Writing, Fast and Slow

It wasn’t until I joined in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) a few years ago that I finished a full draft of a novel for the first time. For anyone unfamiliar with Nanowrimo, it’s a national challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. It’s a frenzy of typing and panicking and obsessing over word counts. It’s also great fun, and finishing a book was a milestone for me. But I wonder if it didn’t leave me with an undue focus on speed. It taught me how to be a finisher, how to plan out the work over a timeline, and how to set and reach targets. What it didn’t teach me, what I had to learn much later, was patience.

As described in the Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Khaneman’s best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) there are two major modes of thought. System one is quick, automatic, emotional, prone to bias. System two is slower, analytic, logical. In applying these modes to writing, at first I thought only of the fast draft, followed by the slow (oh, so slow) process of revision. But there are benefits, and pitfalls, to both modes, and both modes can help us differently in different phases of writing.


First drafts may appear to be exclusively the realm of our intuition and impulses– where we’re told to muzzle our inner critics and let our speed demon wild to scribble out what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” But even here there are opportunities where it could be beneficial to slow down.

If you work off an outline, take some time after your daily word-count sprinting to turn your analytic mind to your outline. Is it still relevant to what you discovered during today’s writing session? Is there anything new to add? Is there anything you’re overlooking?

If you don’t bother with outlines and fly by the seat of your pants as you write (a “pantser”), stop and slow down every once in a while even as you draft. Fast thought is prone to error and bias. What assumptions are you making about your characters and their motivations? What assumptions are your characters making about the world around them? What are *they* overlooking? What structures of storytelling are you following automatically? Are there other ways that might work more logically with the story you’re trying to tell?

The point is not to paralyze yourself with questions, but to find the value in slowing down and thinking more analytically, even in the first draft.


Revision is supposedly the place to step back and work slowly and methodically through and train wreck of a first draft until we’ve polished into a shiny jewel. But there are also dangers to working too slowly, besides that looming deadline.

Analytic thinking is prone to losing touch with immediate reality, the physicality of one’s surroundings. Do a quick read-through of a scene or chapter you’re working on revising. Are there physical details in the setting that you’re overlooking? Are your characters too “in their heads” or the narration so abstract that readers won’t be able to imagine themselves actually present in your world?

With overly analytical thinking it’s also likely that you’re overlooking intuitive and emotional elements. Try answering these questions quickly: Is there anything about the structure or shape of your story that just “feels” off? What’s solution “feels” right, whether or not it makes logical sense? Are there any areas where you might have revised the emotion out of a scene in an effort to get it to fit into a new structure? What are your characters really feeling in that moment? How can you give readers the sense of these emotions through gesture or diction or imagery?

Again, the point is not to add more work to your writing process, but to give you the awareness of these two modes of thinking so you can use them both to your greatest advantage in order to write the story you want to tell.




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