Writing Fast, Writing Well

fast writer

In the writing game -- whether it be fiction or non-fiction, blogging or stories, books, adcopy, plays, or online articles -- productivity equals success. The myth of the tortured writer wrangling over the placement of one word to serve their art, or the notion that a writer can dribble out a few paragraphs each morning and call their writing day done, do not square with the modern realities of the writer’s profession, no matter their niche or specialization. Writing faster does not mean writing poorly, it does not mean hackwork -- it simply marks the difference between those writers who have worked hard to perfect their craft, and those who still buy into the myths of slow writing.

Fast Writing is Often Better Writing

While it cannot be denied that hasty writing can -- and often does -- produce error ridden or awkward prose, the corollary is that over-analyzed and edited writing can produce passages of extraordinary blandness. Much of a writer’s personality and style in fact comes to the fore when writing quickly, when the writer is one with the moment and creates in his or her own particular voice. This is especially true in fiction, where it is often the raw work of a craftsman not afraid to put words down on paper in a white hot heat that distinguishes itself from the pureed and toothless story that has been work-shopped to death in an attempt to match the comfort level of a room full of readers.

Faster writing puts the writer in touch with the real pulse of what it is they are trying to say, and unconsciously puts the tools into their hand to say it well -- style, voice, and originality. And the truth is this can best be learned by letting go of many hang-ups and insecurities. Writing fast is a head game, and it is the confident writer that wins.

Eliminate Distractions

The most basic rule of fast writing is to eliminate distractions and, in this day and age, that generally means the Internet. Very few of us live in a situation in which we can push aside work and family to achieve total focus on writing, but we do have a choice when it comes to online activity. Get your emails out of the way, check your sources or references before you write, and do not log on for the duration of your work session. Flip the antenna switch to off on your laptop, hide your modem, write longhand on a legal pad -- do whatever you have to do to stay focused. One of my favorite tricks is to write on an old laptop that does not have its wireless card drivers installed, or on my distraction free writing secret, the Alphasmart Neo.

Organize Your Thoughts

Some writers do not like working from outlines, while others swear by it. If you want to write fast you need to be in the latter camp. One argument against outlines is that they limit creativity or straight-jacket the writer into only going in one direction, when in reality they do just the opposite. It’s only once you have a path down on paper that you are truly free to diverge from it, and the mental mapping alone that comes from outlining is invaluable if you need to produce quick copy. The simplest analogy is navigating a forest -- the traveler that knows at least one clear path through it is naturally going to journey more quickly than he that approaches it with no information whatsoever -- even if the first traveler diverges far and wide from the path, he stills knows a great deal more about his destination.

An outline need not be an elaborate affair. Indeed, for less complicated writing a lose collection of notes is often best. For this article the only things I outlined were the major points I wanted to address, and my list itself conforms roughly to the sub-headings you see on the page. For longer or more elaborate writing -- say a short story -- more detailed notes are often best. But even then the writer that does an excellent job visualizing what they are going to write can often get by with less in the way of outlining.

The key is to get your research and brainstorming done first, so that you have all the material you need at your fingertips when you finally sit down to write. Often you will find that you do not even need to refer to your outline for most things, as the act of creating one alone is a great way to organize and solidify your thoughts.

Visualization -- See It, Then Write It

Visualizing is not some esoteric zen meditation, but rather an internal version of the outlining process. It is especially useful for fiction writing, in which vivid scene setting is often crucial to effectively creating a dramatic or believable story. An alternate name for visualization might be internalization, since the writer is mentally digesting all the various components of the writing task they are about to embark on. Everyone does this to varying degrees, the difference comes when one consciously takes a moment after they have been busy brainstorming and outlining to really imagine what it is they are going to be writing -- and it certainly does not hurt to imagine themselves sitting down to write it, either.

A writer should be positively bursting with words before they ever touch the keyboard or pick up the pen. If you are not, step back a moment and visualize what it is you need to write -- it is quite often the mental recharge you need to approach an assignment with vigor and confidence. And it is in that state where you find yourself not only writing fast, but writing well.

With both external (outlines) and internal (visualization) organization you will be much less likely to find yourself staring at a blank screen and wondering what to write. Or moving great chunks of text around because you did something out of order, or hunting back through what you have already written to find a word, fact, or name. Nothing will make the writing process completely free of some of these frustrating tangents, but a solid plan will greatly increase the speed and efficiency of your project.

Write First, Then Edit

An entire book could be written on the psychological difference between the creative confidence needed to write well and at speed, and the critical eye needed to effectively edit. All writers need both -- but productive writers need to know when to think one way, and when to think the other. While I am no fan of the (somewhat popular) attitude that a writer’s first draft can (or should!) be complete garbage to be improved with successive rewrites, it is truer than not that the less breaks a writer takes while writing to go back over what they have written and polish it, the better and faster they will be. All writers are different, and not every approach will work for everyone, but striving for relatively clean copy on a first quick pass is not out of anyone’s reach. However one chooses to approach the drafting and rewriting process, it is is best to avoid to two extremes of very sloppy first drafts designed to be fixed later, or the stop and go approach that sees the writer putting on their editor hat to go over each and every sentence as soon as it is written.

If you are an overly editorial writer, try giving yourself permission to just write. If you prefer fast and loose but find you spend a large chunk of time in rewrites, dial it back slightly and think a bit more about your prose. There is no reason a skilled writer cannot turn out quick copy that is 95% finished after the first pass, which saves a lot of time over the long haul. And that, of course, adds another dimension to fast writing -- it is not just about one or two assignments for many of us, but about the work of a lifetime.

Work to a Schedule

The most efficient way to produce a lot of copy, to truly write fast, is to set aside a specific time every day or every few days for writing. Again, not everyone can do this,and many find themselves grabbing whatever time is left in their day -- an admirable and difficult approach that is strong proof of their commitment to the craft. But, if possible, a writing schedule should be pursued, as the advantages in productivity over time are highly evident. Not only do you force yourself to produce in these situation -- and with some of the above tricks you will be producing at a very fast clip indeed -- but you also train yourself to be ‘in the zone’ at certain times of the day. When your work schedule becomes a habit you will find that it is actually difficult to shirk your writing duties, and often it is enough to simply sit down in the right place at the right time and let your fingers do the work.

At those times you might find that, every so often, all the rules and tips about fast writing go out the window and you do not need and outline or a visualization exercise to do that thing that you know how to do so well. And it is those moments that are some of the absolute best times to be a writer.