Why It’s Not Possible to Write an Article in Twenty Minutes

A man painting the outside of a building.

By kevinrosseel, morguefile, http://mrg.bz/JhQC7k

Last fall, I wrote a post about Copyblogger, an interesting blog that’s chock-a-blog (tee-hee) full of good advice for blog-builders. I still haven’t had time to sit down and plough through the hundreds, if not thousands, of posts and guest-posts, but I’m determined to find time one of these days.

But no writer is perfect and there’s one post I have to respond to.  The title drew my attention: “How to Write an Article in 20 Minutes.” At the time I first read it, I was trying to figure out how the heck anyone who writes for content mills, like Demand Studios, could claim to make $60 per hour while writing 400-word articles that pay $15 or less each.

So I took a peak.

The article describes seven tips:

  1. Keep an ideas list.
  2. Let your ideas incubate.
  3. Edit before you start.
  4. Use bullet points.
  5. Keep it short.
  6. Come back later.
  7. Never save a good idea.

They all sound like good tips, right? The problem is, they don’t make writing faster. They just take parts of the writing process and separate it from the time spent with pen to page, metaphorically, so that the only thing that’s counted as writing is the part called drafting.

Have you ever painted a room? Have you ever noticed how much time goes into prep work? You move the furniture, take down pictures, and put down drop cloths; you get spackle and fill in any holes in the walls; after the spackle is dry, you sand it down; unless you’re a professional painter with a very steady hand, you tape up the edges; and you make sure all your tools—paint brushes, rollers, trays, ladders, and so on—are in position.

The actual painting might only take an hour. Wait a couple of hours for it to dry, apply a second coat.

Then clean up. Clean the brushes, rollers, and trays thoroughly so they don’t get stiff and, the next time you paint, the colours won’t mix. Label any leftover paint and put it away. Pull up the drop cloths and give the floor a good sweep. Take down the tape, push the furniture back, and rehang the pictures.

Describing the prep and clean-up that goes with painting took 140 words. Describing the actual painting took 21 words. That’s a pretty good reflection of the relative amounts of time required to prep and clean up a room as opposed to the actual painting.

Do you think any painter would let you get away with only paying him or her the actions represented by those 21 words? Of course not! Because the rest of the work is just as vital to the job.

So why do people—often including writers—think that writing comprises only that time when one is applying a first draft of words to the page?

Writing down ideas, letting them incubate, fine tuning them, taking a long draft and making it more concise, and then coming back later to give it a look with fresh eyes are all just as legitimate elements of the writing process as prep and clean-up are of the painting process.

Years ago, I took a writing workshop that divided the writing process into three separate tasks:

  1. Invention—coming up with and incubating ideas, which requires about 20–25% of the overall time
  2. Drafting—getting the initial piece of writing out of the writer’s brain and onto the page, which requires about 20–25% of the time
  3. Revising—reviewing, rewording, and rewriting until the article or story conveys what the writer wanted, which can take 50% or more of the time

Note that the above process does not include researching before beginning to write, editing afterward, or design and layout, which may be done by the same person or by other professionals.

So when Copyblogger suggests that it’s possible to write an article in 20 minutes, the only part they’re talking about is drafting, which is one of the smaller parts of the writing process. A writer by the name of Dave Greber once said, “When I’m staring out a window with a cup of coffee in my hand, I am writing.”

I find it distressing when people who make their living as writers suggest that nothing but the drafting stage deserves to be remunerated. It perpetuates false notions and devalues writing, not only for writers but for readers as well. Don’t they deserve the best we can give them? Do they deserve the 15-minute regurgitated schlock that’s being peddled by companies like Demand Studios and filling up cyberspace with garbage?

I look forward to going back to Copyblogger and reading a lot more, because they offer writers a lot of good tips and provide readers with a lot of insight. But that particular post? I’m sorry, but it’s just wrong.

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