The 4 Speeds of Writerly Progress
By Christine Carron
I was helping a client with a huge change management effort. The client was retiring one of their technology tools and needed a large number of their business customers to move their data out of the old tool and into the new one. I came in to help after my client had already set a rather arbitrary expectation with their customers regarding when the old tool was going to be shut down.
Their customers were not happy. The meetings I facilitated were edged with fury, frustration, and a fixation on the deadline. In one of them, an executive screamed at me and told me that they would be suing my client. Fun times.
Especially, since I agreed with the customers.
My client’s expectations were unreasonable. Problematic, too, because the speed in which they expected everyone to be up and running on the new tool was actually causing the process to take longer across the board. I couldn’t get the customers off their anger long enough to focus on actually making progress.
Even when I attempted to reason with my client, pointing out their position was counterproductive, that customers felt blindsided and not listened to, they would not budge. I finally decided to roll off the project, because (a) I am not a masochist, and (b) I prefer to work with clients who are interested in dealing with reality. That client was not.
They had an unrealistic expectation regarding how fast the work could get done, and they were sticking to that position no matter what. It defied logic. It defied the basics of customer service. It certainly defied common sense.
The Writing Speed Trap
Like that client of mine, we writers can get fixated on an unrealistic speed of delivery. If we are not producing or progressing as fast as we think we should be, then we are failing as a writer. No matter that the speed we’ve fixated on is likely completely arbitrary, such as: Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, so I should, too.
Even if we decide to use our own pacing as a barometer, often the speed we pick as the goal is one selected from one of our most productive days. I wrote 6,000 words in one day a few months ago, so that is what I should be doing every day.
Managing mindset is one of the most critical skills for writers to develop. Giving into the speed trap—both the idea that we should always be producing at top speed, and that we should aspire to one uniform speed at all times—will mess with our mindset and with our progress.
The 4 Speeds
The reality is that our writing speed is going to vary. Through my personal experience and through my work helping writers get their writerly work done, I’ve identified four writing speeds. I’ve named them to match the most common emotional tone writers will experience at each speed, especially when they are less adept at managing themselves in and out of each mode.
This is writing at high speeds. You are churning out pages and in super flow. You have no doubts about your writerly prowess. You’re words are swaggering on the page. The story is nearly writing its own fine self, thank you very much.
This is steady, solid in-the-flow progress. Not quite as flashy or fast as burning-holes-in-your-keyboard crankin’ mode, but cruisin’ still feels like a joy. Like a dream. Like you’ve got the right writerly stuff. It has a major plus over crankin’ mode—you can sustain it longer without danger of burning out.
Here you are still progressing, but it is slow-going. You may feel like molasses would flow faster than your writing. In crawling mode, it is easy for self-doubt to creep in. Instead of celebrating the progress you are making, small as it may be, you start hounding yourself, Shouldn’t I be going faster, already?
In this mode, progress is sporadic and stilted. Doubt flashes hot: Why did I think I could be a writer? Your Inner Critic is probably in high dudgeon, snapping at you to get it together. You cycle between frozen and frantic, but nothing you try seems to keep the crumbling demons away.
There is one more mode that is worth mentioning, but I cannot rightly group it with the four speeds since there is no speed involved. . .
Croaked mode is when you are still trying to make progress but have completely stalled out. In croaked mode, your Inner Critic’s knickers might get twisted so tightly blood can’t reach their ankles. Self-doubt sky-rockets, confidence tanks. Self-defeating statements—Will I ever write again? Or, Should I just give up?—bandy about with abandon in your brain. It’s usually not the finest hour of our writerly mindset. Croaked mode is not a purposeful pause, it is the dreaded writer’s block.
Developing Speed Mavenry
If you’ve ever taken a speed reading course, you learned that the goal is not to read fast all the time but rather to increase your range of reading speed so that you can choose to read faster or slower as your preferences and the reality of the situation dictates.
Some variables you will have control over—if your eyes are rested, if you are in a quiet environment, etc. Some you will not—the size and spacing of the print for example. Denser, smaller font cannot be parsed as fast as more comfortably spaced text.
It is the same with writing speed. You want to cultivate the ability to crank, but the expectation you can and will crank at all times is not a useful position to take. Real writing speed mavenry is about claiming progress at whatever speed you are at. It is also about building your capacity to move into and out of each speed with confidence and ease.
In Goodjelly terminology that capacity to meet yourself where you are and create progress no matter what is called “jamming.” (Hence the name of our signature course, The Jam Experience.)
To get you started on your jamming journey in relation to your writerly speeds, here are three jamtastic tips.
Jamtastic Tip #1: This, too, shall pass.
Basically, trust that no speed is going to last forever. This might feel like a bummer of a tip to remember when we are crankin’ and cruisin’. Who wants those speeds to stop? Yet the truth is that crankin’ really isn’t sustainable long term.
If you try to maintain that pace you will most likely induce yourself right into crumblin’ or croaked mode by burning out. Cruisin’ mode is certainly more sustainable than crankin’, but even so, things change. In life. And in writing.
Reminding yourself that crankin’ and cruisin’ are not permanently sustainable will save you from going full Inner Critic when they do fall away.
This tip particularly shines when you find yourself in crawling’, crumblin’, or croaked mode. If necessary, say it like a mantra to protect your mind from shoving you into a self-doubt death spiral when you are in those speeds. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass.
Jamtastic Tip #2: Identify exemplars.
If you have been writing for a while, you likely have multiple examples of functioning at each speed. Note those. Having examples from your own experience will help you integrate this new way of framing your progress. As you make your “speed exemplar map” you might also get some ahas.
Perhaps you’ll see that you flow into crawlin’ mode when you are learning a new craft skill. Which would make sense. And perhaps give you a deeper appreciation for the necessity and utility of a slower pace. Like, of course, I would be moving slower when I’m learning something new.
You also may find that to really crank, you have to let other things croak for awhile. That your focus has to be singular. Little, to no task-switching. Maybe with that realization you will let go of the expectation that you must keep all plates spinning at all times, and instead build your capacity to prioritize and focus.
The foundation of Jamming is knowing yourself. Working with yourself. Your patterns and your preferences. And finding exemplars of each speed will help you learn you in a new way.
Jamtastic Tip #3: Your speeds are your speeds.
If we took any set of writers and were able to directly compare how fast they were writing in crankin’ mode, the measurements would vary. One writer may feel like they are crankin’ at two pages a day, another may need six pages a day.
Which one is really crankin’?
They both are.
Your crankin’ is your crankin’. As is your cruisin’, your crawlin’, and your crumblin’. If you negatively compare your writerly array of speeds to someone else’s, you are allowing the speed trap to catch hold of you.
Are there actions you can take to up your speeds? Sure. Going into a negative spiral comparing yourself to others’ rate of output is not one of them.
Feel the Need to Succeed at All Speeds
When you resist making yourself wrong for any of your speeds, get curious about how the speeds manifest for you, and embrace that no speed is permanent, then you are moving in the direction of true jam mavenry. Your writing adventure will change in positive ways.
You will revel in the crankin’, rest into the cruisin’, honor your progress no matter how small in the crawlin’, meet yourself with kindness in the crumblin’, and with grace in the croaked.
Will it take time, and patience, and a dollop of chutzpah to get to this level of speed adeptness? Absolutely. But you, and your writing, are worth it. Of that, I have no doubt.