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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!