The Sentence-Time Continuum

[Don’t worry! No physics involved!]

The Sentence-Time Continuum

6/6/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

At one speed is someone to write? Is there a speed at which someone writes at an optimal level? What is that speed? You see, I have been writing this paragraph as quickly as possible, and already part of me sees things that need to be revised, changed or reworded. I now slow down a little, taking in every word and thinking about its role in the sentence—but here I am, speeding up again until I don’t even know if I’m thinking about the words in front of me…

Forgive that little experiment. The topic I address doesn’t receive quite as much attention as the fundamental aspects of writing, yet it plays just as important a role in a story’s development.

Ask a desk secretary what the best speed for writing is; nine out of ten will reply, “As fast as you can type.” That’s all good and well for notes, transcripts and the like, but when we cross into the realm of writing that has a purpose in itself, the topic gets a little murkier.

Needless to say, this topic doesn’t have anything to do with typing ability or penmanship. One’s preferred writing speed is more a product of his or her personal approach to the composition process than anything else. One side of the pace spectrum is populated by the speedwriters, the stream-of-consciousness gurus who look down with disdain on mid-paragraph edits. Travel to the other edge, however, and you’ll find the literary stonemasons: detail-minded folks who take their time carving every sentence until it looks just right.

I invite you to accompany me on a journey to either side of that spectrum. We may as well start with the speed junkies.

Say that one has the ability to write at 120 words a minute—about twice the average limit for keyboard users. Forgive the weasel word, but most writers would view this pace as absolutely bonkers; one could barely think ahead to the next word.

Here’s a quick example of what a fast-as-possible approach can result in. I wrote myself a 127-word short story in 60 seconds—no edits, let alone taps of the backspace key allowed. Here is my end product.

There was once a man from Dublin who foun himself engrossed in a certain cabbage—a cabbage that had tow prongs on theoutside. Well, this cabbage had a series of holes, and he thought that by poking open the holes and drinking out of it he might come across some water, for he was in the tdesert (as not having been a native of Dublin) and was terribly thirsty. Well, all he found in the interior of the cabbage was more and more shoe resin, which he briefly applied to the sole of his shoe and left at that. A second person came, took the cabbage and said to him, “you silly person! This isa plastic prop. I shall show you a real cabbage.” And he did.

What are the drawbacks? Well, for starters, my cabbage story is as plotless, incoherent and confusing (Dublin is a desert?) as they come. And yet, consider this positive: by not allowing my inner critic to judge my writing or make revisions, I gave myself the green light to write whatever my right brain desired, with a unique and original result. (At the least, I don’t think such a story has ever been written before.) When we adopt a quicker pace of writing, we often find ourselves with a surplus of creative ideas; there’s less time spent tweaking sentences and more time prodding deeper into a thought or concept. The mental roadblocks disappear in our heads.

Let us now turn to the opposite extreme. There are writers out there who tune every word and sentence until they ring at the optimal pitch. Such a literary ideology can restrict the flow of a piece, but there’s something to be said about a sentence that couldn’t have been written any better.

Fresh off my 2-word-a-second freewrite, I chose to experiment with the perfectionist’s side of the spectrum. The following is a sentence that I wrote with the “Slow is Best” approach.

The clack, clack clack of the train engine advanced the car by an inch, foot and yard until the sounds of the gears blended together and the fence posts melted into one translucent wall.

That one line took me some 400 seconds to write. It might be a bit more detailed than the story I churned out in a sixth of the time, but I wonder if its “refinement” justifies the lengthening of the writing process. Plenty of writers are perfectly content with such a slow pace; the rest, merely frustrated.

If you’ve been skimming this article in hopes of finding the “best speed” at which to type or scrawl, I suggest that you move on to another site. The problem is, nobody discovers their optimal rate by reading; instead, they must write—write a lot—and find what pace works best for them.

Nor do I profess to know my own perfect speed. What I have observed is this: it takes me an hour or more to type just about a thousand words—a tortoise-esque rate of 16 words a minute. Is this rate a constant? Absolutely not; should the medium be song lyrics or poetry, I have trouble getting five or six words out in sixty seconds. This might reveal a thing or two about my tendencies as a writer; perhaps it just shows what a raging bully my inner critic is.

I stumble to the end of this pacing exploration with one piece of advice: experiment. If you pride yourself on writing book chapters in fifteen minutes, try forcing yourself to write one in thirty and see if you’re not more satisfied with the piece. Likewise, if you have trouble getting half a page out in half an hour, let go of your perfectionist inclinations and see what happens. You might just find that a new pace breathes fresh air into the writing process.

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