This request came from a technology company a few years ago.
The founders probably thought that they were cleverly optimizing the hiring process by making sure only the fastest writers could work with their team. Start-ups have to move quickly, after all.
Unfortunately, they weren’t measuring the right thing. Except in cases of real-time journalism, that’s not how productive writers work.
(I hoped the company did not hire software engineers purely based on coding speed.)
Clearly, the founders were strong believers in the One-Step-Writing Myth – the idea that the entirety of the work of writing happens when you sit down to draft.
Why This Myth Is So Pervasive
Watch any movie about famous writers, and what do you see? The writer hammering away at a keyboard or typewriter, or stacking up piles of paper covered in hand-written script.
The most visible part of the writing process is the act of putting the words down on paper.
So much more goes on in writing than simply pounding out words. There’s the deep thought and outlining that happens before drafting.
Writers incubate ideas before and during the writing process – usually away from the desk.
When the draft is done, they may spend hours revising and perfecting the words. If you’ve ever watched someone do this stuff, you know that it wouldn’t make good cinema.
The Dangers of the One-Step-Writing Myth
Filmmakers aren’t alone – writers often focus on the drafting because it’s the part of the process most obviously within our control.
We can schedule the drafting. We can measure progress in the form of completed words. I did 2000 words today! So we conflate drafting with writing.
That can lead us into serious trouble, in many ways.
Unrealistic schedules. In the workplace, you may neglect to plan for review processes and ensuing revisions.
For example, if someone asks if you have time to write a 2,000 word post on a familiar topic, you might do some quick mental math. You can write 800 words an hour, so you can get this done in three hours. You’ve got exactly three hours to spare this week, so you commit to the project.
What about the time talking with stakeholders about what they need? Structuring the post? Editing and revising it? Handling revisions?
When your time commitment expands, you’ll feel frustrated or badly used – all because you bought into the One-Step-Writing Myth.
Uninspired writing. Inspiration rarely descends when you’re sitting at the desk, churning out words.
Creativity is the result of non-linear, associative thought processes. Creative insight generally arrives after you struggle with the work, put it aside, and let ideas incubate.
Leave room in the schedule for creativity.
Insufficient revisions. Great writing nearly always owes its existence to careful revision. If you don’t leave time for it … well, you’ll get what you plan for.
Frustrating writing sessions. If you want to write quickly and fluidly, you need to prime your mental pump with fodder.
Spend time doing research, thinking about the topic, and outlining before you start writing. If you don’t do this work, the drafting phase is likely to be frustrating and slow.
What’s the best defense against this myth? Planning. Account for all of the phases of the work, even the ones that don’t look productive.
(If you’re a business writer, download my planning checklists here.)
What’s your favorite writing myth?