Reading time: About 4 minutes
Are you a person who thinks slow writing is inevitable? It needn’t be. If you want to bump up your speed, question the assumptions you’re making….
I’ve just read a marvelous non-fiction book by self-confessed productivity geek Oliver Burkeman.
The name of it is, Four Thousand Weeks. And here’s the deal it offers: Burkeman is renouncing his former high-stress attitude which involved getting as much done as possible, and he’s now embracing a gentler and more easy-going approach to life. He believes (as do I) that many of us work far too hard, don’t get nearly enough leisure time and have become obsessed with achievement.
I share many of his ideas, which might cause you some puzzlement with respect to today’s topic where I’m gently suggesting that you should be able to write faster. Note that I’m not suggesting you write faster so you can spend more time working!
Instead, my idea is that we should all spend less time writing so we have more time for having coffee with friends, taking walks near the water or in the forest and listening to music or reading novels (or whatever other books we really enjoy). Another reason why I think it’s essential to address this issue is because writing makes so many people feel either consumed with guilt or desperately unhappy — and that’s no reasonable way to live.
After more than 40 years of working with thousands of writers, I’ve identified seven beliefs that go hand in glove with slow writing.
1-Believe their first draft has to be perfect. Many of the people I work with express horror at the idea of writing something that’s less than perfect. I might feel the same way if I had to show my crappy first draft to anyone. But guess what? I don’t. And neither do you. All your concerns about excellence and quality of writing should be put to one side when you’re writing. Your only job is to get as many words on the page as possible. When you approach writing in this fashion it becomes fun and invigorating instead of a desperate effort to hide your own inadequacies from people you believe are smarter than you, or at least very quick to judge. The time to pull out your quality meter is only when you’re editing. See point 2, directly below.
2-Don’t understand that the writing is made in the editing. If you put my back to a wall and asked me to identify the single most important stage of writing, I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s definitely the editing. When you edit, you take your crappy first draft and turn it into something that’s ever so much better — sharper, more persuasive, more skillfully structured, more interesting. Don’t think that your work ends when you have your first draft on the page. No, that’s precisely where the hard work begins.
3-Do too much of their thinking on paper and write too early. When faced with a deadline, many writers become fearful and tell me they can best sort out their thoughts by starting to write them on paper or screen. This is a totally wrong-headed idea that will only steal your time. Instead, spend your early days (or weeks) researching, thinking and planning. Some writers, particularly academics, make the mistaken assumption that their desks are the best places to think. They are not! Our brains work better when our bodies are moving so I suggest going for lots of walks as part of your thinking process. (If you’re worried about forgetting important insights, take your cellphone with you, so you can easily dictate some notes to yourself.) For academics, I also suggest the habit of a research diary, and for everyone, I heartily endorse the concept of mindmapping. Using a mindmap — instead of an outline — is a great way to create some inspiration for yourself.
4-Don’t write in the same way that they speak. Many writers become tongue-tied when they convince themselves they need to use bigger words, more complex sentence construction or longer sentences in order to write forcefully and successfully. They are wrong. The best writing is usually simple and straightforward. (And if you’re naturally a highfalutin writer, fix this problem when you’re editing.)
5-Don’t write in the most hospitable environment. Most writers don’t write well in utter chaos. If your desk looks as though a bomb made of paper has just exploded, you’re likely to be distracted. And, most writers don’t write well in silence, either. While you don’t want a jackhammer in the background, or the distressing sound of your kids screaming, you will be able to write more easily if there’s noise at the level of about 70 decibels. Learn how you can benefit from modest levels of noise. Attention to a little bit of beauty can help as well. Flowers on the desk, photos of your loved ones or a crayon drawing by your three-year-old can all help.
6-Don’t understand that thoughts & feelings aren’t actually coherent words. Thoughts and feelings are powerful but they’re usually jumbled and messy and it takes significant work to turn them into words — the basic requirement of writing. Here, again, is where mindmapping can be a huge boon to you. In particular consider the opportunities of what I like to call “meta-mindmapping.” This refers to when you ask yourself a question about how to deal with a specific problem related to your writing. For example, you might mindmap: “How can I make XYZ story more interesting for my readers?” or “What type of structure is going to work best for XYZ article?”
7-Have an inner critic that is out of control. We all talk to ourselves all the time. And much of what we say isn’t pleasant. “This is way too boring,” our inner critic might offer after we’ve written an opening paragraph. “My boss is going to hate this piece and is likely to fire me,” an even more aggressive inner critic might opine. Remember that this self-criticism is natural and normal for all writers (even the super successful ones like J.K. Rowling and Haruki Murakami). Keep reminding yourself that the inner critic is not helping you by interjecting while you’re writing. Tell the critic you can’t listen to them now — but you will welcome them back to the fray once you’ve started editing.
Here is my process for writing:
Identify your topic. Make it small and easy to handle. If you’re writing a book or a dissertation, focus on producing a couple of paragraphs for one chapter.
Research then do a mindmap. Put all of your ideas down on paper, no matter how dumb they may seem. See more on mindmapping here.
Write a crappy first draft. It’s terrible. And it should be terrible. It’s nothing you would show to another person, but now, at least, you have it on screen (or on paper). Begin with no more than 15 minutes of writing.
Edit and rewrite. This is where you start creating excellence.
And edit and rewrite some more.
And edit and rewrite some more.
And edit and rewrite some more.
I know it might sound as though all this editing will take way more time. But it needn’t. Each of these rewrites can be done quite quickly if you make speed your aim. And, besides, you’ve sub-divided and reallocated the time you used to spend writing. Writing and editing separately not only makes both tasks faster, it also makes them way less painful.
Why have you accepted slow writing? It’s probably because no one has taught you how to write quickly. Universities don’t teach the process and many people assume that writing can only be achieved with great pain and effort.
Don’t buy it. Writing can be a fun and fast process, if you challenge the seven notions I’ve outlined above.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
My video podcast last week addressed how copyright works. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Are you a victim of slow writing? How have you tried to fight it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!