Is it Better to Write FAST...Or S-L-O-W?
Years ago I read a line from, I think it was from novelist William Styron, about the two kinds of writers.
First, he said, there are the ones who blaze through a first draft nonstop, then go back and edit.
Those are the ones who love to write.
And then, Styron lamented, there are the ones that write and rewrite, word-by-word and line-by-line. As they go.
Those are the writers who want to kill themselves. And unfortunately, he continued, I'm the second kind.
Maybe now we can understand why Styron wrote a book on depression. Then again, I think Hemingway wrote pretty fast. And he shot himself.
Now, we aren't novelists. We're not building worlds or trying to break hearts, at least not so much.
We are, you might say, just selling stuff.
Just the same, the "how people write" question seems to fascinate pen-and-laptop jockeys of all stripes, yours truly included.
So what do I do?
Used to be that I spent a LOT of time getting ready to write. Index cards, library research (this was pre-Google), audiotapes and note-taking, phone calls and meetings. Outlines and re-outlines.
And then I'd write sections. I'd rewrite sections. I'd print it out and make edits. Then write it again. Until finally, I'd crawl across the finish line with an "[End of Copy]" typed at the bottom.
These days, maybe not quite as much.
In part because I'm probably lazier. In part because I know the structure better. But largely because the world has, to my surprise sometimes, changed.
I never wanted to believe that people were getting more impatient and less interested in multi-layered ideas, but it happened. Faster and leaner is better.
And for something to read fast and lean, it pretty much has to be written in that mindset.
That is, think of the page like talking on the phone. Even if they can't see your face, they can hear you smiling.
It's like that with writing too. The energy you have while steaming through an idea, that flow that carries you, somehow seeps into the copy.
And that's just one of many reasons to write fast.
Another is that, in a world that's crowded with loud messages, speed and simplicity feels like an oasis. Readers want to know what you want and to know it quickly.
That's not to say your copy ideas can be superficial or less well-researched. If anything, they have to be tighter than ever. Notice, I didn't say "short." I said "tight." There's a difference.
Writing fast is also key because today's market is fast. Marketing result that once took weeks now show up in minutes. Ads that used to have a long tail now burn out from over-exposure in a couple months. New tests, new lists, multiple contact points with the customer. They all add up to tighter project schedules and more raw copy demand.
And here's one more good reason to write fast. You need to buy time for editing. And you need something to do that editing too. You can't make a pot, in other words, without clay on the table.
I actually love editing.
During the draft phrase, there are lots of opportunities to get anxious. You get lost in research, you're not sure where the whole thing will end up, you're spending hours and even days creating things you know you'll need to destroy.
During the edits, though, most of your research is done (though you always find holes). And now you're just cleaning things up and pulling it all together.
It's like watching a statue crawl out of raw marble.
(And yeah, before you write, I don't always have time to edit THIS extra-curricular letter, hence the occasional repetition, nonsequiturs, and typos.)
How about you?
Do you dig into the research and only start writing after you can't stand it anymore? Or you jump write in feet first and start pounding away at the keyboard?
Do you outline or use a storyboard (I still recommend both)? Or a program like Scrivener that lets you collect research and write in sections? (I do, and it's been both a blessing and a curse.)
How many drafts do you do? It varies for me, but most of the time, no matter how many times I've combed through the copy, I feel like I should have done at least one more run.
Here's a tip...
When you're writing, don't research. Not if you can help it. Instead, do that before you start. Or after, in a plug-and-play first round edit. Because Google is a momentum killer.
What I do more and more is to try to get myself warmed up on an idea by reading as much as I can. Most of the time, I'll also take notes. And take them in the form of copy.
But in research, ideas and information come as they come. There's no way to receive the best details in the right order. So I just write them down to sort later.
When I feel like my research is looping back on itself, that's when I start to write. But not by piecing my copy-style notes together.
Instead, I start with a blank page. Or a blank legal pad, if I feel like handwriting it out. And just go.
As fast as I can, trying to stop myself from going back to rewrite sentences that are already on the page.
Where I need a number, a date, a name, or some other chunk of information, I just write "XXXX" or "[find the date]" right there in the copy, knowing I'll get it next time around. Because why?
Because Google. Equals. Dead momentum.
When that's done, I'll go back and start rewriting. A lot of research and reorganizing happens here. Plus outside feedback, if I can get it.
All of that is tedious but essential.
When editing comes around, as many holes as possible are closed. Now it's time to start cutting away fat, reorganizing around the core thread, tweak wording, and so on. And other edits afterward do the same.
Until it's perfect, or damn near as it's gonna be.
You could boil all that down to even more succinct advice, "Write fast, edit slow." It's a little like what Hemingway used to say, "Write drunk, edit sober."
Only without the whiskey. Save that for the edits that come after rounds of copyediting, battles with Legal, and all the production decisions and changes.
But all that is for another day.
John has worked as a direct-response copywriter for 23 years, with a specialty in the marketing of financial and health information products. His copy has both directly and indirectly, via work with junior writers, helped generate hundred of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of subscriptions.
You've gone from preachin to...
Stop looking over my shoulder. It's creepy.
All kidding aside, I'm a top-rated anal copy writer. And some days funk fills my head.
Anyone got a cure for that?