You’ve got an hour and you’re going to use it. You could write a whole book chapter, finish that report, get a blog post up, maybe conquer the world! The possibilities are endless.
So, you open up your word processor.
Suddenly, the hour is over. You swear you just blinked, but the clock doesn’t lie. And that word count? It’s not exactly worthy of bragging rights.
If you’re like many people, you need to learn how to write faster, which really means that you need to write smarter. When you’re a blogger, time is money. You can’t post once or twice a week if you spend three days fighting with the same post.
Plus, writing faster has the straightforward benefit of making you more productive. The faster you write a single piece, the sooner you can start something else and the more work you can do in the course of a single day.
Oh, and there’s that fantastic feeling of accomplishment when you demolish a piece and amaze your friends with your Olympic writing speed.
So: Write smarter, not harder. Here are seven tips to do just that.
If you want to write faster, the first step is to write under pressure.
The easiest way to create pressure is to set a timer. For this step to work, you have to know yourself and be realistic.
Let’s say you want to write a 1,000-word blog post. After writing a few blog posts, you probably have a sense of your own average writing speed.
The amount of time you set the timer for should be reasonable, but just a bit faster than you would normally write without the pressure.
You could set a timer for two hours, but for a 1,000-word post, that may give you too much time to meander. Alternately, you could set the timer for 30 minutes, but if that requires you to write faster than you’ve ever written in your life, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and discouragement.
If you can write a 1,000-word post in an hour at a comfortable pace, try shaving that time down and set the timer for 45 minutes. Keep in mind that you’ll get faster the more you do this, so if you consistently find that you’re setting a timer for an hour and finishing in 40 minutes, set your timer for 40 minutes.
The goal of writing under pressure isn’t to stress yourself out, but rather to put your attention in a box. So long as you treat the timer as law, the ticking timer is a good way to keep yourself on track because you don’t have time to check Facebook when you have only X minutes left to finish your work.
If you can’t finish before the time is up, you should first investigate why that is. Are you getting distracted? If so, consider using a content blocker to limit distractions while you write.
Are you struggling to figure out how to work with the topic? If so, you may have needed to do more research before you started.
Are you trucking along but not finishing fast enough? If you’re consistently getting to a certain word count and not finishing when the timer runs out, you may need to set the timer for slightly longer.
Before you set your timer, go ahead and make your life a little easier.
Many people have the same problem: Writing seems like an insurmountable task. And because it looks huge and impossible, they don’t know where to begin.
You can avoid this problem by breaking up your writing before you begin. The easiest way to do this is with an outline.
Let’s say you’re writing a listicle, kind of like this piece. Before you write the body text, put in all of your headers and subheaders.
Alternately, if you’re writing sales copy, break it down into its component parts—a value proposition, a bulleted or numbered list, testimonials, original copy, etc.
You should also break down the writing process as a whole into its component parts. There’s topic ideation, research, the outlining stage, and the shoddy first draft, and then comes the editing and revision.
If you try to do the shoddy first draft and topic ideation simultaneously, you’re handicapping yourself. This is for two reasons:
Think of it this way.
Let’s say, for example, you’re writing a mystery thriller. The twists and turns should be a surprise to the reader, but they shouldn’t be a surprise to you. If they are, they won’t be handled with the proper grace needed to stick the landing, so to speak.
You won’t seed it properly, you won’t make the turns feel smooth, and it will feel as if the idea is coming out of left field—in a way that’s deeply unsatisfying.
Plus, you’ll spend so long trying to figure out what the surprise is that you’ll spend very little time actually writing it.
The same thing is true of other kinds of writing, whether it’s a blog post, a company report, or anything else. For the piece to flow seamlessly, you should know what you’re writing before you sit down to write. That way, your thoughts are in order and you can simply focus on writing, instead of fighting for each word.
With that in mind, have your topics ready before you begin writing.
When you sit down to write, you shouldn’t wonder what you’re writing. That’s an inefficient use of your time. You should know what you’re writing before you start typing.
If you’re coming up with your own topics, it’s useful to prepare a list in advance. Spend 30 minutes to an hour once a month generating a brand-new list of topics. That way, whenever you need a topic, you can simply refer to the list.
Not sure where to look? Check out your competitors. You have a critical edge. They’ve already published their content, which means you know how to write something better.
If you want to be more precise, you can head to Google Trends, which allows you to see traffic for trending search terms. You can turn those trending searches into topic drafts and build a blog post from there.
You can also go straight to the source (your readers) by looking at questions they want answered. One place to do this is Quora, which is a forum where users can ask questions and get answers from industry professionals.
It sounds simple, but this actually cuts to the point of what web writing is about. When users access a search engine, they’re almost always looking for the same thing: an answer to a question.
Search engines know this, which is why they’re in the business of ranking content that answers questions in the most accurate and complete way, providing genuinely useful information. So, if you provide the best answer to the question, search engines and readers alike will thank you.
Whatever your approach, make sure to write down your ideas and turn them into a schedule. You can do this with a journal, you can use a spreadsheet, you can use Post-it notes—whatever helps your brain keep track of your ideas.
Just make sure you have your ideas before you sit down to write, and make sure you know exactly which idea you’re writing about.
Once you have your topics, it’s time to conduct relevant research.
The operative word here is relevant. Don’t fall down a rabbit hole.
It happens to all of us. You’re going strong when suddenly, you hit a snag. You’re missing a piece of data. So you open up Google or your bookmarks or Evernote to find a saved page, only to surface 15 minutes later wondering how you got there.
Lo and behold: Your writing flow is dead.
You should conduct research as you outline. Any references you might need to complete the piece should already be open when you start writing. This way, you won’t disrupt your writing process later when you need to find them.
You can bookmark pages in your browser of choice or save them to Evernote. Based on personal experience, the most efficient method is to keep your tabs open and scrolled down to the relevant chunk of information. This way, you can simply switch between tabs as soon as you need said information.
Ideally, you should keep your tabs in order based on when you’ll need them in the writing process (this is why you should find them when you’re developing your outline). English speakers are used to reading left-to-right, so a good technique is to keep your writing tab on the far left and then arrange your tabs in order from, you guessed it, left to right.
So, tabs relevant to the introduction start to the immediate right of the writing tab, and tabs needed in the conclusion are at the far right.
You might ask, why do this instead of bookmarking pages? Wouldn’t the extra tabs lead to the rabbit hole effect?
The trick with bookmarking tabs and opening them again later is that, unless you have a photographic memory, you won’t remember the exact content of every web page you have saved. That means you’ll waste precious time scrolling to find the right part of the right page.
If you keep your tabs open and scrolled directly to the relevant part, you can find what you need with a click and a glance and immediately return to writing with minimal disruption to your train of thought. Plus, you won’t get distracted by irrelevant information, thus dodging the rabbit hole effect.
If you haven’t noticed a trend yet, fast writers tend to have something in common: They have a ritual.
Rituals are handy because they help cue your brain into writing mode without the need for extra motivation.
There are a number of health benefits to maintaining a ritual outside of writing. Routines help anchor us, which helps reduce our stress level (if we know what to expect, we won’t be stressed out by what’s coming). They also make it easier to maintain healthy habits, like eating right or sleeping better.
From a writing perspective, a regular ritual is helpful for brain training. Many writers who struggle with speed have a problem with finding the momentum to get started.
A ritual tricks your brain into establishing momentum before you start writing. You’ve already started checking things off your mental list—you ate breakfast, made your coffee, did your research, and built an outline.
Outside of momentum, rituals improve your writing speed for the same reason that researching ahead of time does. You’re reducing the amount of thinking required to start a task, which makes the task less daunting. Instead, your brain approaches it as another box to check and all you really need to do is fill in the blanks.
The best rituals are short and simple. Maybe you refresh your tea or coffee, open your document, lay out your headers, set your timer, and go. Maybe you include morning exercise before you start your work.
Whatever it is, make sure that you do it every day.
This one is painful for perfectionists, but if you want to write fast, it’s time to accept B-work.
I’m not saying you should do bad work. Quite the opposite, in fact. You should do outstanding work.
But if you want to do outstanding work faster, you have to accept that your first draft is going to be rough. That’s okay. That’s what editing is for.
To understand what perfectionists are doing wrong, refer to the story of James Joyce.
As legend has it, a friend of Joyce’s came to visit him one day and found him in his office in a state of despair. The friend asked what was wrong, and Joyce replied he’d written seven words that day. When the friend replied that was a lot for him, Joyce wailed, “But they’re all in the wrong order!”
If you want to write faster, you cannot be like Joyce. You have to put the words down as they come and move on.
Value done over perfect, at least in the first round. It doesn’t matter how rough it is—if the words are forming sentences on the page, you can iron out the rest later.
Just get it done.
You might be surprised by this one, but it’s actually incredibly useful for surmounting that first hump in the writing process.
A lot of writers struggle with intros because they don’t know what they’re trying to say yet.
A good introduction should tell the reader exactly what they’re signing up for if they keep reading. It should also convince them that it’s worth continuing to read on.
Trouble is, you can’t hook someone if you don’t know what you’re hooking them with.
So skip ahead to the part where you explain things.
This way, you can dive into the sections you already know. Then, when the whole piece is done, you can go back and write an intro that actually reflects the content. Just make sure to iron out the kinks before you send your writing into the world.
The conclusion is a lot like the introduction in that it’s something of a floater. You can write it independently of the body. Whether you write it before or after you write the introduction mostly depends on whether you know what you want to say.
If you have a good flow and know what you want to say in the conclusion, write that first and come back to the introduction. If you know what you want to say in the introduction, write that first and then go back to the conclusion.
If you want to write faster and it sounds like summiting Everest, you need one thing to bring all of these tips together:
Much like how construction workers and doctors get better with practice, writers get faster the more they write. Keep throwing yourself at the problem and be smart about how you regulate yourself. You’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish.
Catherine Tims is the editor at NoStop Content. After receiving her Master's degree in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Arizona, she taught writing to graduate students at the University of Illinois/Champaign-Urbana.