Writer survey

At Writer Unboxed, this: That Thing You Do: Results of a Survey on Process

This post describes the results of a non-rigorous poll about highly productive vs less productive writers. The first question began like this: On average over the last five years, how many pages have you written per year? (Generated, not polished and published)

The categories were:

  1. produce about 1/4 of a novel per year;
  2. 1/4-1/2 of a novel per year;
  3. 1 novel per year;
  4. more than 1 novel per year.

Number of words would be better, as “a novel” can cover a lot of ground. However, whatever, no matter how you measure productivity, I’m in the last category nearly all the time. Some years have been exceptions. In fact, I think the year before I wrote Tuyo, I wrote very little and felt generally stuck on everything. One more reason I particularly love Tuyo is possibly that it broke me out of that stuckness.

Anyway, what I expected was something like: less productive writers tend to have more family obligations; eg, if you have three-year-old triplets, I bet you don’t get as much writing done as a hermit like me. The writers I know personally who are mothers of young children definitely do not get as many words written per day or year as I do, and how could they? But it’s not what this survey focused on. This survey was more about habits of thought, as so:

  1. High producers were much more likely to muse about creative work when doing other daily things.
  2. High producers were much more likely to purposefully think about creative work, in a consciously thoughtful way, when they are away from their desks.
  3. High producers were much more likely to jot notes when away from their desk about their creative work.
  4. High producers were much more likely to have figured out situations most conducive to being hit by a great idea and create them, actively.
  5. High producers were much more likely to report having moments in their creative work when they hit a kind of “flow” and were less aware of their surroundings, sometimes even the passage of time, because they were lost in the work.
  6. High producers were much more likely to work on multiple large-scale projects at once.

Okay, I totally muse about the WIP (ideally) or other works that are in theory not currently in progress (less helpful) when doing other daily things. This is something I bet is much harder for, say, parents of three-year-old triplets. Parents with young children surely have a lot of daily tasks where they absolutely cannot focus on their WIP, so I expect things like this overlap with my initial thought about the direction this survey might take.

For me, the daily tasks that are most helpful in this regard are walking dogs and driving. Sometimes I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but a lot of the time I listen to music with the volume turned down pretty low and write a scene in my head. I totally figured out the battle scene in Tuyo by getting stuck on it, quitting, taking the dogs out for a long walk, and figuring it out. Before the walk, no idea. After the walk, all the basic elements of that battle were clear. (That was a particularly productive walk, which is why I remember it).

That counts as #2 as well, as I certainly closed down my computer in order to purposefully think about that scene. Oh, it also counts as #4. I know perfectly well that taking the dogs for a walk is a good time to sort out a challenging scene. I think #2 and #4 are very similar.

Now, #3, not so much. I jot down notes rather seldom. Largely that happens when I’m near the ending of a book and things about the climax and denouement are occurring to me all the time. Can’t turn around without something occurring to me. At that point, I need a little notebook. Other than that, I seldom write a physical note to myself.

Flow is great when it happens. Love that. Can’t count on it. A book I really enjoy produces a lot of moments of flow. Or put that the other way around: a book that produces a lot of flow is highly enjoyable to work on.

That was, among others, almost all of Tuyo, a lot of Tarashana, the middle of Shadow Twin, some of Miguel’s scenes in Copper Mountain, quite a bit of Winter of Ice and Iron, and the last 250 pages Death’s Lady. Come to think of it, the end of the Death’s Lady trilogy is the only other thing I’ve ever written at the same speed as Tuyo, by the way. I wrote the last 240 pages in 19 days, as I recall. I hit 30 pages a day a couple of days, which is (very) unusual for me. I think I have hit that number of pages per day exactly four times in my life, twice for Death’s Lady and twice for Tuyo.

But I have written entire books without ever hitting flow, just grinding through a minimum wordcount every day. Not very often. Maybe twice. Those books do not wind up as my personal favorites; the memory of the grinding effort is too clear when I think about them. But readers don’t seem to be able to tell.

Now, #6. I didn’t used to do that, but right now that’s very true. I would say, though, that I prefer to settle down and live in one WIP at a time. If my attention gets pulled in too many directions at once, it can be hard to complete one relatively brief project because a different project is distracting.

Case in point: This morning, did I work on that chapter I need to finish for the Death’s Lady trilogy? Nope. I figured out the Black Dog novella that will feature Tommy, Amira, and Nicholas and that distracted me too much. On the plus side, I now really expect there will be a novella about those kids because now I know what happens in the story, which I didn’t yesterday. So there’s that.

One more tidbit from the survey particularly tickled me:

Though the internet posed problems for both groups, the less productive group reported it was much more of an issue.

Ha, yes, well, this is a big reason I have not pursued getting better internet from my home. This is a lot less of a distraction than it could be.

Lots more at the linked post. Let me see. Oh, look at this:

  1. High producers were much more likely to report they have a chip on their shoulders — perhaps an insecurity from deep in childhood — that drives them. (Yes, I asked this question)
  2. High producers were more likely to report that they are hypochondriacs and fear they might die abruptly and/or will become senile and this pushes them to write.
  3. High producers were much less likely to believe in innate talent and more likely to state firmly that they need to write.
  4. Both groups reported that they clearly remember stories from their own past and stories that people have told them, just as both groups seemed to equally report that if someone were to name an object or type of event, they would have a series of stories that would naturally pop up into their minds.
  5. Both groups generally affirmed that they feel healthier mentally when they’ve written, though the higher producers were more emphatic.

That’s really interesting because none of that applies to me. Absolutely none. I don’t even think I particularly clearly remember stories, though that is less false than the others. This “need to write” thing in particular has never made sense to me. I don’t feel that way at all. It’s got to tie into the “healthier mentally thing.” I bet everybody answers one way or the other on both those. Nope, I don’t feel that at all. That may be why I sometimes take a break of two months to four months or longer and don’t touch the laptop at all for that whole time. If a break goes on too long, I may feel guilty for not writing, but I sure as heck don’t feel mentally less healthy or like I have to write. Never.

Moving on:

Two things about lifestyle. 

  1. High producers were much more likely to purposefully keep their lives simple so that their creative life takes hold.
  2. High producers were much more likely to eat while writing or take breaks to eat.

I very specifically and deliberately keep my life simple. That is absolutely true.

The other point there seems trivial. If you spend more time writing, you will naturally intersect mealtimes more often, yes? I will add that if you are experiencing flow, you don’t want to stop, so you are probably more likely to bring food to the laptop rather than shutting the laptop down.

When it came to criticism:

  1. High producers were more likely to report that they have gotten more immune/numb/less affected by rejection/criticism over the years.
  2. High producers were much more likely to seek out criticism and to continue to work while waiting for others to respond to their work.

I don’t take rejections from acquiring editors personally — I never have. More importantly, I don’t expect anybody to like every single book I ever write. I don’t think that’s numbness. That’s just reality. I don’t like every single thing anybody else writes (generally speaking), so why expect anybody else to love every single thing I write.

And of course I work on other things while waiting for any beta reader or proofreader to get back to me. I mean, hello, what, just stop? Who does that? I guess that would sure drop a writer’s productivity all right. That never occurred to me.

Okay! More at the linked post, if you’re interested.

The survey questions are given. I like that! That’s important particularly with surveys, when a poorly written question can give an odd result or where the provided choices can skew the results. I do notice this one:

I believe in the importance of innate talent.

  1. Never 2. Rarely 3. Occasionally 4. Often 5. Very Often

Oh, come on. Change the answers to fit the questions, please! You mean:

  1. Not at all 2. A bit 3. Somewhat 4. Strongly 5. Very strongly

Honestly, if you’re writing survey questions, either write each and every question so that it does in fact fit the choices, or change the choices to fit the questions you are asking.

Nevertheless, interesting post, if you like surveys about writing!

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7 thoughts on “Writer survey”

  1. How much *do* you believe in the importance of innate talent?

    I can certainly see how people who feel compelled to write are more likely to be productive about it, but I can’t help feeling that not having the compulsion is healthier. And the apparent association with hypochondria does nothing to change my mind.

    On a happier subject, I’m pleased to hear we pushed you toward the Black Dog Kids story idea you’d tossed off, even if it did distract you from something else.

  2. Craig … I don’t know. I have gone back and forth a bit on that one.

    I think people who subvocalize are probably more likely to have a sense of the rhythm of language — could be wrong, but it seems like it ought to be true. If that is true, then aren’t those people more likely to be good stylists? Subvocalizing or not is probably innate. That wouldn’t necessarily impact storytelling as such, of course. But couldn’t one come up with a dozen other things like this — plausibly related to a talent for some aspect of writing?

    Then there are other things associated with talent. For writing, the ability or desire to settle down and work alone for long periods on something is probably intrinsic; that’s not exactly “innate talent” but it’s innate and probably important in developing talent.

    So … I think probably practically anyone can learn to tell a story competently. But I’m not sure I think practically anyone can learn to be really good at writing.

  3. Allan Shampine

    Reminds me of Ratatouille (the movie). A deceased chef was famous for saying anyone could be a great chef. A critic strongly disagreed with that saying, but was eventually persuaded that what the chef meant was not that every person could become a great chef, but that great chefs could come from any walk of life or background. I tend to agree that in most things, success is a function of both talent and perseverance, with some bias towards perseverance. However, there are plenty of things where physical and mental characteristics impose some upper limits, or, in some cases, a floor you have to have in order to start at all. No matter how hard I work, I will never be an Olympic weight lifter!

  4. Allan, I think of basketball. I don’t have the spatial sense to put the ball in the basket. I just don’t. I really saw this when I was in martial arts. It’s practically impossible for me to judge exactly how far I am from someone and how far I can reach.

    Weight lifting is an even better example. It’s easy to see that nothing whatsoever, no amount of practice, could POSSIBLY let me be an Olympic weight lifter.

    But for intangible things, these days I think of those weird “what do you picture when you visualize a red star?” experiments. If someone doesn’t visualize in color, then they don’t, and practicing is beside the point. That’s what I had in mind when I thought of subvocalizing. If someone doesn’t hear the words in their head, then they don’t, and I don’t think practice is likely to be relevant in any way.

    So … you can teach someone to use concrete nouns and action verbs and shortish paragraphs and whatever other aspects of style appeal to you, but if they don’t feel the rhythm of the language, then is that teachable? How could it be?

  5. So … you can teach someone to use concrete nouns and action verbs and shortish paragraphs and whatever other aspects of style appeal to you, but if they don’t feel the rhythm of the language, then is that teachable? How could it be?

    I don’t know exactly but I know I didn’t notice until one day I did. I remember vividly stopping in the book I was reading and asking “ What is wrong with the writing on this page? And I looked more closely and realized it was a series of simple sentences – remember English classes on those? – Just Subject Verb Object, all down the page. It thumped.

    So I first noticed a negative example, but something got me to that level to notice and have noticed rhythmns as some level when reading ever since.

    I don’t think I subvocalize.

  6. Don’t we pick up all things language via repetition? We may need more or less repetition than the next person, but if you read (or listen to) novels, poetry, or other works that have rhythm—day in and day out—subconsciously you’ll notice, right? I’m all for the nurture side on this one.

    Mostly. Some people won’t notice if you bash them over the head with it.

  7. Elaine, fascinating. Once again with the “impossible to quite grasp how other people’s experience actually works and feels.”

    Mona, it’s the “mostly” part that makes me think, well, it’s kinda nature. Although the nature/nurture distinction is so artificial that I don’t know that it’s possible to describe reality in terms of that dichotomy. The best analogy I ever saw was, “Well, is it the oxygen or the hydrogen that makes water wet?”

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