Setting Standards: Part 2

On Monday, I wrote about the importance of applying standards for both speed and excellence to any job you do. I explained why both are necessary, and why I generally favor speed over excellence in business – especially when you’re testing a new idea. (My “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach.)

But when it comes to my books … well, that’s a different story. I struggle with these standards every time I write one, because writing a book is much different from the kind of writing I do for ETR. And writing a non-fiction book is much different from writing a novel.

To finish Automatic Wealth, a non-fiction book of 271 pages, within the nine-month timeframe I was given by my publisher, I had to write 30 pages a month. That meant writing 675 words a day, five days a week.

I can easily complete a 675-word article for ETR – which usually comes right off the top of my head – in about 60 minutes. I just transfer my thoughts and experiences directly to the page. But to achieve the standard of quality I’ve established for my non-fiction books (“good,” but not “great”), I had to sacrifice some speed.

I’ve established a first-draft standard for myself of writing 500 words in 60 minutes. However, that doesn’t include researching, rewriting, and editing. All told, Automatic Wealth represents about 540 hours of work, and increased the time I usually allot to writing from one to three hours a day.

Then, there’s my fiction …

Since I would like my fiction writing to be better than “good,” I’ve set a higher standard of excellence for the novel I’m working on. My standard for speed, though, is about the same as it is for non-fiction: 500 first-draft words a day.

Ernest Hemingway, whose fiction I admire, had that same 500-word-per-day speed standard. But he was willing to spend about four hours a day on getting down good sentences. Currently, I have only two hours a day to devote to fiction writing (usually between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.). And since I’ve been sticking with my 500-words-a-day objective because I want to get this novel finished, my standard for excellence has suffered.

To meet my excellence standard, I’d have to decrease my daily word-count goal to about 125 words. Because it’s my nature to opt for speed, it will be hard for me to slow down. Yet, I know that if I’m ever to write something even remotely great, I’ll have to bite the bullet and decelerate.

Gustave Flaubert, the father of the modern novel, began writing Madame Bovary in September of 1851. He didn’t finish it until 1856, almost five years later. Progress was so “excruciatingly slow,” according to a critic writing in The New York Times Book Review, “that in one six-week period he produced only 25 pages.”

Flaubert “fretted that all he had were sentences, ‘a series of well-turned paragraphs that don’t flow into one another.'” But what he produced, when Madame Bovary was finally finished, was a brand-new way of writing fiction. Flaubert was so influential that virtually every modern writer today – from the war reporter to the thriller writer to the avant-garde fictionist – owes a major debt to him in terms of how narrative fiction is constructed and how sentences are styled.

Speed vs. excellence. Flaubert struggled with these same standards. In his case, excellence won. But we don’t usually have the luxury of spending five years on a project.

As I said on Monday, in doing your work and seeking your goals, you need to establish standards for both speed and excellence. You need enough speed to overcome inertia and move your project to completion. You need enough quality to produce results that will be valued. And you have to continuously set and reset the balance between those standards in order to get the results you are aiming for.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]