How to Write Fast
I’m going to write this post in 20 minutes.
Being able to write fast is a crucial skill for writers of every stripe, especially freelancers who work to order, often under tight deadlines, as well as journalists trying to get a scoop. Bloggers, too, can benefit from writing fast, so they can move on to the writing that pays the bills, advances their careers, or satisfies their muse.
The key to writing fast is turning off your internal editor, that little voice in your head that tells you when a sentence or choice of words sucks. You have to fight that painful urge to go back and correct what you’ve just written, to fix the typos, or to pick just the right word, every single time.
This boils down to a matter of trust — trust in yourself. You have to know that when you’re done madly drafting your piece, you’ll go back and fix things up. The important part is getting something to work with on the screen or on paper. Your writerly instinct is as much an editorial instinct as anything else — by separating the act of getting thoughts out of your head and shaping them into a finished, publishable piece, you can save a lot of time as your brain stays “locked in” on one task or the other, instead of split between both.
Here are my tips for writing quickly:
1. Have a plan.
An outline is a good start, but for shorter pieces (and even longer pieces if you just aren’t the kind of writer who outlines) just having a good idea of what you want to say before you start writing is going to shave plenty of time off your writing. A good capture strategy is key, too — get ideas down as they occur to you, flesh them out whenever you have a minute or two, and be ready to go when you sit down to write.
2. Have a formula.
I write a ton of blog posts, between Lifehack and The Writer’s Technology Companion and a bunch of other sites I contribute to as a guest. I also write a lot of articles for mainstream and trade outlets. For each of them, I’ve developed a kind of formula — not a fixed, immutable template, but a general set of rules I follow. Like the numbered, sub-headed list (this article, for example) — having this pattern in my head means I don’t have to think about how to move from one point to the next when I’m actually writing.
3. Don’t stop for ignorance.
Write what you know. And BS what you don’t know — at least in your draft. I do this all the time when I’m writing up pieces based on interviews with sources — instead of scrubbing back and forth through my recording of the interview, referring back to my notes, or (god forbid) writing a transcript, I just make up quotes that seem kind of like what they said, and that fit the point I’m making. Then I go back and replace my made-up quotes with actual quotes from my intereview.
If you don’t know a fact or date or name, just insert XXX or [EXPERT’S NAME] or [SECTION ON FISHING] wherever you’re stuck or need further research, and come back to it later. I like to highlight those sections in yellow to make them easier to find.
4. Kill distractions.
This is self-explanatory — if you’re going to write fast, you can’t stop to do anything else. Find a quiet place, put on your most glowering face (to scare off those who would dare interrupt you), and get to work, Put on a little music if it drowns out other noises or helps you stay focused, but otherwise make sure there’s nothing going on that might catch your attention. You need it all for your writing.
5. Set a timer.
I have a timer running on my PC right now, set to 20 minutes. That keeps me on my toes — writing this is a race with the timer. It also keeps me motivated — I know the timer will go off if I stop, so I need to just keep going. A lot of writers claim to write best when they’re up against a deadline — setting a timer creates your own deadline, not a day or two from now but in 20 minutes or so. GO GO GO!
6. Use tools you know.
While I’m the last person in the world who would suggest you never look at new tools, when time is of the essence, use the tools you know well and are comfortable using. Don’t waste time trying to figure out how to make italics or boldface text, or how to double-indent or single-space a quotation, when you’re trying to write fast. Just fire up your Trusty Old Friend (for me, it’s the simplicity of Google Docs) and write. Save the experimentation for when you have a little leisure time to work
Well, there you go — I’ve got over 5 minutes left on the stopwatch (as of the beginning of this sentence) and what I think is a pretty nice article. I’ll go back, fix up the formatting, correct any typos or poor grammar, make sure I expressed myself clearly, and cut and paste this into my site. The end.
(Word count: 883; Total time: 16:05 mins)
http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html is great for FAST writing.
Great tips, Dustin! The only thing I would add is that I always set aside time to go through the day’s work and handle basic editing — like adding in dates and facts. I don’t necessarily like to do it immediately after writing a post, simply because I’m in the groove for writing and I want to stick to it. But a little editing does go a long way.
Some time ago I found this great little program called Q10 (Windows Only):
It’s full screen and has very few feature to distract from you writing.
… and it has a built-in stop watch for timing your writing as you described in your blog post.
Oh, and of course it’s a free program.
Excellent ideas in here. Too often I get distracted with the font,an indent,or some new feature I need to play with, so writing in Notepad, or as an email draft helps. The timer is a great idea…anything that can help us get down to business. Thanks for the post.
Sometimes I have tried to write with Q10.
It’s a tool very useful when you have to write without distraction, you want to be alone with your thoughts, but with a goal in mind.
Simple and good work for working.
Thanks a lots to the author.
I know there are minimalistic text editors and word processors out there to deal with distraction. But, how about a new app that specifically addresses that annoyingly fiendish internal editor?
It will be similar to Dark Room/WriteRoom. The added bonus is that your words fade to black shortly after you type them. You can only see the last one or two words that you’ve typed until you click a “reveal” button and are ready to edit your piece.
Who’s gonna create this for us?
Yay! Thank you.
thank you for this inspiring post! I’m a very slow writer I think b/c turning the editor off is very hard for me. I can even take forever to post on twitter lol (@jeelago) Am gonna try some of these.
But I do *strongly* agree with Thursday Bram, that last 5 minutes or another 20 minutes of editing at a later time can make a big, huge, face-saving difference! Now I get to point out that you missed a typo under #4 “helpsyu stay focused” ;~j
This is great. Just last week I discovered the timer method after finding I was spending way too long researching articles before writing. I split the time I wanted to spend into research, writing, and final editing, and it worked well. I’ve also started using the magazine method of inserting TK (to come) or TK HERE so I keep moving.
That said, 16 minutes is really impressive for this piece! I have some work to do before I’m there.
Awesome article! You’ve pointed out some great tips.
I already practiced most of them but it’s always good to read them again from some else. It refresh things up a bit.
p.s. sorry for the bad writing, english is not my main language!