Five Ways to Write Faster

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Whether you need to clear a backlog of emails, write an important document at work, finish a short story, or do your homework, spending hours staring at a blank screen and struggling to come up with words won’t help.

If you know you could get twice as much done if only you could write faster, try some of the following methods.

  1. Don’t worry about the quality of your first draft

    Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, many experts recommend just getting the first draft done before starting to edit. That means keeping the momentum going as you write, rather than going back to change words or delete sentences. If you’re a perfectionist and write slowly because you worry about getting every little detail right the first time round, giving yourself the freedom to produce a “rubbish first draft” can triple your writing speed.

    Once you’re done, go back and edit: often, you’ll be surprised that your first draft really isn’t too bad!

    In his book Do It Tomorrow (which I strongly recommend for anyone who struggles to manage their time and attention), Mark Forster recommends writing a series of quick drafts:

    When I first learnt the techniqute of writing in a series of rapid drafts, my first draft would usually consist of nothing more than a few words jotted down. My second draft would add a bit more and I would go on revising it until I had it in the form I wanted.

    There are two great advantages to doing it this way. First of all it gets rid of the perfectionist feeling that it has to be got right first time. If I think a sentence is a bit clumsy, what does it matter? There’ll be another draft along in a moment. The second advantage is that engaging with the material in this way allows new thoughts and insights to appear.

  2. Outline the piece before starting

    With bigger projects, it’s easy to get stuck because you’ve come to a standstill or gone off on a tangent. Jot down some notes before you begin: that might be subheadings for a blog post or article, paragraphs for an essay, or plot points for a short story. Type these onto your computer screen – you’ll no longer be staring at a blank document, and seeing the next subheading or paragraph point ahead will help keep you on track.

  3. Set a timer for ten minutes and write non-stop until it goes off

    Have you noticed how much faster you write when you need to finish something before a set time (perhaps lunch, or an essay deadline)? It’s amazing how much your brain can focus when you’ve only got a few minutes. Mark Forster calls this the “end effect” – speeding up at the end of a piece of work – and recommends using a timer to produce it consistently. Challenge yourself to see how much you can produce in ten minutes.

  4. Do your research and preparation separately from the writing

    Something that can really slow things down is stopping to look up a fact, find a quote, or check a figure. When you write the outline for your piece (see #2), you should have a good idea of what references you’ll need to make. Look these up before you start writing, and have them all to hand.

    Alternatively, if the process of writing sparks off ideas of websites, books or people you want to refer to, don’t stop to find them part-way through writing the piece. Leave a note in the text to remind yourself of what you want to include; you might want to highlight this in some way so you don’t forget to go back and put it in! For example, in the first draft of this article, I wrote —

    [Quote from Mark Forster on drafting process]

    — and looked it up when I revised the first draft.

    The same applies if you’re unsure of how to spell a word, or if you can’t quite think of the right phrase: highlight it in some way, and come back to it once the first draft is complete.

  5. Turn off distractions (instant messenger, Twitter, email.)

    If you’re constantly interrupted by friends wanting to chat on instant messenger, by incoming emails, by new posts coming through to your RSS reader – turn everything off. I can write at least twice as fast – and often even faster – without any distractions. You might think it only takes a few seconds to read each message, but every time you turn your attention away from what you’re writing, you lose momentum.

    I’m great at procrastinating when I should be writing and so I write most of my blog posts first thing in the morning, before I even connect my computer to the internet. This also helps with #4 – I’m not tempted to stop and search for some missing piece of information on Google every few minutes.

Have you got any great tips on speeding up your writing? Can you dash off an essay in an hour, or race through your inbox with ease? Let us know what tips and tricks you’ve discovered – or, alternatively, if you’re a slow writer, tell us where you think you’re going wrong!

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16 thoughts on “Five Ways to Write Faster”

  1. Ah, but Mari, that doesn’t mean to say that those who don’t wouldn’t be faster if they did.

    I don’t know if outlining would make people faster writers, but I do know that I don’t do any of these things very often, and am horrendously slow at writing things. Thanks for the pointers, I’ll try to remember them next time I’m writing a blog post.

  2. Along with #3, I set short-term content goals, e.g, write about a particular sub-topic, write until I have finished discussing the next idea. Then I sit there until I meet that goal.

    This is often combined with time goals, such as writing about a particular topic or for a set amount of time, whichever comes first.

    If something else comes up, other ideas, etc., they are jotted down and ignored (similar to the idea in #4).

    However, much of the “speed” in writing comes from a willingness to separate writing and editing. Typically, the wordsmithing process takes much more time than the initial writing. Both processes are faster when they are separate.

    Finally, know what you want to write about before writing, i.e., the ideas, if not the specific content.

  3. I have a tip to add that I just discoverd yesterday and it immediately improved my writing time: If you’re using a word processor turn OFF the automatic spelling and grammar check tool.

    I suffered tremendously from seeing those red and green squiggly lines pointing out all my grammatical errors and they were a constant distraction. Now that I don’t have to deal with them anymore I can focus on writing and editing isn’t the foremost thing on my mind anymore. Kind of a common sense thing, but I’m willing to bet that a majority of writers using word processor don’t realize that you can turn that feature off.

  4. Great list. I’d like to expand on #5 for a second. There was a big list of writers’ tools one day and on it was “Notebook”. You know, boring, no options for editing, spellcheck, ol’ Notebook. At first I scoffed, but now use it regularly to get my lists together, copy and paste information quickly and, of course, I use it to just SIT DOWN AND WRITE. No options, no templates, no formatting, just writing.

  5. Yes! Do get the research out of the way and have tons of notes. I tend to over research a topic, but then that gives me more for a later column. I enjoy the research process and sometimes have trouble stopping.
    For first/rough draft I prefer pencil and paper. Just scribble down, cross out and make a general mess. Then when I sit to the keyboard I can concentrate on the organization and formal writing.
    I subscribe to another writing e-letter and editing for conciseness is one of the mantras. To get a lot into a limited space takes some work.

  6. Outlining doesn’t work for everybody. In fact, I know more of us who don’t outline than who do.

  7. @Mari I agree outlining doesn’t work for *everyone* but I’d argue that it’s often a help for articles and essays type pieces.

    @Adrian Hope they help you! I think it’s better to write a GOOD piece than a FAST one, but if you can write faster without any loss of quality … that has to be good.

    @PreciseEdit Yes, I completely agree that separating writing and editing is a huge help. One analogy I quite like is “Trying to edit while writing is like trying to run while tying your shoe-laces…”

    @Charlie I often write rough notes with pen and paper, too; I think it’s easier to be “messy” than when it’s in neat type on the screen!

  8. It’s really hard for me to just let go of worries and just let loose to write, thanks for the advice. No more constant editing and revising again and again for me!

  9. #4 and #5 are my biggest weakness. Since I still work full time and have a newborn in the house, I find the distractions to be VERY difficult to handle.

    Also, #4 is something I am guilty constantly. I think the outline and the seperating the writing from the research go hand in hand – especially if you are writing about a topic that you are learning from scratch. Very important.

  10. Before you do anything, turn off the mobile phone and e-mail.

    I tend to have to write a lot of business reports and project plans. On the rare occasion I have to start from scratch, I structure my document by putting all the section and paragraph headings in place from what I know I need to cover.
    I then start at the top and attack each paragraph until I’ve run out of free-flowing brain-dump to write down. Then I move on to the next one and batter that out until I’ve said all I can think of saying there as well. And so on, until I’ve completed as much as possible on the first pass. I leave it to the side for a while and then proofread it, adding and changing as things occur to me.
    From that usually substantial first draft, I’m ready to investigate the rest of the stuff and finish it off, reasonably quickly. I find I can usually get a 20-25 page plan ready for review within 6-8 hours. It helps that I don’t have to research new subjects though.

  11. Another tip I find useful –
    To prevent bias in the writing, I gather all of the research, skim through it and type up/copy and cite all information that I think MIGHT be useful, then leave it alone for a while. Then I come back to it, and try to organize the information into sections or paragraphs. This way, the hypothesis/argument comes out and I didn’t pre-form a biased one.

  12. Then there is the old Hemingway standby. Start drinking 30 minutes before you start writing. That way you say what you really mean.

  13. I agree with all of these points. Susceptibility to distractions is a huge problem for most writers. And in my experience the second big issue is a lack of structure and preparation before we start writing. When you know what you are going to say, elements by element, and then free your environment of distractions, it’s a lot easier to write faster, and better.

  14. Hard to believe that it’s already been ~3 years since the last comment was posted; still, this information is invaluable.

    I’d also like to add that you should be constantly learning. In studying Georges Simenon (one of the most prolific novelists of the 20th century), I realized he was in a constant research cycle, culling together facts that later appeared in his work. Most of his novels followed a very loose outline (to put it mildly), and relied on free-association to fill in the blanks.

    Studying the processes of prolific authors also isn’t a bad place to start.

  15. I’m going to agree with my fellow Nick on his point about structure and organization before you get to the page. People say they don’t like structure because they want to write by the seat of their pants, and be creatively free. Well, if you plan a whole lot, you are still able to make creative changes on the fly, but now it all moves your plot forward, and doesn’t leave a huge mess of a first draft. You need to plan your structure ahead. As Larry Brooks asked ‘pantsers’: “how many successful novels have you actually written that way?”

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