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May 11, 2008

A Marathon Writer I Ain't

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I have Terry Teachout envy. No, I don't envy everything about him, though there is a lot to admire.

Specifically, I envy his productivity as a writer. For example, he writes 1.5 columns a week for The Wall Street Journal. He has a monthly column in Commentary and posts an occasional book review on their web page. He has a blog (see the above link). He writes books -- biographies of H.L. Mencken, George Balanchine and (forthcoming) Louis Armstrong.

What I find astonishing is his ability to crank out thousands of words over a few days on his book projects. And the results are good-quality writing. Teachout has even mentioned on his blog that he has the ability to estimate how many hours it will take him to produce copy of a certain length about a given subject: amazing!

Me? I struggle.

As regular readers know. I'm toying with the idea of a sort of art history book. I want to send prospective publishers an annotated outline, the introductory chapter and a sample chapter from the main part of the proposed work.

And boy is progress slooooow. I started chipping away on things nearly half a year ago and I'm only now within striking distance of completing the first draft of everything. Then I'll have to polish, add more material, perhaps reorganize things. I'll be lucky if I start publisher-shopping by July.

There are reasons for my snail's pace. Foremost is that fact that the project is speculative, and that means my motivation is less than it would be if I had a contract and deadline in hand. Then there is the matter of life -- the quotidian stuff and all the travel we do serves to interrupt and distract. And there is the blogging. I love blogging, and will post an essay before getting around to book work. By that point, my energy level can be a lot lower because writing can be tiring.

Perhaps the most important reason why I'm making such slow progress is that I'm not a natural writer of book-length pieces.

Some people like Terry Teachout and our own Michael Blowhard can sit down at a computer and words simply flow. Not me. The post you are reading now will probably take an hour to complete. My book-writing sessions yield 600 words if I'm doing well and half that if I'm struggling.

I suspect that my "natural" writing length is on the order of 600 words -- around the size of a newspaper column. Moreover, I think that I can usually make the points I want to at that approximate length. I find it hard to elaborate or the keep tossing in new examples.

Perhaps it would be different if I were writing a narrative of some kind, a biography or perhaps a history or description of a well-defined event such as a battle. In those cases, the what-comes-next problem is largely resolved once research and outlining are completed.

Maybe I can find a little cheer by realizing that plenty of other writers find it difficult to squeeze words out like toothpaste. In fiction, some writers are best at short stories, others do well with novellas and the remainder often seem to be in the same length league as Tom Clancy and Leo Tolstoy.

I'll be fortunate if I can land a publisher. And even more so if I can get one that doesn't mind doing a book with lots of pictures and maybe only 60,000 words.

Does anyone out there know how to become prolific even when working against type?



posted by Donald at May 11, 2008


Who says that blogging regularly isn't a form of "being prolific"?

A few thoughts:

* Teachout *is* amazing. A natural-born critic, for one thing. And there's such a nice sense of ease to just about everything he gets down.

* Great to hear you're pushing the book forward! Eager to read it.

* For all but a very few people, including most writers, book-length writing is exxxxxxxxxtremely unnatural. It may or may not be a good thing to do; it may or may not be something you or I or whoever may want to do. But the book-length thang comes naturally to a very small number of writers.

* We over-respect (in a per se kind of way) books. Some are good, some stink, of course. But the whole convention of the book-length piece of writing is an odd one. There's nothing magical about book-length-ishness, which only has to do with technology and the convenience of publishers. Many early books were collections of short items, after all -- it took a while for people to start saying, "Hey, I think I'll write a single piece of writing straight-through that's the length of this new thing called a book."

* If what a person has to say, show or tell can be done faster and shorter, why not?

* As far as I'm concerned, electronics set us free from the over-focus on book-length-ishness. A piece of writing can be as long or short as it wants or needs to be. This is a great thing! Finally, freed from the imperative to make every substantial statement 300 pages long whether it needs to be or not.

* Writing that blog posting in an hour is writing at an impressive clip as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 12, 2008 9:38 AM

This is going to sound odd, and it may not apply to your situation, but it works for me. If you've set a minimum daily word count - say, 1000 words - and you're having trouble achieving it because it looms like Mt. Everest, cut it in half. Graham Greene wrote all of those books by producing 500 words a day, every day. I read somewhere that John Updike cranks out three pages a day. When he was working, Hemingway considered 500-700 words a pretty good day's work. The key is consistency. You'll be far more productive, and happier, if you're producing a page or two or three nearly every day than if you're fretting because you're rarely reaching a more agressive goal. Crank out a page a day, and you've got a pretty hefty book proposal draft in two months. Just watching those pages accumulate builds confidence. I suspect that among successful writers, Terry Teachout and Joyce Carol Oates are quite exceptional in terms of output.

Good luck!


Posted by: Henry Chappell on May 12, 2008 10:37 AM

Except his book on Mencken sucks.

Posted by: PrestoPundit on May 12, 2008 6:31 PM

The only advice I can give is: Don't Go Against Type. If you are a concise. Let your book consist of 20 or 30 or however-many really short well honed chapters, so that each chapter has impact; rather than trying to emulate the expansionists and - since you're not an expansionist by nature - ending up with an exhausted and exhausting to read stretched out book.

Posted by: ricpic on May 12, 2008 6:55 PM

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