The perils of writing too quickly (video)

Viewing time: 5 mins 4 secs

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #32, describing the perils of writing too quickly. The post first ran on Oct. 6/17.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about the drawbacks of writing too quickly.

Today I’m answering a question from Ph.D. student Mahmoud Nassary. Here’s what he wrote.

[email] I have a problem relating to academic publications. I am very fast with writing. Let me give you an example: My supervisor may take 10 days to write a scientific paper. But it takes me just three days. After I revise the paper, my supervisor always says that I should slow down and write more carefully. Do you have any advice for me?

Thanks for the question, Mahmoud. I think you’ll have a tough time convincing a lot of people that writing quickly is a problem. With an ability like that you are certainly the envy of exhausted Ph.D. students around the world.

Much like people who struggle to lose or gain weight each side envies the other and can’t imagine what the opposite problem is like.

The majority of writers, however, struggle with getting words on the page. They agonize over every word, writing, and re-writing sentence by sentence. This excruciating process also usually involves editing while writing. Aside from causing a lot of grief, this slows down the writing significantly. I call this group of people ‘natural editors’.  

On the opposite side, there are also ‘natural writers’. This is a smaller segment of people who have no difficulty getting words on the page. They love writing and their brains explode with new ideas all the time. While natural editors want to spend all their time on editing and nothing else, natural writers want to do the opposite. For them, editing feels boring, tiresome and overwhelming.

Neither group is better or worse, they just have different strengths and weaknesses.

However, if you feel like you are writing too quickly, and, as a result, your work is suffering, I suspect one of two things is happening. Or possibly, both.

#1: You’re not getting away from your desk to research

People who write very quickly tend to also think very quickly. Their thoughts shoot off in many different directions, and they have no trouble creating a large volume of work in a very short timeframe. That said, the quality of this work can often suffer due to a lack of time spent thinking in advance. Spending time reflecting on what you want to say, before you say it, allows you to find the best most valuable conclusions to make.

One quick point I’ll mention about thinking: I’ve said it many times before, but the best place to do your thinking is never at your desk. Get away from your computer, preferably while moving or getting exercise. You will find your thoughts come more easily and you will struggle less to sort them out.

#2: You’re not taking enough time to edit…

The other issue that might be affecting your writing speed is that you may not be taking enough time to edit.

Many natural writers love writing but they dislike editing. It feels like too much hard work to them. But everyone needs to edit and that editing is the only way to become a better writer. By my calculation, editing should take twice as long as writing. So, if it takes you 20 hours to write a paper, then you should be prepared to spend 40 hours editing it.

There is another aspect to editing relating to speed that I think you should consider. Incubation time. This is needed for all creative endeavours, but especially for writing. Leaving your work alone for a period of time will allow you to disassociate the writing part with the editing. The amount of time you leave your writing unreviewed will depend on how much time you have. If you are on a deadline to finish something, try and find even just a day to step away from it before editing. 

It’s incredibly impressive that you and your supervisor are able to create papers for peer-reviewed publications so quickly. Many academics I’ve worked with struggle to produce three or four such papers a year. The fact that you’re writing something in three days suggests to me that you need to increase your thinking time, or your editing time, or perhaps, both.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from professor of writing and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz who said: “A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise you keep writing anyway.”

Thanks for your question, Mahmoud. I hope you’re able to slow down, not for the mere sake of slowing down but so that you can devote more time to thinking and editing.

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