One problem with writing fast

A lively discussion has erupted at The Passive Voice, in response to a rant by one of the usual suspects telling self-published writers to slow down and not write so much. Fast writing is not necessarily bad, and slow writing, Heaven knows, can be utter crud. Great novels have been written in a span of weeks or even days. But nobody ever wrote great novels at that pace, one after another, and kept it up for a span of years.

People point to Isaac Asimov as an exception. He was a man who wrote 500 books, so Wikipedia tells us, and Wikipedia wouldn’t steer us wrong, would it?

Well, maybe.

If you look up the word prolific in any really good dictionary, you will find a picture of Isaac Asimov sitting at his typewriter. ‘Prolific’ was the adjective most often applied to him as a writer, and the one he was most proud of. But even he had his limits. His average output from 1958, when he became a full-time writer, to about 1989, when illness took away his ability to work regularly, was (by his own reckoning) in the neighbourhood of 500,000 words a year. That’s 15 million words in all, or about enough to fill about 200 paperback books of the size that used to be usual in his younger days – say, 200 to 250 pages. (The average size of paperbacks began to balloon in the 1970s, but that’s another story.) Some of his nonfiction books were quite short, and a number of his stories and essays were published in more than one book; that brings us up well over 300, but it still leaves us far short of the number given by Wikipedia.

So how did he get to 500 books? Simple: he cheated.

Over 100 of the books Asimov listed as his were anthologies (mostly of science fiction, a few in other genres). Those anthologies were compiled and edited by Martin H. Greenberg, sometimes working with Charles Waugh. All Asimov did was write an introduction to the book and a short note on each of the stories, amounting (perhaps) to 10,000 words in all. This work certainly entitled him to have his name on the cover as co-editor, but to say that he wrote those books would be a barefaced lie.

Even Asimov was not equally fluent in all the genres he worked in. He could knock off one of his popular science books in two to four weeks, but a science fiction novel (so he said) took him seven to nine months. It wasn’t the actual writing that took the extra time, but inventing sufficiently interesting ideas and working out their consequences in the story.

Jim Henshaw, the screenwriter, defines creative writing as ‘trying to remember things that haven’t happened yet’. (Apparently this definition is not original with him, but he doesn’t say where he got it from.) The more involved the things are, the more time and effort it takes to ‘remember’ them.

An extreme example: Robert A. Heinlein took three solid days to write one line of Space Cadet. It took that long because he had to work out the trajectory to send a manned rocket from the Earth’s surface into geostationary orbit, ten years before anybody put a rocket into any kind of orbit. What’s more, he had to work it out by hand – the public had no access to computers in 1947. (And that does not count the years he spent beforehand learning the necessary physics.)

Of course, few novels call for that kind of rigorous research. And nothing requires it. Even in science fiction, you can fake it, like the writers of Buck Rogers, which was (for a time) enormously successful. But over the years, the fakery became more obvious and less defensible. Many people still read Heinlein today, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who still reads Buck Rogers. Faked work doesn’t last.

So while it is very seldom worth a writer’s time to spend months or years obsessing over details of prose at the sentence level, there are some things worth obsessing over. Calculations of the type, ‘I can write X words per hour for Y hours a day, and get Z novels finished in a year’ always leave that factor out. It takes additional time to come up with good ideas, and to develop them well.


  1. The delights of planning one’s work, when a writer.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    Although the books are Asimov’s in the most technical sense: Every time someone bought one he got a royalty check (and, in return, the publisher got to use Asimov’s name recognition factor to sell the book.)

    • In that very technical sense, the books were anywhere from about one-tenth to one-fifteenth Asimov’s. Each of the authors of the stories got a royalty cheque; each of the editors (Martin Harry Greenberg, Asimov, and frequently Charles Waugh) got a one-third share of the editorial bit of the royalty. And while I have no objection to a publisher using Asimov’s name to sell a book (with his and the actual author’s consent), it is simply not factually correct to count such a book as written by Asimov.

      What all this does is to massively cheapen Asimov’s real accomplishment. He could brag, ‘I have written 350 books, distributed across nearly every major category of the Dewey Decimal System,’ and few others could match that boast. Or he could say, ‘I have written or edited 500 books,’ and dozens of old experienced New York editors could sniff and call him a piker. They had edited books by the thousand, some of them.

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