How to write more quickly: 10 tips for becoming a more efficient writer
“How can I write more quickly and efficiently?” It’s by far the question people most often ask me. Here are 10 tips for getting better at getting your ideas out of your head and onto the page.
1. Don’t try to say everything (your reader will thank you, too)
Don’t feel you have to write everything you know about a topic. In fact, it can be helpful before you start writing to have a think about what you’re going to leave out.
Knowing what to leave out won’t just make your life easier, it’ll also create a much more satisfying and enjoyable read for everyone else.
A student of mine recently told me how helpful she found my suggestion to jot down all the things her reader didn’t need to know before starting. It gave her much needed clarity about what they did need to know.
Here’s Professor Mike McCarthy on why your readers will thank you for limiting your scope:
You can listen to the whole interview with Mike on episode one of our podcast, Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger?
2. Take a tip from time-pressed journalists by finding your angle
Professional journalists are used to banging out writing on a deadline. One way they save time is by approaching their topic from a single point of view - what they call finding an angle. Here’s BBC broadcaster Jamie Robertson on how to find your angle on a story:
You can listen to the whole interview with Jamie on episode 15 of Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger?, our podcast for anyone who writes.
3. Have a research strategy
It’s tempting to use research to delay the moment you actually have to start putting words on the page. To avoid turning your research into a procrastination activity, you need to be targeted about it. So don’t just read everything and anything that’s vaguely connected to your topic.
Instead, start with a clear idea of the point you want to make or the question you want to answer - and test every source you consult against that point or question: ask yourself ‘Why am I reading this?’, ‘How can I use it?’ and ‘How does it support or challenge my point?’. If you can’t come up with compelling answers, stop reading and start writing - or move on to a source that will help you advance your argument.
Check out this video for more tips on how to be a more efficient researcher.
4. Craft an elevator pitch before you start
The secret to writing more effectively is to write with purpose - to have a clear idea of where you’re going before you even sit down to write.
So ask yourself what your key message is - or, if you like, your “elevator pitch”. In other words, what’s the one thing you want your reader to do, know, feel or think after reading your piece?
Put the answer at the top of your page and let it guide your thinking at every stage of the writing process.
Check out these five other questions to consider before you sit down to write.
5. Create an outline with the three-tweet method
Another way to concentrate your thinking is to think like a social media manager.
Before you start writing, think about each of the three main points you wish to make. With each point, ask yourself: if I only had a single tweet to sum up this idea, what would I say?
For more on using the three-tweet method to develop an entire outline for your piece, check out this blog post.
6. Start with the bit you feel most comfortable with
Writing isn’t a linear process where you start at the beginning and take a straight road, point by point, to the end.
It’s actually much messier than that. So embrace the messiness and make it work for you. Here’s editor Jeanne McCarten on starting with the bit you feel most confident to write - and developing momentum from there:
Listen to the whole interview with Jeanne on episode 7 of Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger?, our podcast for anyone who writes.
7. Write in sprints
Writing takes huge amounts of concentration (yes, even for those of us who are paid to do it).
Limit the brain-ache by working in short, intensive bursts, using the online Tomato Timer.
First, switch off all distractions (Twitter, email, Slack - you know what they are). Then commit to writing for 25 minutes flat, with zero distractions. Take a five minute break and start again. Repeat until you’re done.
You’ll be amazed at how many words you can get down when writing like this. I find it particularly useful when I’m NOT on a deadline, because it stops the drift.
8. Don’t get it right, get it written
The better part of writing is the editing - that’s when the magic happens. But to get to the editing stage, you need to have something to edit, right?
So don’t second-guess yourself as you go. Instead, actively commit to producing a terrible first draft, safe in the knowledge that you can - and will - go back and edit it later.
Check out this video to watch me edit a piece of writing:
Check out this post, too, on the editing habits of professional writers.
9. Don’t try to rescue the un-rescuable
What if, despite it all, you find you’ve taken a wrong turn and need to rethink your piece? Here’s podcast guest Vin de Silva on why it might be quicker to start again from scratch - and how to salvage what you can:
Listen to the whole interview with Vin on episode 14 of Coffee, Tea or Something Stronger?, our podcast for writers of all kinds.
10. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re slow
As any professional writer will tell you, writing - good writing, at least - takes time. Every professional writer I consulted for my previous post, Writing speed: How long does it take to write something? admitted as such. So if you feel you’re slow, chances are you’re doing it right.