If you are a commercial writer, meaning you get paid for your work, the faster you can produce excellent work, the more money you can make. Each of us only has a few hours a day we can devote to writing.
I’m a fulltime freelance copywriter and a fulltime weird fiction author. I don’t have the same time constraints as people who work in a traditional office setting. But, I ‘m also a work-from-home father of four. At best, I have six hours a day to do productive writing work, and most days it’s closer to two or three hours.
I also don’t want to spend all day in front of a computer screen. I enjoy my family. I love hiking. A quick look at my waistline will tell you I also love eating.
But I also enjoy making money. My love of money and my natural inclination to work as little as possible have led me to develop a system that lets me produce publishable work quickly.
At my slowest, I write a publication-ready 1,000-word blog post in a little under an hour. This includes editing, finding an image, and writing metadata to help my client’s posts to perform better in search engines.
When I’m at the top of my game, I can write a publication-ready 2,000-word blog post in an hour. Since I’m rarely at the top of my game, I base all of my work goals, rates, and scheduling on the “slower” 1,000-word an hour speed.
Here are some of my best secrets for improving your writing speed.
Prime Your Brain
Writing happens in your brain. Before your fingers can dance their magic, rhythmic dance across the keyboard, you have to know what you’re going to say. This is why many writers spend so much time staring at a blank screen. They haven’t primed their brains for writing.
Priming your brain is simple. For freelance client work, I prime my brain by reading the creative brief or the client instructions the day before I plan on working on their article or post. I then move on to other tasks.
My brain will continue to think about that client piece in the background. Sometimes, I will consciously think about it while I’m doing dishes, driving, or other mundane tasks.
Sometimes I will have a title and a few paragraphs mapped out in my mind before I sit down to write the next day.
With my fiction and poetry, I have a similar process. Each day I think about what I need to write the next day and let my subconscious work on the details in the background.
I do my writing in the morning and at night after everyone has gone to bed. I use the afternoons to do all of my brain priming work for the next day.
I am not a big fan of outlining. I find it tedious. When high school teachers and college professors required me to turn in my prewriting stuff, I always created it after I had finished the actual writing.
When it comes to fiction, I am a pantser, not a plotter. That means that I don’t start with a detailed understanding of how the story will play out.
However, as a professional writer, I am a raving fan of using skeleton outlines for every type of writing project.
This isn’t like the detailed outlines you learned in school with Roman numerals, small letters, and small Roman numerals.
A skeleton outline is where you create the bare bones of your project so that you know where to put the meat when you start writing.
When I’m writing a blog post, I first write a working title. Chances are this won’t be the title when I’m finished. But it gives me a topic and direction. Next, I write down a few subheadings for topics I will cover in the post. The number of subheadings will depend on the intended length of the blog post.
That’s it. That is the entire skeleton outline.
The working title and subheadings are easy to write because I’ve spent the past day thinking about the blog post. When it’s time to write, I never have to stare at a blank screen. All I need to do is write from the working title to the first subheading, and then from subheading to subheading. Before I know it, I’ve completed the first draft.
Another advantage of the skeleton outline is that it makes my first draft more focused. I don’t need to spend a lot of time editing for logical flow or structure issues. My skeleton outline keeps me on track.
When using a skeleton outline, if you get interrupted while working on a piece, it’s easier to get back into the groove when returning to the keyboard.
I use skeleton outlines with fiction and long, narrative poems as well. The process is a little different. I am still not creating a detailed outline. But, because I’ve been thinking about the work for a day, I have an idea of how the chapter or poem needs to take shape.
I create a working title for short stories and poems, but I don’t usually for chapters of a longer novel. I then write down a few signposts that I want to hit in the piece I’m about to write. I will delete the signposts when I edit.
But, instead of having to create everything the moment I sit down to write some fiction, I can draw on my earlier thoughts and write from signpost to signpost.
Using a skeleton outline allows me to get directly into the writing flow instead of wasting time figuring out where to start.
Write First Edit Later
You may not know it, but you have a writing brain and an editing brain. Your writing brain involves all of your creative energy. This is true even if you’re writing a blog post about the electrical grid, a software manual, or a science-fiction crime drama mashup.
When you edit, you are tapping into your critic and troubleshooter.
You need both your creative and your critic to write work that people will want to read. But you can’t use both parts of your brain at the same time — at least not effectively.
When you try and edit what you’re writing while you write, you stop yourself from getting into a flow state. Your creative side isn’t able to fully engage. It will take you much longer to get through your first draft, and chances are the first draft won’t be as good. You may have fewer spelling mistakes and typos, but the tone will be stilted, the flow will be choppy, and the structure will be awkward.
Your voice will be missing. Your work won’t sound like you.
If you want to create better work faster, you have to sperate your editing and writing processes.
Sit down with your skeleton outline and start writing. Ignore all of the red and green squiggles that appear under your words. Ignore typos. Don’t worry about getting the punctuation right. Just write.
Let your fingers fly across the keyboard.
Try it. It’s beautiful.
It may take some practice to turn off your critic. But, if you discipline yourself, you can learn to ignore the mistakes. Tell yourself you will fix all the errors after you’ve written the first draft.
When it’s time to edit, you need to be ruthless. Don’t work on anything else except editing the piece in front of you.
Editing should have multiple stages. You will want to run a spellchecker and a grammar checker. I run two or three different ones.
Next, you want to go over your work to fix awkward phrases, poor word choices, and any structural issues. During the editing phase, I will finalize my title and rewrite subheadings as needed.
If you have the time and the resources, you should let the piece rest for a day or more and then come back to it.
If I’m working on a book, I do all of this, and then I also have my computer read it back to me with the text to speech mode. Only then will I send it to my professional editor.
For my client work, I don’t hire a professional editor or use the text to speech approach. But I do follow all of the rest of the steps.
Once you learn how to separate your writing and editing, you will be shocked at how much faster you can write.
I have no idea what it’s like to work on one writing project at a time. That’s not my business model.
But, jumping from task to task in inefficient. You lose time trying to figure out where to start, where you left off, and what steps you need to follow.
I find that I have a hard time switching my brain into different gears. To get as much work done as quickly as possible, I batch my work.
When life, clients, and my health cooperate, I use the following workflow:
While my kids are getting ready for school, I create skeleton outlines for the day’s projects. If I have time, I will also find images for any blog posts that I will be writing.
Once the kids are all off to school, it’s time for me to write. I write all of my posts and projects, one right after another. I reward myself by going for a long walk and eating lunch out after my morning writing session.
Lately, I’ve been dictating articles on my phone during my walks so that I can produce even more work in less time.
My creative energy is at its lowest point in the afternoons. I use this time proofread, edit, and spellcheck the work I did in the morning. If I still need images for anything, I add them during the afternoon.
After I finish all of the editing, I add any other details needed before publication or delivery to the client. For client work, I add meta titles, meta descriptions, and social media teasers.
Next, I reread anything that I have set aside to review later.
Once school is out, I am focused on my family until they all go to bed. I use this time to brainstorm new projects, create more skeleton outlines, and do marketing tasks. I don’t spend much time working at night unless I’m behind schedule. Instead, I try and relax with music or by reading a book. I don’t stay up too late, because I write faster when I’m well-rested.
When I batch similar tasks together, I get more done in less time. I eliminate wasted time trying to decide what to do next, and I develop a rhythm to my work.
Having been a professional writer for seven years, I’ve learned how my energy fluctuates during the day. It’s hard for me to be creative in the afternoons and evenings. My inner critic works great during these times.
I can write fast because I do all of my writing when I have the most creative energy. I feel better about writing in the mornings. To borrow a concept from Steven Pressfield, I feel less resistance in the mornings.
For many years I never was able to write more than a single blog post in an hour. As I learned to batch my work and manage my energy, I was able to more than double my creative output, while also improving the quality of my work. If you don’t try anything of the other secrets in this story, you should at least try batching and writing when you are the most creatively charged.
Every writer has their ideal writing environment. However, if you convince yourself that you need a perfect setting to work, you will never write anything. You need to train yourself to work under a variety of circumstances.
You do still need to manage your environment. I have a trusted pair of Bluetooth headphones that go with me everywhere I intend to write. I slip them on and listen to music that I am already familiar with and begin writing.
This allows me to block out everything while I write.
When I’m at home with just the dog, I don’t use the headphones, and depending on my mood, I may not listen to music.
I try to always write with decent posture because I don’t want to develop any of the common physical ailments that limit writers such as chronic back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.
I don’t write in front of the television. I also don’t like to write in the same room as my family members. It’s too distracting for me.
If you are committed to writing faster, you need to eliminate as many distractions as possible.
Most of the faster writing tips are based on you creating the best possible circumstances to write. I know that life often has other plans. That’s why I have a backup plan.
As long as I have created a skeleton outline, I can write on my phone while I’m waiting for a child to come out of a lesson, in a doctor’s office waiting room, or even at extended family functions I’d rather not be at.
I call this fraction writing because I never write a whole piece. Instead, I manage one or two hundred words at most. Sometimes I only write a sentence or two.
This writing will not be as polished as a typical first draft, but I can always fix it when I edit. I can’t edit a blank page.
The combination of skeleton outlines and fraction writing makes me bulletproof. It eliminates any excuses for not getting work done.
The end result is that every day I produce more work that I will transform into money in my bank account.
The mechanics of getting work done quickly is critical to your success as a commercial writer, no matter what you write. If writing is your business, you must create systems that make the process faster.
These secrets will give you a foundation for developing your own fast writing system that’s adapted to your circumstances.
Other posts in the Lazy Writer Secrets Series: