In Praise of Slow Writing

It seems counter-intuitive that an agent would suggest that writers slow down. After all, isn’t the volume of output one of the keys to an author’s success? There is a measure of truth in that, but today I’d like to explore the concept of Slow Writing.

Think of it as a leisurely walk in the woods as a child. I remember strolling through sticks and leaves exploring the forest surroundings. I would watch a bug crawl up a tree and listen to the birds calling out their warnings as I approached. If too close, a startled squirrel would skitter away. And after a turn finding a new running stream after a rain. I was fascinated as the water carved a new path in the ground seeking to find the end of its gravity-laden journey.

But if I simply ran as fast as I could through those trees I would miss every single one of those memories.

Recently I watched the blur of fingers across the laptop keys by the man next to me on the plane and wondered how he did it. Or the skittering twitch of that person typing with one hand on their phone, juggling a bag and a coffee mug in the other. In some ways writing has become a substitute for the spoken word and we are trying to “talk” as fast as we can to “get it done.”

And the loss is ours.

Consider

In the near future I would encourage you to think like a poet. A great teacher and editor, Roger Palms of Decision magazine, once told me that the best article writers he worked with were poets. Because they knew the importance of a single word.

Consider the perfect word for your next sentence. Is it laden with eloquence? Is it burdened by meaning? Will it shake its reader?

Roll the words around on your tongue. Let them move. Let them breathe.

Craft

It is a struggle to use those slow words as they take shape. There is a famous story of a friend asking novelist James Joyce if he’d had a good day writing. “Yes,” Joyce replied happily. How much had he written? “Three sentences,” Joyce told him.

Craft takes time. There are days where 10,000 words will flow from your fingers. Other days will be excruciating. But in the end a better piece of writing will appear.

Read these lines from the opening page of Tosca Lee’s novel Havah where she describes the first moment of the life of Eve, right after being created by God in the Garden of Eden. And then ask, are these the right words, at the right time, in the right place?:

Wake!

I opened my eyes again upon the milling blue, saw it spliced by the flight of a bird, chevron in the sky.

This time, the voice came not to my ear, but directly to my stirring mind: Wake!

There was amusement in it.

I knew nothing of where or what I was, did not understand the polyphony around me or the wide expanse like a blue eternity before me.

But I woke and knew I was alive.

Create

Slow writing is a discipline of waiting. A discipline of silence. A discipline of thoughtfulness.

Releasing the temptation of Task (with a capital “T”) fills us with guilt in the beginning because we aren’t “doing” anything. Ridding ourselves of the need to succeed today, now, this instant, may clear out our minds of dark clouds. It may be in that widening space that the words can begin to flow again.

Let’s see what a few days of Slow Writing can do for you.

 

43 Responses to In Praise of Slow Writing

  1. Lancia Smith August 29, 2016 at 5:12 am #

    Thank you, Steve. This is beautiful, true, and brilliant. The encouragement to write well is gratefully received.

  2. Brennan McPherson August 29, 2016 at 5:30 am #

    Billy Coffey says he writes every book longhand, with a fountain ink pen. Talk about slow writing!

    I’ve often felt guilty that I can’t write content I’m happy with faster. It took me 4 years to write Cain, and even afterward, when my editor Mrs. Hanemann got her hands on it, we went through many volleys back and forth. Made me wonder what all that time was for.

    But now, when I look back and read Cain in its finished form, I feel as though every word is exactly what it should be. I don’t think that would have happened without taking the time to SEE the story and characters in so much detail.

    PS: Tosca Lee is an incredible writer.

  3. Diana Harkness August 29, 2016 at 5:37 am #

    So true. All I can do is write slowly. And the best books I’ve read were written slowly. The correct word or phrase does not come quickly. All that I write quickly is merely an outline. It’s when I return and spend time with the characters and places that they become real. We cannot truly see without observing both the forest and the trees, and the lichens on the tree trunk, and the tiny insect crawling across the lichens in the changing light of wind-brushed leaves. It’s similar to phone conversations with my husband when I am out of town. Our conversation carries none of the fullness of being together. That comes only as we sit down together and discuss and laugh about the week’s details.

  4. Loretta Eidson August 29, 2016 at 5:45 am #

    Timely post after returning from the ACFW Conference. It’s refreshing to know writers can stop and breathe a moment before returning to the keyboard. Now, after reading your post, I won’t feel guilty if I slow the pace and focus more on. . .making each word count. Thank you!

  5. Shelley Neese August 29, 2016 at 5:59 am #

    I really agree with this concept. I also feel like it is important to “slow read.” I often get caught up in wanting to read books to check them off my list but a rich historical book is easier to recall when I read it in doses. And the poetic language of a novelist like the late Pat Conroy is best when I can go back and reread his descriptions of a sunrise over a salt marsh so I can internalize it into my own narrative.

  6. Joan Campbell August 29, 2016 at 6:10 am #

    I love this. It resonates with me. It’s easy to become discouraged when you compare your own pace of writing with those much faster writers, but this is an affirmation that we have to set our own pace and enjoy the process!

  7. Hannah August 29, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    Louise DeSalvo has written on this very topic and I found her book both informative and moving. In our rushing-around world, DeSalvo gives her readers (writers) permission to write at the speed of thought–a pace often slower than we think it is.

    P.S. It was great meeting you at ACFW where we talked about life in India, mountain cultures, ill-fated music auditions, and everything in-between. 🙂

  8. Cindy Thomson August 29, 2016 at 6:48 am #

    Thanks for saying so. In an age when we can “rush” to publication, this helps explain why so many books don’t sell and don’t resonate with readers.

  9. Jenny August 29, 2016 at 7:29 am #

    This so describes me as a writer. Thank you for this blog post as it has been very encouraging.

  10. Sherrie Eldridge August 29, 2016 at 7:33 am #

    Just what I needed to hear today. Thanks for sharing, Steve.

  11. Beverly Brooks August 29, 2016 at 7:46 am #

    Excellent.

    (Yep that said it just like I wanted)

  12. Linda August 29, 2016 at 8:25 am #

    Thank you. I am a slow writer and because of that I have found it hard to find a good match for a crit partner too. Everyone seems to be in such a hurry to get something on the page. Sometimes I just need to get to know my characters- talk to them and listen. Some days words just do not flow and the guilt I feel stifles whatever creativity is there. I was more productive when I didn’t think so much about getting it done right now.

  13. Keli Gwyn August 29, 2016 at 8:26 am #

    Thank you so much for this post and the affirmation it provided.

    I’m a member of the Slow Writers Club. When I began writing fiction with the goal of publication ten years ago, I splashed words on the page with joyful abandon. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had having fun pretending I did.

    Two years into my writing journey, I was introduced to the wonderful world of writers (aka www) online and realized what a florescent green newbie I was and how much I had to learn. As my knowledge of craft increased, my daily word counts decreased.

    I used to lament my sleepy snail’s pace, but no more. The last two books I turned in were so clean and the stories solid enough that my editor skipped the content edits and went straight to line edits! That was possible because I’d written slowly, thoughtfully, with the final product in mind. I don’t share this with a prideful attitude but to encourage others like me who produce words more slowly than those writers who share their impressive words counts online.

    A talented writer friend taught me that either way of approaching writing is fine–fast or slow–but we all still have to do the same amount of work. Those of us who write slowly end up with fairly clean stories because we edit as we go, whereas those whose fingers fly over the keyboard will have to spend time cleaning up their stories afterward.

  14. Ann Shorey August 29, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    Thank you, Steve. I needed to read those encouraging words today.

  15. Jay Payleitner August 29, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    Indeed. I sometimes agonize over a single word. Coming back to that passage again and again.

    One challenge . . . don’t race to your thesaurus for a clever word. But do seek the right word. If your readers turn to their dictionary six or eight times while reading your book, you’re doing them a service. If your distracting them with unknown words on every turn of the page, you’re just being arrogant.

    The reader should never think, “My, what perspicacious writing!”

    (See what I did there?)

    • Steve Laube August 29, 2016 at 8:54 am #

      Jay,

      Your erudite elucidation was ebullient.

      Steve

  16. Andrea Nell August 29, 2016 at 8:43 am #

    Just the encouragement this slow writer needed. Thanks! The idea of choosing words like a poet really resonates with me. Great post.

  17. Carol Ashby August 29, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    Steve, I’m not an especially slow writer, but I love to edit and reedit and reedit to the nth power to get exactly the right word or phrase and to cull what isn’t essential. That makes reaching the final draft a slower process even if I’m not pondering each sentence as I write it. I do sometimes check online (searching on “definition word”) to make sure I have selected the synonym with exactly the nuance I want.

    I don’t believe in the advice to write it all and then go back and fix it. I think the whole is better integrated if you frequently reread and edit what you’ve written while the manuscript is still unfinished. I‘m a plotter. The main plot is already well defined before I’ve been writing for even a week on a new story, but those frequent edits fine-tune people and events into a seamless flow.

    Editing during the whole process also multiplies the pleasure of spending time with characters you’ve grown to care about deeply.

  18. Ann L. Coker August 29, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    I also read recently about the advantage of typing slowly. The work is not only more accurate but gives the writer time to think about the words. I’m in favor of that, but need to put it into practice. Our typing teachers wanted speed as well as accuracy. Perhaps they don’t go together. So thanks, Steve.

  19. Warren Johnson August 29, 2016 at 11:34 am #

    I have no notoriety in the writing realm. Your blog, Mr. Laube, indicates writing slowly means putting words to use at a regular pace. Three lines per day? Ah, were it to be so. My slow pace habits stem more from lack of action, not lack of motion. Pray it changes, if you would. I’d rather people be able to find whatever God has for me to do, rather than not do it at all. I will take your position and act upon it. Thank you.

  20. Tosca August 29, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    Thank you for including me, Steve!

  21. B. Ricker August 29, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    Thank you for this message. Now I don’t feel so “lazy” when I just sit and think, dream, think, dream, and think some more. My walk in the forest of my mind is somewhat like yours – slow, easy, thoughtful, imagination creating pictures in my mind and easing the pace of the day.

  22. Nelson Hannah August 29, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Your article is a timely word for a world that clamors for me to hurry up…that time is passing quickly. One word rightly spoken or written has the potential to change a person’s heart. A changed heart has the potential of doing the impossible. And nothing,after all, is impossible with God.

  23. mary hagen August 29, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    I found the article inspirational since I’m a slow writer most of the time. When I hurry though a chapter, I’m never happy with it.

  24. Sheri Dean Parmelee August 29, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    Hi Steve:
    For a Type A++++ personality, doing anything slowly can be difficult. Thanks for the advice…..it was great meeting you at ACFW this past weekend.
    Best,
    Sheri

  25. Carla Jo August 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    I’ve been looking for the word for what kind of communicator am I? Poet, I thought, perhaps. But I don’t produce like a poet. Now I get it. A single word value in sound, shape, look, partnering around others, texture, exactness; graphically designed until I’m comfortable with it. It all keeps me slow. So that is what makes me the way I am. Visual word artist, poet. OK. Pretty powerful understanding. Makes me smile.

    Another part of slow for the new-to-publishing person is to patiently wait with expectancy for what is the next sequenced step and how do I do it. Yet I need to continue doing the pieces to upgrade what I do know.

    Thank you.

    • Carla Jo August 29, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

      In your comment here to Shelly you gave a link on a previous post about Slow Reading. That was excellent. I am going back there now to do the link given there on things to know.

      Giving links to previous posts is a great rounding-out an issue idea. Also it becomes another good reason to read all the comments and reread everything again. I appreciate your work. Thank you.

  26. Mark Rhyne August 29, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

    A wonderfully simple yet profound reminder of the value of slowing down and such a contrast to our hurry-up and finish mentalities. Thank you.

  27. Tisha Martin August 29, 2016 at 6:01 pm #

    For ten years, as I kept researching, writing, and editing my novel, I wondered: Why is it taking me so long to write just one book? Surely, while other authors are publishing a book a year, I will never accomplish very much in my lifetime.

    Success is in the small things–sometimes–because it is the deliberate delay of writing and the careful study of the craft that will resonate deeply with readers after they’ve read a well-written sentence-by-sentence, scene-by-scene novel, causing them sink back into their couch and sigh and reflect and grow. So I must continue to stop and evaluate what I’m writing, why I’m writing, and how I’m writing.

    Do I want to simply be that author who churns out book after book in haphazard fashion, or do I want to be the author who prays over each written word, until God has helped me to write a masterpiece to share with the world?

    I may never be a Susan May Warren or Janette Oke or Ted Dekker, but perhaps I might be a Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell or Elizabeth Gaskell, encouraging the world one word–book–at a time. Slowly.

    • Steve Laube August 29, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

      Tisha,

      I must be very clear that this post is in no way a criticism or critique of those who write and publish much faster.

      I represent Susan May Warren and know that she has a gift. She is very deliberate and careful in her writing but she can do it at a speed that makes it appear easy. Her manuscripts go into her publishers very clean and her readers love her writing.

      Sure, Susie’s output is prodigious. But it is not slap-dash or haphazard. We just had a meal together last week and talked about her work strategy. She has spent a long time working long hours to get to this point. It just seems like she “cranks ’em out” when in actuality that is part of the strategy!

      But remember it is a gift honed through years and years of discipline and learning.

      I have clients who write one novel every three to four years.
      I have other clients who write one novel every three to four months, or even faster.
      Both are right in their methods.

      I also know how hard Ted Dekker works on his books and how he wrestles with the text and the plots to make them impact his readers.

      So, let’s be careful that we don’t fall into a comparison of volume in output as being somehow less literary than what I wrote here and called Slow Writing.

      My intent is to challenge each of us to consider our words and make sure they are the right ones to put on the page. If they come at lightning speed it still may be Slow Writing because it too years to get to the point where you can create quickly but with quality.

      Other writers are gifted with the ability to write slowly. Neither is wrong in their approach. Merely different.

      • Tisha Martin August 29, 2016 at 11:39 pm #

        Thank you for the clarification, Steve, and for teaching me this deeper value of writing/strategy.

        My word choice “haphazard” is incorrect, as I did not intend to or even want to slam writers who write quickly and label them as uber pansters who don’t care for their readers and the written word. I do apologize, for the word choice gave the impression that this post was criticizing fast writers. And I didn’t even take it that way! Ugh, words. Guess I should have rolled that one around in my tongue a little longer. 😉

        I attended Susie’s and Rachel’s post-conference session this past weekend at the ACFW conference, and greatly admired their knowledge and writing ability.

        I guess I’m just one of those Slow Writers. 🙂

        Again, thank you.

  28. Jeanne Takenaka August 29, 2016 at 6:41 pm #

    It’s late in the day, but I’m so glad I had the chance to stop by and read your post today, It’s what I needed. As I struggle to learn one aspect of craft that has eluded me, I am definitely working SLOWLY on my book. And your words confirm that this speed, in this season, is exactly what I need.

    Thank you.

  29. Joanie August 29, 2016 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you! I feel very unproductive when I hear someone say they wrote several thousand words in a day when I have struggled with 1 paragraph, evaluating every word, every nuance, sentence structure, am I showing and not telling and have I grasped the right voice.
    Thank you for affirming us slow writers

  30. Elaine Fraser August 30, 2016 at 6:39 am #

    In the times of 48-hour books and NaNoWriMo speed writing, it’s refreshing to read about ‘slow writing’.

    Slow food. Slow travel. Slow writing. Sounds like a trend.

  31. Linda Riggs Mayfield August 30, 2016 at 8:09 am #

    Thanks, Steve. I’m an artist as well as a writer. My husband says he is always a loss when someone asks him how long it took me to complete a painting. He knows I may have visited many sites at various times of day to check light and shadows, studied photos of a particular building, plant, or animal, or collected various photos as well as having a live meeting for a portrait. By the time I put brush to canvas, the piece is so clear in my mind, the work often goes quickly. For other pieces, I work that all out with the brush and palette knife at a contemplative pace. So did the painting take a month or a few days–or hours? I think writing can be a lot like that, too.

  32. Suzanne Bratcher August 30, 2016 at 11:00 am #

    Thank you for this slowly written post. I often feel overwhelmed by the word counts authors produce every day. Some days 3 sentences are enough!

  33. Cheryl Barker September 5, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    I am a slow writer so really appreciate words like yours, Steve, that show how slow writing can be a good thing. Thanks for the encouraging post!

  34. Sandy Cooper September 26, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    This is the 3rd time this week I’ve heard this message–once through a podcast (TED Radio Hour), once through a FB Live on Hope*Writers, and now. I think God’s trying to tell me something. 🙂

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