The Muse and the Editor: How Their Collaboration Style Affects Writing Speed

This summer I came across a couple of writer’s blogs addressing the topic of writing slowly.  Both emphasized that writers who can’t turn out a high volume of words in a short time shouldn’t feel inferior to those who can.  In particular, they pointed out that some of the great masters have been slow writers — one often mentioned is James Joyce, who is said to have taken eight years to write Ulysses.

Assuming, of course, that the writer in question is actually sitting down and getting something done, the most significant factor in determining writing speed seems to be whether the author is polishing each page as they go — we’ll call this the ‘slow method’ — or focusing on getting a rough draft down, and then coming back and revising — the ‘fast method’.  Although I’m going to explain here why the ‘fast method’ works better for me than the ‘slow method’ — and also why I think it helps to prevent writer’s block — I strongly agree that the creative process is very personal, and each writer must find their own path in that process.  The end result is what matters, not how long it takes to get there.

Looking at my own progression as a writer, I find it noteworthy that my modus operandi has changed.  As a kid I wrote mostly by hand, and only occasionally used a typewriter.  The entire first draft of my first novel was written by hand (and in pencil!), a thought that makes me shudder now.   I also have short stories written in college that only exist in one hand-written draft.   Yet some of those stories have passages in them that I wouldn’t change even now.

Back then, I sometimes toyed with the words in my mind quite a bit before writing them down.  Naturally, when it’s harder to change what you’ve written — and it makes a mess of your pretty manuscript when you have things marked out and inserts scribbled in the margins — you want to get it as close to ‘right’ as you can before putting anything on the paper.  So although I never wrote very slowly — I would never be able to keep up with the flow of ideas if I did — I write considerably faster now.

I initially attributed the change to using different tools; having access to a computer and word – processing software makes editing so easy it frees you up to get things down quickly, knowing you can always fix it later — and you can reprint clean pages as often as you want.   So I figured it made sense that I now write my first drafts rapidly, often essentially free-writing, and only occasionally stopping to go back and tweak something in a previous line or paragraph; I’m simply taking advantage of the available technology.

But then I realized there was another reason my method has changed: I’ve come a long way toward mastering the art of revision since those writing-by-hand days.  Not only have I acquired pretty decent revision skills — although there’s always more to learn — but I’ve come to enjoy revising so much I could call it my latest addiction.  I liken it to being a gem cutter who starts with what appears to be a dirt-covered rock; cutting away all the impurities reveals the gemstone inside, and shaping the facets of that stone brings out its greatest beauty.  Once you have the knowledge and the tools to do it well, it’s a very rewarding experience.

One of the many things I find fascinating about the writing process is that writing well requires the author to utilize two very different parts of the brain.  First, you have to have ideas — you have to tap into the creative subconscious to draw them out, and you have to get excited about exploring those ideas.  Second, in order to create something that others can read and understand, you have to be able to give those ideas shape and structure — to manipulate them until they actually communicate what you intended. But these two things require skills that are polar opposites in some respects.

Although it’s probably an oversimplification, we could say one is a right brain activity and the other uses the left brain.  The way I look at it is this: the job takes two people — the fiery passionate muse, and the stern practical editor.  From reading the observations of people who say they write slowly, it’s quite clear that what they’re doing is both creating and revising as they go along.  In other words, in the ‘slow method’ the muse and the editor are sitting side by side at the keyboard, and they discuss everything in detail before deciding what to type in the document.

My father, who is retired from a long career as a creative writing professor, has often used the adage, “Write hot, edit cold.”  This is what the ‘fast method’ is all about.  Instead of having the muse and the editor working together simultaneously, you kick the editor out of the room — and you lock the door.  Then you give the muse free range to go wild and crazy and write whatever the hell she wants; if she wants to use abstract poetic language or pursue any idea that strikes her fancy, she can.  (Or, to put it in a less fanciful way, you don’t question or evaluate what comes to you — you simply let it come.)

When the muse is satiated and saunters off to take a well-deserved break, (getting her favorite snack and having a long soak in the tub), it’s the editor’s turn to sit down and do his thing; at this point he becomes that gem cutter.  He has to have the skill to see the jewel inside the muddy clump of minerals the muse has left for him.  And he doesn’t have to worry about the muse protesting when he starts ruthlessly sawing away at it, because she’s not there to watch him.  (All she’s thinking about is Lindor truffles and apricot-scented bubble bath.) 😉

Now even with this method there may come a time, especially as you get farther into the process, when you need the editor and the muse in the room together.  They may not be sitting elbow to elbow, but the muse needs to be close enough for the editor to call her over and ask for suggestions.  This is because the editor may decide that a particular passage needs something more — something that goes beyond cutting, reordering, or swapping out a word for a better one — so he’ll need the muse to come up with a new idea or two.

Another thing that happens over time is that the muse learns.  Even when you don’t rein her in — and she’s still free to come up with all those evocative poetic images — she becomes wiser, and better at staying focused.  She’ll stop using so many adverbs or straying off into ideas that don’t follow the through-line of the story.  Then, when there is less for the editor to fix, the whole process begins to take less time.

Although there are exceptions to everything, I think in most cases the slow method is only going to work well for someone who’s already an experienced writer — someone who’s found their way to that process through years of practice and experimentation.  For most people, if you try to ‘edit as you go’ when you’re starting out, in all likelihood you’re setting yourself up to struggle with self-doubt whenever you attempt to write, and this can lead to writer’s block.

Furthermore, writing is like any other skill, and the more you practice it the better you get.  Turning out a lot of material — and then coming back to edit it — is going to give you a lot more practice at both halves of the art, which will improve quality as well as quantity.  There’s an interesting illustration of this in the book, Art and Fear, about an experiment conducted with students in a ceramics class.   (See the section entitled “The Value of Quantity over Quality” here:  Everything I’ve seen and personally experienced tells me that the same principle works in other forms of art — including writing.

For me, the enormous advantage of the fast method is that my greatest challenge is keeping up with all the ideas that come to me; the more quickly I can get down an entire story, even if parts of it are very rough, the more I can avoid having countless half-finished stories.  (Incidentally, I’ve never had writer’s block — in fact, I can’t even imagine what it would feel like.)  Once the ideas are all down on paper, it’s far easier to find time to do the revisions, partly because the editor doesn’t have to be ‘in the mood’.

Being a practical fellow, the editor is like a tax accountant: he can work anytime, anywhere, and put in crazy long hours; once he knows his stuff, he can even be reasonably effective when he’s very tired.  Although you may find techniques that consistently inspire the muse to do her thing — perhaps walking in the woods, listening to music, or reading your favorite poet — it’s only natural that she’s more temperamental.  But that’s part of her passionate nature — and you always want to keep that fire burning.

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