Scientific management theory meets creativity

Ah, the lure of scientific management theory. It’s scientific—it says so right up front. And it’s about management, something no business should be without. But can it—should it—apply to creative pursuits?

My esteemed cyber-colleague Guy Bergstrom, author of the blog Red Pen of Doom, seems to believe that writers should be able to create as fast as we type. Using the average person’s typing speed of 50 words per minute, he reckons an average scribe ought to turn out 24,000 words in an eight-hour day.

I type much faster than average—I had an entry-level job transcribing audio tapes, so I learned to type almost as fast as a person can talk, if that person is not a New Yorker. But I don’t write anywhere near 100 words per minute.

The monster project I did for my client in July clocked in at 60,040 words (but who’s counting?). That’s a decent-sized nonfiction book right there, folks. And I wrote it in just nine days, working a total of 87 hours. I was exhausted at the end, and rightly so.

But if it were a typing test, I would have failed miserably. All that work boils down to about 11 words a minute. A first-grader with an oversized pencil probably writes faster than that. But good luck getting the kid to analyze and incorporate the reams of data and background material that went into my essays.

And that’s the point, of course. “Writing” is not just the physical act of pounding a keyboard. It’s a thought process—or a bunch of processes—culminating in the keyboard-pounding. And those thought processes can begin anywhere: when I’m walking the dog, taking a shower, driving the car. To be clear, I don’t bill my clients for that time. But it’s definitely a part of my idea-generation cycle.

Back when I was transcribing, I found the key to typing quickly was to remove my brain from the process. I just hit the letters that corresponded to the sounds coming through my headphones. If I stopped to think about what those sounds meant, I slowed down.

I doubt anyone wants a writer who removes her brain from the process. The brain is the point of the process. It’s why people hire me…if they’re smart.

Scientific management: it started with a stopwatch

Back in the early days of the 20th century, a guy named Frederick Winslow Taylor decided to time laborers to see how quickly they worked. At the Bethlehem Steel Company, employees loaded iron onto freight cars at the rate of 12.5 tons per man per day. But Taylor found that a “first-class man” could load 47.5 tons  a day—380% more! If one guy could do it that fast, why shouldn’t everyone? Why would a company expect anything but “first-class” work from each of its people?

Check his tombstone and you’ll find that many people called Taylor the “Father of Scientific Management.” I suspect other people, freight-loaders included, called him something less printable. For more on Taylor, his disciple Frank Gilbreth, and the equally remarkable Lillian Gilbreth, read “Not So Fast” by Jill Lepore, in the October 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. And, yes, if those names ring a bell you’ve likely met the Gilbreths before: two of their children wrote Cheaper By the Dozen.

As for Scientific Management: If you want a freight car full of words loaded as quickly as possible, hire someone to transcribe your thoughts. But if you want a “first-class” writer, hire someone who doesn’t just pound a keyboard. You need someone who can think, too.