Saturday, January 4, 2014

My Crazy Writing Life - Day 4: Early Fumblings

I used to be the type of writer that needed to write everything by hand first, confident that this approach yielded the best results. But each time I wrote something, it felt like a major undertaking. First, I'd write several pages, gloss over it, and add notes where appropriate. Second, I'd begin the arduous process of typing it all up, typically editing along the way and often extending it. Surprisingly, this step sapped the energy out of me, and I would frequently stall as I tried to think of the perfect word to put down. By the time I reached the third step, I was in full editing mode, and extensive edits were still required to whip the draft into shape.

But why is that? Didn't I write two drafts already? Why was it still a mess? That's far too much work to generate a rough draft.

It wasn't until I began journaling extensively that I was able to make the transition to the keyboard. A lot of this had to do with a variety of myths that I had conjured up, holding onto the ways of old in spite of the advantages of the new. At first, I didn't think that the quality of writing was as good when I typed directly into the computer. I also did not feel as free to jump around the page as I did by hand. When I needed to zero in on something and add a quick note, it was exceedingly easy this way.

But it was slow, much slower than typing everything up in the first place.

When I started writing these journals I was still writing by hand. It didn't take long before I realized that I was putting far too much effort into each entry and that I didn't need an elaborate process just to put my thoughts down. I just needed to open Microsoft Word and begin typing; otherwise, I was just creating work for myself.

A few months after I began journaling, I made the conscious decision to write all of my entries directly into the computer. I simply didn't have time to transcribe what I'd written, and as previously mentioned, it took a lot out of me before I got to my main work.

It would be years before I finally felt comfortable enough to solely use the computer. Writing by hand created a lot of paperwork that piled up fast and became difficult to transcribe when I added lots of notes. It was easy to be overrun with clutter, and the more I used the computer, the more I realized that my misconceptions about the process were unfounded. Some excellent work had been done without the aid of paper. This work also tended to be longer than what I'd created by hand. And when it came to quality, what I realized was this: Quality is a matter of focus, and isn't hindered by typing it into the computer. Do you want to write better? Then focus more intensely.

There are a few more methods that I'd love to try but haven't gotten around to yet. Years back, when I worked for the American Registry for Internet Numbers, I got the chance to meet a pair of transcription experts for our conference. Each used a device that connected to a standard PC, but it allowed them to use shorthand. As they pushed each key, the PC converted the shorthand notation into actual words, enabling them to keep up with some absolute motor mouths. One such lady talked so quickly, I could barely comprehend what she was saying. But these gals were good, and after two and a half days of sessions, they'd typed over 50,000 words.

My hat goes off to them. Now where can I learn to type at high speeds like that?

One reason I haven't implemented this approach is because it is cost prohibitive. These specialized devices cost, at a minimum, $5,000 and up. I also don't know shorthand. Though I could learn it, it would be awhile before it became second nature.

But the truth of the matter is that I can type at decent speeds already, and high speeds don’t necessarily correlate with increased productivity. When it comes time to shape thoughts into words, I type at a much slower speed than I am capable of. Although I've taken typing tests and hit speeds of 70-80 words per minute, I typically write between 20-30. This is composition speed, and until I make the conscious effort to improve it, it really doesn’t matter how fast I type. Still, it would be fascinating to see what speeds I could peak at. Perhaps it’s better to invest in a Dvorak or Colemak keyboard.

I've also read about prolific authors dictating entire books to their staff (Barbara Cartland was famous for this). One even employed two fulltime secretaries, who followed him around wherever he went. In the end, these authors never touched a typewriter; the only edits they performed were on typed-up manuscripts.

Then, of course, there's the age-old method of using a manual typewriter. No, a computer with its word processing software won't do. I'm talking about a device where you have to manually feed it paper. But those were the dark ages, right? How can using relic from the past increase productivity?

While it might seem cumbersome and antiquated, there are many authors who swear by it. In fact, it was the method of choice used by the pulps (ok, it was largely the only productive method available to them). When one uses a typewriter it suggests permanence, incorporating a sense of finality in their work. Many pulp writers typed up novels with few notes, following the story wherever it lead. Later, they would read over it, mark it up, and send it off to the publisher without reading it again. Rewriting simply wasn’t allowed. Although this might seem like a step back, the lack of word processing software prevents a writer from extensively editing their work and to get it right the first time.

And surprisingly it works.

For argument’s sake, were there any decent writers that came out of the pulps? Many, in fact, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Simenon. Scores of popular fiction is attributed to this era (Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, etc). Since the average pulp writer typically wrote 3,000-5,000 words per day, it becomes clear that they were doing something right. Can something be learned from this process?

As for the future, who knows what it will hold? I've tried Dragon speech-to-text software in the past and it's an exercise in futility. Although it's matured, the software is very much hit-and-miss. And that doesn't cut it for high-speed writing. The computer must be able to keep up with one’s thoughts, even it makes a few mistakes here and there. But if all it's doing is recording my voice and spitting out a bad transcription in the process, what value does it serve? I'm better off typing it all up instead.

There may come a day when a sensor or microchip is able to interpret and record our thoughts, eliminating the need to type it ourselves. But I suspect it still will not eliminate the need for an author to type their work. In the end, the best way is to sit behind the keyboard and hammer away, for it will be many years before technology provides a sensible replacement.

This, indeed, is one of my many early fumblings. By focusing on speed, I’d lost sight of the talents that I already had. If a writer is able to maintain 40 words per minute, they can create 2,400 words of new content per hour. That’s 10,000 words in a little over four hours, a healthy day for any author. And 40 words per minute is a far cry from the insane speeds that some typists hit.

So if one seeks to improve their speed, why not start there? Block off a few hours and try to maintain a rate of 40 words per minute for the duration of the session. If you can do it, eventually you’ll get good at it, it won’t be any big deal for you to tap out 10,000 words per day.

Can you imagine that? That’s the equivalent of 3,650,000 words per year. And if you increased this amount slightly, from 10,000 to 11,000 words, you'd break 4,000,000! That's the equivalent of eighty 50,000-word novels! Do that for a few years and you'll easily become one of the most prolific authors in the world today—all for a mere 4-5 hours of writing per day.

Easy, right?

Consistency is what you must first focus on. Give yourself an ultimatum and become a prolific author rather than talking about it. Improve upon what you already do well, and 40 words per minute is a goal that most writers can achieve.

Sure, it will take some time to get acclimated, but the same can be said of other tasks when you first started writing. Remember the first time you wrote 1,000 words in one sitting? How about 3,000? It was difficult, right? Eventually you adjusted, and now it isn't a big deal anymore. It's the same thing with your compositional speed. You just need the practice.

And practice makes an author prolific. Guaranteed.

Day 1: 1,035 words
Day 2: 1,045 words
Day 3: 1,035 words
Day 4: 1,560 words
Total: 4,675 words

No comments:

Post a Comment