by Stephanie Smith
I’m sure you’ve noticed it, too.
Much like fast food or fast fashion, ours is a culture of fast words. With unlimited world knowledge accessible to us 24/7 in the palm of our hand, I think it’s safe to say we are encountering an unprecedented volume of words per day. Get this: the amount of time people spend reading today has roughly tripled since 1980. While I see this as a heartening sign in some ways, as it speaks to heightened personal practice, we can also of course recognize the difference between deep reading and surface screening.
In the fashion industry, “fast” is defined by the speed at which high fashion is converted to accessible price-point retail. Fast fashion cuts costs often by using cheaper materials and using efficient production to get trends to the everyday shopper more expediently. Yet the ethical costs of such a system are well-documented.
Similarly, we are pressed to ask what a steady intake of fast words is costing us. When efficiency over eloquence is rewarded, memes and emojis are outsourced to do the work of emotional expression for us, and TL;DR becomes a cultural attitude, we are wise to inquire: how is this shaping us, and what is the cost to our attention spans?
Our brains are designed to be constantly scanning our surroundings for threats. Yet when everything is presented as essential, un-missable, in the unholy spirit of urgency and scarcity, it creates sensory overload. This overstimulation then backfires: rather than engaging our attentions, it actually callouses our attentions. It inhibits our ability to practice being fully present. This is where we realize a high cost indeed: calloused attention is not only a symptom of content intake, it is nothing short of a condition of the soul.
So how do we practice slow words when fast words are all the fashion today? How do we buck so strong a trend?
Fast words are an industry. They are assembly-line made. So if we want to make way for a slow word movement instead, we’re going to have to jump the track.
If you ask me it’s a two-tiered process: slow your input, slow your output.
Read well and slowly.
First we are invited to slow our input. Who are we to think we have anything meaningful to say if we do not listen first? Take your time with your reading practice. Read well, widely, and slowly. Resist the urge to skim.
Perhaps read with a pen in hand for a more active experience of paying attention. If you’re listening to an audiobook or podcast, try not to multi-task with anything that requires your brain to be working elsewhere (i.e., opt for listening while driving or emptying the dishwasher, rather than paying bills or inbox-cleaning).
Reading is a wonderful way to affirm the limitations of our humanity, because it wholeheartedly affirms we cannot be everywhere, doing everything, all at once [tweet this]. Far more than mere data download, reading is one of the rare activities that requires full immersion, no short-cuts. And in this way it is a marvelous means of practicing presence.
Write reflectively, rather than reactively.
I find most fast words are the result of reactivity. They are an easy outlet for venting, getting an unpleasant emotion off our chest, or pronouncing condemnation in way that often puts others down and props up our gratifying sense of being right. To be clear, there is very much a standing need to renounce what calls for renouncing. But there is a searing distinction between reflective renouncement and un-reflective reactivity [share this].
Reactive writing skips over the creative incubation process: the turning, tending, and tilling over until more durable breakthroughs can be discovered. There’s a name for this get-it-off-the-chest impulse we writers know well: it’s called a rough draft. And we know just as well rough drafts are never meant for the publish button!
We might find it emotionally gratifying to vent our first reactions, but better yet to refine them, to put them through the process of reflection, further reading and examination, to skim off the raw impurities and imperfections, and yield something bright and true instead [tweet this]. Ideas develop best when they’re given time to come of age, rather than rushed through to become market-ready.
Slow input + slow output introduces encounter.
The reactive brain is stuck in survival mode: fight, flight, or freeze. And here we uncover the real driver behind reactivity.
When we pull back the curtain on the rush to be the first-responder, the pressure to publish the hottest hot take, the hustle to write faster, louder, better…we often find fear. Fear is the inevitable fruit of writing from a place of survivalist fight, flight, or freeze [tweet this].
But the reflective brain opens you up to a whole new realm which scientists aptly call focus. This is the deep well from which our strongest creative energies flow. What’s more, focused writing compels focused reading; it invites to the reader into encounter. It invites to reader to receive, rather than to consume.
As we turn soon into a new year, a new decade, I say we commit ourselves to a slower, more sustainable practice of reading and writing. Fast words make big promises that rarely deliver. Slow words, on the other hand, must be fought for, but I think it’s about time we give up the ghost of the instant epiphany.
Let’s make our move to come by our breakthroughs honestly, practicing reflectiveness over reactivity, and finding the hard-won reward of words that endure.
Stephanie Smith is the associate publisher for Zondervan Books, where she takes great joy in supporting, stretching, and championing authors as they bring the best out of their message. Stephanie lives with her husband in Tennessee, and you can catch her pop-up email newsletter for writers looking to find your angle, write like you mean it, and do it in style at www.slantletter.com.