The ultimate 7-step guide for how to write faster

how to write faster

Reading time: Less than 6 minutes

Even if you don’t know exactly how many words you can produce in an hour, here’s how to write faster…

Ask a bunch of journalists or professional writers how many words they can produce in an hour and you’ll get a dog-pile of half-answers and creative guesses.

I know because I did that last week.

I surveyed more than a dozen friends — all of whom I know to be reasonably fast writers — and none of them could answer my question with any certainty. Their responses ranged from 200 words (Peter, I know you’re way faster than this!) to 1,500.

Most of them observed that editing or revising takes much more time than writing — a sentiment I echo heartily. And a few had amusing comments. Said one: “Give me an hour until deadline and then the answer is ‘as many as you need’.” Said another, now retired: “I wrote the articles in my head before typing them. It saved on whiteout.” 

Said a third: “I — or anyone — can write crap as fast as I can type…” (I don’t think she realizes how many people feel they’re wasting time with a crappy first draft, for all the reasons I outline here.)

We all have our own grounds for wanting to write faster. For some — freelancers and contract workers — it’s a question of money. The faster they can write, the more they can earn. For others, employers expect them to be fast or to do more with less. For still others, it’s because they have a book burning a hole in them and they want to produce that 80,000-word manuscript in their “spare” time.

So, if you need to pick up your writing speed, here is my 7-step guide for writing faster:

  1. Know your word count before you start. If your boss or client won’t give it to you, give it to yourself. The difference between 50 words and 500 and 5,000 is the difference between being chilly on sunny day in March in Portland, being in New York on January 5, and being in the Arctic in winter. You need to know what gear to bring to prepare yourself! Writing is no different. If you don’t know your goal, how can you possibly understand how much research you need to do?
  2. Don’t start by sitting at your computer or by researching. Instead, begin with thinking. Get away from your desk and do something that keeps you physically busy but your mind free (walking, running, cycling are all good ideas). Don’t expect the thinking to happen by magic! Instead, give yourself an explicit “writing assignment” before you head out on your walk, run or cycle. I’m an inveterate walker and before I leave for the bank/library/grocer/post office, I always give myself a piece of writing to ponder.
  3. Do your research. If you’ve done your thinking carefully, you’ll be like Goldilocks — able to do the “just right” amount. Research is like porridge: You don’t want too much, because this means you’ll have wasted your time. Nor can you survive on too little, because then you’ll get frustrated when you try to write. To get exactly the right amount you need to know your word count and to have thought about your approach (steps 1 and 2.)
  4. Do a mindmap. I’m a zealot on the topic of mindmapping. To make your mindmap even more effective, be sure to put a question — rather than a topic — in the middle of the page. For example, if you’re writing about a new product your company is manufacturing a topic-oriented approach might have you writing “XYZ product” in the centre of your page. But do you see how dull that is? Surely you’ll get better results if you put: “Why is XYZ product so important to our company?” Our brains love questions like this because they challenge us and demand answers. 
  5. Batch your work. If I’m cleaning my office (which, shamefully, I seldom do), I know I achieve more if I do all the dusting at once. Then all the vacuuming. Then all the scrubbing. Like attracts like and you enjoy certain efficiencies when you do the same type of jobs at the same time. Writing is no different. Don’t turn your writing into a gigantic hairball of researching, writing and editing all at once. Madness that way lies! Instead, after you’ve finished researching, write your crappy first draft.  Know that no one else should see this draft; it’s for your eyes only. Then, edit it.
  6. Stop editing WHILE you write. Many people seem to be addicted to editing while they write and I teach a lot of clients how to break the habit. Here are the six most useful ways I’ve found:
    • Cover your screen. If you can’t see what you’re writing, you won’t be able to edit it. If you’re on a PC you can turn off your screen but if that feels too drastic then just cover it with a dishtowel. If you’re writing a long piece (such as a major report or a book) taking days, weeks or months to complete, I suggest you keep the manuscript in a master document and simply copy the very last sentence to a fresh one. If you use that fresh one for your daily writing you won’t be tempted to go back and start editing.
    • Use the pomodoro.  This little bit of magic, developed by Italian inventor Francesco Cirillo, asks you to spend 25 minutes focused on a single task — no email, no Internet, no phone, no talking with co-workers. For me, this task is almost always writing but I also use the pomodoro when I’m trying to finish anything I dislike doing, such as getting my accounts to my bookkeeper. I believe the pomodoro works because the unit of time is so small. Even if we’re faced with something we dislike, we can usually manage it for 25 minutes? (And if even that seems too daunting, try a 5-minute pomo.)
    • Use a noisy timer. The pomodoro calls for using a noisy timer so you hear the sound tick-tocking in the background while you write. At first I thought this counter-intuitive idea was crazy. But a friend who started pomos at the same time loved it. When I asked her why she said, “I find it a comforting wall of sound.” I found her phrasing so poetic that I resolved to try it myself. Now, I, too, am addicted to the tick-tock. Perhaps you think I jest? I do not. I always write with a clicking clock in the background and I believe Pavlovian conditioning has taken control of my mind. I mean this in a positive way. As soon as I hear the ticking, I feel like writing.
    • Use promissory notes. Like many writers I frequently encounter questions as I write. Does Jenni Brown spell her last name Brown or Browne? Is Malcom Marongo the VP of marketing or of new product development? How much did it cost the company to develop XYZ product? True, all these questions are important, but you don’t need to answer them when you’re writing. Instead, put a note or a blank space in your story and check the facts when you’re doing your editing. For example: Jenni Brown [sp?]. Malcolm Marongo [job title?]. XYZ product [cost of development?]. Do you see how quickly you can write yourself a note and avoid getting pulled down the time-consuming rabbit-hole of fact checking while you’re writing?
    • Practice with write or die. You can put the prod in your productivity by practicing with a great online app called Write or Die. (Free online or $20 to download to your desktop.) Simply enter your desired word-count and your time-writing goal and then click “write.” Start composing in the blank screen and notice how it starts to turn pink when your fingers fail to move on your keyboard. The longer you don’t write the pinker the screen will become until, finally, it’s a deep rose. Then, suddenly, your computer will emit a loud unpleasant sound. It might be a car alarm. A crying baby. Disco music. I still use Write or Die several times each year just to remind myself — a relatively fast writer — how much time I waste staring off vaguely into middle space.
    • Acknowledge the nasty voice inside your head.  We all have unpleasant self-editors and second-guessers just dying to tell us what we’re doing wrong. This piece is too boring. My boss is never going to be happy with this. I’ve never been able to write anything that’s any good. Don’t ignore this voice. Instead, tell him or her that you’ll be willing to listen when you get around to editing. If you’re as tough with this voice as s/he is with you, then you stand a better chance of extracting your crappy first draft with less pain. Remind yourself that it’s not possible to write an excellent first draft. No one does that (not even big-name authors.) We’re all stuck with crappy first drafts and we have to edit them into excellence, later.
  7. Record your writing times. I shocked myself when I learned how few of the professional writers I contacted had any idea how many words they could produce in an hour. Yes, it’s true that every piece of writing is different. But if you time yourself regularly, you’ll soon be able to determine your range. For example, you might learn that you can write something “easy” at a rate of 750 words per hour and something “hard” at 350 wph. The actual number doesn’t matter — knowing it is what’s important. I’ve just started keeping a spreadsheet in which I note five metrics:
    • Name of the story
    • Date I wrote it
    • How many words
    • How long it took me to write
    • How long it took me to edit

Within a year I expect to have a document that will be infinitely valuable to me as I bid on new jobs or present time estimates to existing clients. 

The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” applies to many areas of life. But perhaps none so acutely as writing. If you know how much you can do in how much time you will be better off than the vast majority of other writers. 

Further, if you measure your writing time you’ll have taken the first step toward improving it.

How do you manage your writing speed? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by May 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.  

Posted May 19th, 2015 in Power Writing

  • Katie Karlovitz

    This is an angle of writing that I’d not given too much thought to, but I can see why I need to track it. I use the timer on my smartphone, but I might have to buy pomadoro!

    • You don’t need to buy a pomodoro. All you need is a digital (or analogue) timer. You can get lots of them for free.

  • Linda A. Janssen

    Thanks for sharing your insights. In addition to some tried-and-true suggestions, you’ve come up with a few I’d never considered (but will try). Your writing log measuring key metrics for articles written is one of the best.

  • JPO

    Brilliant advice!!

  • Paula

    I like the metronome/loud timer trick…I’ll give it a try.

    • Yes, a metronome would work as well although it wouldn’t stop when your time was up!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    I am a very slow writer, but I am taking steps to remain focused to improve my word count and produce a better final draft.

    Thank you so much, Daphne #HUGS

    Kitto

    • Please get back to me with your address. You won the book in my draw last month. There’s no charge for mailing or anything… I just need your address.

  • Mırnav Kedi

    Thank you. I had read the book FAST screenplay but has been a while… good to remember the idea.

  • Chris Brady

    Promissory notes: that’s great advice. Those diversions cost me so much time. And thinking away from the computer has always inspired me. I have shower moments that often make it to the page.

    • I once heard about someone who acquired a diver’s board and pen so he could take notes in the shower. Really!

  • Marie

    I usually parse my words in the analytical sense, not the grammatical one! I just realized how much that makes the process painful and slow. By the time I finish writing anything, it is already edited.

    • A piece should never be edited by the time you finish writing. It should only be written!

  • Rhonda

    Excellent advice… as a Master’s student I am always looking for good ideas to help with the proess. Thinking is a great idea before begining to write and then I am trying to get consistent into the practice of free writing … a way of thinking for me that helos me loosen up my thoughts. Thanks for a great article!!

  • Danielle Cote

    I have a love/hate relationship with writing. This posting has so many great tips that are easy to incorporate. I’m also trying to give your staff tools to help them become better writers and will suggest they sign up for your e-newsletter…teach a man to fish right? Tx Daphne.

  • Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

    I did not realize it for a long time that I was taking infinitely long time to write. When I had time crunch recently, I sat down to take these steps similar to what you suggested. As soon as I decide on the topic, I first hook it to my mind. I will start with simple questions on the topic and give some shape. By then, I know the info I need to research and I will simply write down everything I decide to write (in word) Q & A type. I research and fill in the details. I will go back and keep thinking about how to proceed. Perhaps sometimes talk about it to a colleague or a family member, if possible. Do some more research and complete the first crappy draft. Then do the editing which manytimes give completely different shape to the article. I haven’t taken the wph test yet, but I am going to try it next time. I have also used pomodoro a few times. It works wonders.

    • I agree — the pomodoro truly works wonders. And be sure to take the wph test!

  • Mai

    As far as tracking your writing time, what would you consider completion of the first crappy draft?

    With the stories I work on, I try to do one draft without looking at my notes and let flow dominate, so the first stab often has lots of “XXXX” and “Put quote here.”

    Do I time that first stab as the crappy draft? Or do I add the time I go back and fill everything in?

    • Well, of course you can track whatever is most important to you. If you’re asking me what I’m doing, I consider the first draft (the one with all the XXXs in it) the “crappy draft” and I call that writing. Any work I do after that I consider editing/revising and I time it separately. Hope this helps.

      • Mai

        That does help. Probably what would work for me is timing each separate draft, then combine the times for “writing.”

        Also: It sounds like you consider “filling in the XXes” as editing then?

      • Aurore L

        Great! I had the same question !! So it means that I have to calculate my writing speed only on the first draft (erything else being revising/editing).

  • Charli Mills

    It’s amazing how much I’ve learned from you (I do own your print book and digital accompaniments). I’m reading the list thinking, I do that, and that…because I’ve followed your guidance! Thank you!

    Don’t
    turn your writing into a gigantic hairball of researching, writing and
    editing all at once. – See more at:
    http://www.publicationcoach.com/how-to-write-faster-2/#sthash.7jf9g4J8.dpuf
    Don’t
    turn your writing into a gigantic hairball of researching, writing and
    editing all at once. – See more at:
    http://www.publicationcoach.com/how-to-write-faster-2/#sthash.7jf9g4J8.dpuf

  • jenlouden

    Question – what kind of writing assignment do you give yourself when you go for a walk before writing? can you give an example? Thanks~!

    “IInstead, give yourself an
    explicit “writing assignment” before you head out….”

    • So, for today’s column my assignment was: “What can I suggest that will help people write faster.”

      • jenlouden

        ah, right, I get it! sometimes the most basic things elude me.

  • A Cooper

    Thanks for the great tips, Daphne. I’ve seen the Write or Die but never used it – I’m going to give it a try – it will certainly help when it comes to giving quotes.

    One thing I’ve also noticed, is that if I write a little bit every day (on my fiction, not my copywriting) it seems to get easier to get the writing done.

    This reminds me of Newton’s Law of Inertia “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force”

    Once I “get the ball rolling” I get more done. 😀

    • You make a really good point about doing a little bit every day. In my Get It Done group participants promise to write x number of words every day (we agree on the X) and then report it to me, fives days per week. This makes a HUGE difference to most people.

  • grace goog

    Thank you Daphne, I must say I made all the mistakes you mentioned. Being a master student, I am always frustrated that I write so slowly. I’ll give it a try and inform you how it goes.

    • Don’t see them as “mistakes” Grace. See them as chances to change how you work!

      • grace goog

        Right. Chances. But I still find it’s easier said than done.

        • Most things that are worth pursuing involve hard work. (I always think of my efforts to learn to play the piano when I make a statement like this!) Try to adopt a positive attitude and be sure to acknowledge your successes. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Focus on one thing at a time.

          • grace goog

            Thank you for being so supportive, Daphne. Actually I love writing despite the painful process. I once dreamed to be a writer but I always put it off because of other more urgent things. I am thinking of develop a habit of writing 2000 words each day.

          • Start way smaller than that, Grace. Being with 200 words a day. This “kaizen” technique is a good secret to success:
            http://www.publicationcoach.com/what-the-japanese-can-teach-you-about-writing/

          • grace goog

            very good advice. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will do as you suggest.

  • Aurore L

    Hello Daphne,
    This column is my favorite one!!
    Over the last 10 years, I’ve been dreaming about writing a book…And I did not even start. I was blogging for 7 years (and I wrote more than 1000 blog posts) but I stopped writing when I had to change my editorial style (moving from a personal blog to professional blog).
    Over the last year, I hardly wrote 10 blog posts ! I felt stuck in the mud….beurk …
    Your blog and advices changed my “beliefs” around writing. I thougt that I was a slow writer and that I needed inspiration to write effectively.
    Thanks to your advices : I found out that I was not slow at all (I started with daily period of 15 mn and I produced 400 to 450 words (in French) on each period of 15 mn .. Of course, I had a very good mindmap with all my ideas otherwise, I guess that I would write slowly.

    Writing without editing really changed my “writting life” !
    I also created a chart to follow my progress as you suggest in this blogpost. I’ll see if I improve my speed.

    Thank you for this blog and for all your valuable advices.
    And sorry for my Hello Daphne,
    This column is my favorite one!!
    Over the last 10
    years, I’ve been dreaming about writing a book…And I did not even
    start. I was blogging for 7 years (and I wrote more than 1000 blog
    posts) but I stopped writing when I had to change my editorial style
    (moving from a personnal blog to professional blog).
    Over the last year, I hardly wrote 10 blog posts ! I felt stuck in the mu….beurk …
    Your
    blog and advices changed my “beliefs” around writing. I though that I
    was a slow writer and that I needed inspiration to write effectively.
    Thanks
    to your advices : I found out that I was not slow at all (I started
    with daily period of 15 mn and I produced 400 to 450 words (in French)
    on each period of 15 mn .. Of course, I had a very good mindmap with all
    my ideas otherwise, I guess that I would write slowly.

    Writing without editing really changed my “writting life” !
    I also created a chart to follow my progress as you suggest in this blogpost. I’ll see if I improve my speed.

    Thank you for this blog and for all your valuable advices.
    And sorry for my awkward
    English (I’m not a native speaker).

    xxx
    Aurore –

    • You are a fast writer if you can produce 400-500 words in 15 minutes. (Mindmapping is almost certainly helping you with this.) And, yes, writing without editing will dramatically increase your speed. Sounds as though you’re doing all the right things!

      • Aurore L

        Dear Daphne,
        I’m doing the right things thanks to you !
        I cannot express how GRATEFUL I am about your blog and advices ! THANK YOU THANK YOU soooo much !
        I read you for the last 6 months before I decided to give it a try!

        Actually, I used to edit while writting. Over the last week, I forced myself to write without editing (which was so difficult at the beginning. Now, I feel more confortable about it).
        I produce a rapport (which I could not start) within 3 days : 3 times 15 minutes => 1925 words.
        I will stick to 15 minutes per day during the next month. Then, I’ll try to increase to 25 minutes/day to check if I can keep the same rythm (400-500 words/15mn).

        Thank you for sharing all these advices with us.