The Tortoise and the Binge-Writer, Race to Deadline

It will not come as news to any of you that writing is a really hard endeavor.  Just about everybody agrees with that.

In THE CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK OF EXPERTISE AND EXPERT PERFORMANCE (a book that examines the scientific understanding of expertise in fifteen areas of endeavor), author Ronald Kellogg writes that serious writing requires the same kind of mental effort as a chess match or musical performance. This is because it makes extreme cognitive demands. (Thank you!) A psychologist at St. Louis University, Kellogg writes that writing “is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task.”

So yes, it is hard to begin with, which makes the idea that so many of us have that we should be rushing through it sort of crazy. We think of William Faulkner writing AS I LAY DYING in either six or eight weeks – depending on the source – and whip ourselves into action, setting unrealistic deadlines. Not a good idea. Most of us mortal writers don’t fare so well in short bursts. We are more likely to end up with an inferior product or blocked – and depressed.

We think that taking the slow-but-steady tortoise approach to writing is just fine. In an article for Slate last year, Michael Agger writes about strategies that do just that: “Try to limit your working hours, write at a set time each day, and try your best not to emotionally flip out or check email every 20 seconds. This is called ‘engineering’ your environment.”

Kellogg also offers some advice for writers:
1) If you haven't been writing stories since you were a small child, cut yourself some slack since you are a novice.
2) Read everything, all the time, to accumulate knowledge for storage in your long-term memory so that you can pull it out one day when you need it for your book.
3) Get outside of yourself and see your writing through the eyes of others.

For the record, Faulkner used to follow his writing binges with blackout drinking binges. Even the immortals can suffer from depression after binge writing!