Though I have been a newspaper writer for 35 years — even longer if you count my time on college newspapers — I have yet to write an article in one fast take. I have never had the experience of sitting down at the computer (or in the old days, the word processor, or in the even older days, the typewriter) and generating a column before I stood up. Over the years, I’ve known more than a few journalists who could produce a piece of writing at roughly their typing speed. Not me. I can spend the better part of an hour trying to come up with a first sentence. The last sentence can take me just as long. And so can each of the sentences in between.
For someone who makes his living with words, I suffer from a serious occupational disability: I write very slowly. (I also read slowly, but that’s a different lament.) If a genie ever emerges from a lamp to offer me three wishes, Wish Number One won’t be for a bottomless bank account, a ring of invisibility, a photographic memory, or a million followers on Twitter. It will be for the ability to write fast, a talent I’ve always craved.
There is a school of thought that celebrates the benefits of slow writing. “We should lichenize our writing,” advises author Melissa Matthewson, by which she means to write the way lichen grows — namely, at the excruciatingly slow pace of “a fraction of an inch per year.” I suppose that for some writers, that’s a helpful suggestion. But it’s not much use to someone with deadlines every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Between two columns and a newsletter, I’m on the hook for about 4,000 to 4,500 words per week. Lichen won’t do it.
Some writers can deliver reams of copy without breaking a sweat. Anthony Trollope, who published more than 50 books plus dozens of short stories, described his writing process in his autobiography: Working from 5:30 to 8:30 every morning (before heading off to his day job as a postal inspector), he would write at a rate of 250 words every 15 minutes — a daily quota of 3,000 words. If he finished a novel before it was time to head to work, he took out a fresh sheet of paper and started a new one. William F. Buckley Jr., who modestly described his writing speed as “fast — but not, I’d maintain, remarkably fast,” could compose a column in 20 minutes and complete a 70,000-word novel in 90 hours over a 55-day stretch. In addition to writing a twice-weekly column that appeared in more than 300 newspapers and producing, like Trollope, more than 50 books, Buckley also edited a biweekly magazine, hosted a weekly TV show, and delivered scores of speeches around the country, with time left over for other pursuits, such as sailing across the ocean, running for mayor of New York, and performing Bach harpsichord concertos.
To paraphrase Tevye the Dairyman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if I had been blessed with the writing velocity of a Trollope or a Buckley?
Instead, I’ve always felt like Red Smith, the late New York Times sports columnist, who was asked by an interviewer whether it was difficult to write his newspaper column. “Why, no,” he replied with a straight face. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It is said that James Joyce once told a friend he had been working all day and had produced two sentences. “You have been seeking the right words?” asked his friend sympathetically. “I have the words,” Joyce replied. “What I can’t figure out is the order they go in.”
There are oceans of advice out there on how to write faster. Mostly they are variations on the same theme: Concentrate on getting words out, no matter how clumsy or ill-strung, then revise and polish later. Some mavens recommend using speech-to-text dictation, on the theory that it is easier to speak an idea than to write it. Others suggest typing without looking at the screen, to keep the focus on writing, undistracted by the premature urge to edit. Sound counsel, perhaps, for those who have the leisure to learn a whole new way of writing; not so convenient for those of us whose next deadline is never more than a day or two away.
Occasionally, a reader, hearing me grumble about how long it takes me to put a column together, will kindly say something like: “That’s why it’s good.” I appreciate praise as much as anyone and would like to believe it’s true. But I’m skeptical.
It is generally true, in my experience, that easy writing often makes very hard reading, while it takes hard writing to produce easy reading. Some columnists I follow are virtual writing machines, churning out hundreds of words daily on whatever is in the news. Their work has the virtue of being extremely timely. But without having taken the time to tighten their sentences, smooth the grammatical edges, and improve the clarity of their argument, they often leave readers to puzzle their way through text that is denser than it ought to be. I share the opinion of a former Globe colleague who told me that a column is never finished, only surrendered. The more time I take to go over what I’ve written, the more likely I am to catch a solecism, untangle an awkward phrase, or delete a line that made more sense in my head than it does on paper.
Easy writing isn’t the same as fast writing. Buckley could write the manuscript of a novel in 90 hours, but he then spent 60 hours rereading and revising to make it better. Before Trollope embarked on his daily 3,000-word marathon, he reviewed and corrected his previous day’s output. Even the fastest writers, if they’re good, have to work at it.
Decades in this business have taught me that there is only one antidote for my slow writing: my ever-looming deadline. And, whether I’m ready or not, the deadline for this column has arrived.