In the early stages of writing my dissertation I would be lucky to produce more than a few sentences a day. Words came out as quickly as liquid petroleum dripped out of decaying dinosaur bones. I was not alone – many colleagues spent weeks producing no more than a few pages. Each idea or turn of phrase was scrutinized, re-scrutinized, edited, then deleted. It went on like this for several months.
I worried that my doctoral student funding would run out before I even finished my first chapter. At the end of each day, I looked in confusion at my computer monitor at how much mental effort could produce so few words. I was at the lowest point of my PhD program. But then my world was turned upside down thanks to a mutton-chopped man sporting horn-rimmed-glasses who died more than 20 years ago.
Enter Isaac Asimov.
Asimov, the late doyen of science fiction, had a productivity that frightened all but the most prolific novelists. He wrote or edited more than 500 books, hundreds of short stories and essays. On top of that, he fired off 90,000 letters and postcards to fans around the world. Asimov’s books were published in nine of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System.
For an average writer to produce an output that high, they would need to write one book every two weeks for 25 years. Since each of his books were approximately 70,000 words, that works out to 5,000 words a day, ready for publication. Any writer will tell you that the first go-around is not ready for publication, suggesting his total word count was much higher.
A New York Times profile from the 1960s described Asimov as a hermit pounding furiously away at his typewriter. He sat in his attic office, encircled by book cases built low because of the sloping ceilings. Over 1,000 volumes of history, science, nonfiction, and everything else fills the shelves. Well over 100 of the books on these shelves were written by him. These were only one-fourth of the books that he would write over his lifetime.
Asimov’s gatling gun style of writing made him in many ways the anti-writer. The image of a novelist sitting at their typewriter, straining to produce each word and tearing up their manuscript if it is not perfect haunts the imaginations of many first-time writers. For this reason there are many self-proclaimed “writers” who never write. They claim the title as their profession but never put out a word due to paralysis by analysis. Writer’s block, they say.
Too many people believe that the key to excellent writing is to meditate at one’s keyboard and only spoon out tiny servings of words whenever the muse whispers in their ear. That’s how I wrote, or at least tried to write. But it is not how Asimov did his craft.
How did he shovel out words by the gross? It wasn’t by a slow, contemplative process. Asimov wrote in a fast, straightforward style and attacked his typewriter, believing that output was far better than deeply nuanced dithering.
Asimov also wrote consistently, often working seven days a week. He started between 9:30 and 10 a.m., typing over 90 words a minute until 5 o’clock. Asimov took only small breaks, rarely more than a fast lunch or a coffee break. His office had a window with a view of a willow tree in his yard, but he rarely looked at it. Nor did he cut the grass in his lawn. That would take away from writing time. Asimov would then break for dinner. Sometimes he spent time with his wife and two teenage children. He usually went back to work after dinner and kept writing until 10 p.m. When somnolence took over, Asimov slept, probably drafting an outline for the next part of the book in his dreams.
This lunch pail approach to writing influenced his style more than anything else. He produced words on the paper even if the muse did not visit him, scoffing at the idea of “writer’s block,” since workers like his shopkeep father never shut the doors due to “shop keeper’s block.” As a result, no one publisher could keep up with Asimov’s output. He was like an amorous polygamist that required a harem of wives and concubines to keep him satisfied, not to mention paramours found in numerous port cities. Both Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin published nearly everything he gave to them, and they only handled 60 percent of his work. The rest was covered by small presses, science fiction magazines, and author anthologies.
It was not only Asimov’s high number of work hours that enabled him to produce so much content. He preferred a completely unembellished writing style. His characters were so simple and the dialogue so functional that it approached the telegraphic minimum of language. There is little literary criticism on Asimov despite his widespread popularity and influence as a writer. This is because Asimov stated so clearly to the reader of his intention in the plot what is happening in the story and why it is happening. Characters do not speak so much as exposit. There is very little for a critic to interpret when characters do the work for them.
In 1980, science fiction scholar James Gunn, wrote of I, Robot that:
“Except for two stories—”Liar!” and “Evidence”—they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent… The robot stories and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.”
Asimov was never offended by such criticism. To the contrary, he welcomed it. He followed in the writing tradition of authors such as Ernest Hemingway, who favored short sentences, direct speech, strong verbs, and powerful prose. He believed that flowery language, useless adverbs, and nonsensical metaphors would only clutter up his writing and make it more of a chore for the reader. Here’s an explanation of his writing philosophy from Asimov himself:
I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.
I applied Asimov’s lessons to my PhD writing plan in two ways. First, I made a commitment to hitting a word count every day, no matter how terrible or uninspired I felt. Five hundred words a day was my bare minimum. Even if my content was riddled with grammar errors or nonsensical transitions, I would keep going. Meeting this goal was difficult the first week, but soon the process became easier. Then I started writing with no apologies or regrets. I never stopped to look back, cross anything out, or consider which word was the best. All of that could wait for the editing process. After 2-3 weeks I regularly hit 1,000 words a day. Four months later, I finished the first draft of my 400-page thesis.
The second lesson I learned from Asimov was to write in a plain style. I have never been much of a theorist, preferring facts and direct statements to an obtuse French poststructuralist writing style that haunts graduate programs to this day. But I decided to strip my style down even more and approach a level of directness that was almost as monosyllabic as Hemingway. I figured that I could add ornamentation in my language during subsequent rounds of thesis edits rather than strip it off.
Both methods made a critical difference. Thanks to Asimov’s influence, I was able to finish my dissertation in months instead of years. Writing a very bad first draft and then going back to edit it multiple times was a much faster process than writing a “perfect” first draft, only to have to go back and edit it multiple times anyway.
Any writing tips you recommend?