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 recently.
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. A few had amusing comments. One said: “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 white-out.”
A third said: “I—or anyone—can write crap as fast as I can type…” (I don’t think she realizes how many people struggle with producing 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 seven-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 a sunny day in March in Portland, Oregon; being in New York on Jan. 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 and 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 have to know your word count and to have thought about your approach. (See steps 1 and 2.)
4. Create 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 center of your page. Do you see how dull that is? Surely you’ll get better results if you ask yourself: “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 types 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.
6. 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 words per hour. The actual number doesn’t matter; knowing it is what’s important. I’ve started keeping a spreadsheet in which I note the following metrics: name of the story, date I wrote it, how many words I wrote, how long it took me to write, how long it took me to edit. Having this sort of detailed information makes it far easier for me to make accurate and realistic bids on future jobs for clients.
7. 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 can’t 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) that’s 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, said 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, who can’t do it for 25 minutes? (If even that seems daunting, try a five-minute pomo.)
- Use a noisy timer. The pomodoro calls for using a noisy timer so you hear the tick-tocking sound in the background while you write. At first I thought that idea was counterintuitive and 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 have 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 that 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 internal 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. Do not 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.
The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” applies to many areas of life, though perhaps none so acutely as writing. If you know how much you can do in a given block of 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.
This article first appeared on LinkedIn.