my novel and doing a lot of character information waffling. Previously I would not have got past page 2, because I can be extremely self critical – have been told just to write and edit later.

    • Sheesh! You should see my first drafts. Horrible, turgid, self-indulgent shit. By the time I think the story is ready, I’ll have gotten rid of it.

  5. It’s not so much fast writers as writers who rush a manuscript off for submission without first letting it lie fallow for a while then getting beta critique. Hell, I *could* write 3 000 words a day without breaking a sweat but I don’t. I like to savour my writing. Granted, I’ve a definite overview in place before I begin writing. It’s very rare for me to be a pantser.

  6. Ah, Patty, you’re nothing if not direct! “Horrible, turgid, self-indulgent shit” – and that’s describing your own work 🙂

    I liked the comment above about writing fast and editing slow. I think there are a fair few writers out there who write fast, put the story ‘out there’, wanting their babies to fly (forgetting they must first suffer through the toddler years). We’ve become such a fast-paced society with such easy access to technology/self-publishing that a lot of people forget the value of slowing things down.

    Perhaps we should have some Must Use Bigger Elephants merchandise with the slogan ‘write fast, edit slow’. Could become the new slow cooking movement!

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