Writers’ speeds vary … a lot.
Some writers would consider 100 words an hour to be a perfectly productive rate. Others would be disappointed by 1,000 words an hour.
Obviously, a fair part of this difference is to do with the type of writing they’re undertaking (literary novels tend to be considerably slower, per word, than genre fiction or chatty blog posts), but whatever type of writing you do, you can improve your speed.
Here’s how I know. When I was in college, I wrote a lot. I wrote essays, which I was fairly quick at because I had a good batch production system for them. During the (ridiculously long) vacations, I wrote fiction.
Now that I have two children and a packed life, I can’t quite understand why I didn’t produce a dozen novels while I was at college. (I managed one!) But a big part of the reason is probably because it often took me a whole day just to write 1,000 words.
These days, I can regularly hit 1,000–1,500 words per hour.
What About Quality?
One worry many writers have about writing faster is that the quality of their work will suffer.
Unless you go to real extremes (like typing at a breakneck pace so you can hit 3,000 words per hour), that’s unlikely to happen. For me, speeding up has meant cutting out a lot of unproductive moments—like the time spent messing around on social media in-between writing, or staring out of the window waiting for inspiration to strike.
If you are concerned about quality, though, here’s a challenge for you. For a week, try the techniques below to speed up your writing. After that time, look back at what you’ve produced—or, even better, ask someone else to read over it.
Is it any different from your regular writing? You might well find it’s better: perhaps you found it easier to get the flow of action in your novel’s scenes right, or you didn’t self-censor so much and you produced a blog post that was more raw and powerful than usual.
In the rest of this post, I’m going to take you through two key areas in which you can tweak things to help you write faster:
- Setting up everything around you so you can focus
- Making the words as easy as possible to write
While some of my suggestions might seem like small things, they can add up to make a big difference.
Setting up Everything to Write Faster
What you do before you write can make a big difference in how focused you’ll be once you are writing. These tips are all designed to help you maximize your chances of getting—and staying—focused.
#1: Eliminate as Many Distractions as You Can
Make a list of the things that most commonly distract you when you’re writing.
Here are mine:
- Social media, especially pop-up alerts.
- The internet in general: there are way too many interesting websites out there.
- Text messages.
- Things I suddenly think of that I need to remember to do (“renew library books!”).
- Other people’s conversations or background noise (if I’m writing in a coffee shop or library).
Most of my distractions can be eliminated:
- I can switch off my internet connection (removing social media alerts and a whole host of potential distractions).
- I can keep a list in my diary or notebook of things I need to remember, so I can carry on writing without worrying about forgetting them.
- I can wear in-ear headphones to block out other people’s conversations and listen to my own choice of music.
I can’t eliminate text messages since they could be from my daughter’s school or my son’s childminder, but luckily they only make up a small proportion of my distractions.
Which of your distractions could you simply eliminate as part of your writing routine? It might be as simple as turning off your internet connection at the start of a writing session—or, if you know you won’t receive any urgent texts, your phone.
#2: Make Sure You’re as Comfortable as Possible
You’ll struggle to write quickly if you’re constantly having to get up and stretch because your back hurts, or if you find that your fingers are cramping every few sentences. (Plus, you could be setting yourself up for long-term pain.)
I’m sure you’ve had plenty of people tell you already how important it is to have your monitor and keyboard at the right height to avoid neck, shoulder, and arm pain. (If you need some tips on how exactly to do that, there are plenty here.)
I know it can be a bother to move things around, and if you write on a laptop, you’re stuck with the screen being where it is.
If you find your shoulders or hands getting cramped, though, do look into possible solutions. That might mean getting an angled support for your laptop to rest on top of, or buying a new keyboard (there are plenty of different ergonomic models you could try).
You may also need to adjust what you sit on, or how you sit. Good chairs can be really expensive, but simply adding a footrest or even switching to sitting on a Swiss ball could be enough to help you write for long stretches comfortably.
#3: Listen to Music That Helps You Focus
Some writers like to work in silence, but others listen to music for some or all of the time that they’re writing. Many find that the right music can help them get into the flow of writing.
It’s entirely up to you what you listen to: I’d suggest picking an artist (or even a specific album) that you’re already familiar with, so that the music can become background noise rather than something that’s an added distraction.
You might want to listen to fast, energetic music to help you keep up the pace, or you might find that something more mellow helps you stay firmly in the writing zone. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of music: you might even want to listen to different genres for different types of writing. Most of the time, particularly when I’m writing fiction, I listen to heavy metal, but when I’m working on blog posts, I sometimes put on chilled-out relaxation music instead.
#4: Set a Timer While You Write
This takes seconds to do but can make a surprisingly big difference: set a timer going while you write.
You might want to experiment with different lengths of time. If you’ve never done this before, try giving yourself 30 minutes: set the timer, and until it finishes, just write. Don’t do anything else—getting another coffee or sending that email can wait 30 minutes.
I find the timer works like a promise to myself. I’m committed to writing, and so I’m much less likely to get distracted by other things. If I’m working on a short piece (like a newsletter article), I like to set the timer for 20 minutes and see if I can beat it.
Once you’ve set up your working conditions so you can focus fully on your writing, the next step is to make sure the words come as easily as possible.
Making Those Words Easy to Write
Once you’ve set up everything to focus, you’re in a great position to write faster. However, there’s still more you can do to make sure the words come quickly and easily. These tips are all focused on your writing and how a few small changes to your process can speed things up.
#1: Choose Projects That You Enjoy
This is a great tip that I picked up from Rachel Aaron, who has lots of excellent advice for novelists on how to write faster.
Where possible, pick writing projects that you’ll actively enjoy working on: it’s much easier to move fast when you’re feeling enthusiastic rather than bored to tears.
If you’re choosing between different ideas for blog posts, for instance, you might want to pick the one that you are most interested in—not the one you think you “should” write.
If you’re a novelist, find something to excite you in the scene that you have planned next (or maybe consider coming up with a different idea if there’s nothing at all interesting about it; after all, you don’t want your readers to be bored, too).
Writing fast isn’t just about the time you have available—it’s also about having the energy to use that time to the fullest. Having something really interesting to write makes it far easier to stay energized!
#2: Use Templates to Structure Your Writing Where Possible
If you write a lot of similar things, like 800-word posts for your blog or 500-word newsletter articles for a client, use a template to structure them. This saves you from having to come up with a fresh structure each time, and can make it much easier to get words down quickly.
You can now concentrate on the actual words, rather than trying to figure out an underlying structure as you go along. If you always start blog posts with a question, for instance, then you just have to come up with the actual question every time rather than having to wonder how to begin.
Michael Hyatt, for instance, has a simple blog post template that he uses again and again; it allows him to produce posts efficiently, and to create a strong sense of consistency for readers. He breaks down the whole template here.
Templates aren’t just for bloggers, of course. Fiction needs structure, too—and if you’re struggling with how to structure your scenes, check out this post by K.M. Weiland.
#3: Plan What You’re About to Write
If you’ve not already got a plan, or if your plan is quite high-level (for example, an outline for a book but now you need to write a specific section of a chapter), then it’s well worth spending five to ten minutes planning what you’re about to write.
This is a technique I used when approaching essay questions in school exams, and one that, again, Rachel Aaron recommends for novelists. Those five minutes or so might feel like a waste of time when you want to get as many words down as possible in an hour, but they will help you move much more quickly through the piece itself.
If you’re a novelist, your quick plan might involve “roughing out” key moments of action or emotion in the scene you’re about to write.
If you’re working on a non-fiction piece, you might jot down the main points that you’re going to make in the next couple of pages.
#4: Think “Rough Draft” as You Write
Your first piece can be as rough a draft as you like; no one ever needs to see it. My drafts often include little notes to myself about facts to look up. Sometimes I even put two different word choices in square brackets so I can dither about which one I want at a later stage.
If you struggle to draft without editing, you might like to work in “iterative” drafts instead. This means creating a brief plan and turning that into a fuller plan, which becomes a very quick, rough piece, which becomes a more extended piece, and so on. Each time, you go back to the start and add more text, building on and honing your ideas as you work through.
Should You Track Your Progress … and How?
Some authors like to track their daily or even hourly word counts in a spreadsheet, so they can measure whether or not they’re speeding up. You might find this helpful, so you know whether the changes you’re making are actually working. Some authors also find it motivating to write down their word counts; it helps them to focus and keep writing.
If you want to take this approach, you could set an alarm to go off every hour, so you can jot down how much you’ve written in that time. (This could also act in a similar way to a timer, encouraging you to stay on track.)
However, if you find it unnecessarily pressuring to constantly track your word count, you might simply want to look at your output over the course of a week. How many chapters, blog posts, or assignments did you complete?
What About Dictation?
I wanted to focus on writing rather than dictating in this post, but if you want to hit really high numbers (think 3,000+) words per hour, you’ll need to dictate.
Quite a few of the authors I know use dictation and find it a great way to get a first draft down quickly. I’ve tried it and decided it wasn’t quite right for me at this time—partly because I do a lot of my work in the library, or in a shared office space with my husband, and typing is a less obtrusive option.
But by all means, give dictation a try if it’s something you’re interested in. Even if you end up doing more editing than usual, the increased speed may make it worthwhile for you.
Which of These Eight Tips Will You Try Out?
If you’re happy writing at your current speed, then great! Maybe you’re not a particularly fast writer, but you enjoy taking your time, gazing out of the window, and fiddling around with words.
For most of us, though, that’s not a great way to work. We have projects that we’re itching to work on, but just can’t find the time for—or we have deadlines mounting up and we don’t want to work late into the night yet again.
Even if you think you’re naturally a slow writer, you can get faster. Just trying out one of these tips could make a big difference—though if you want to see real gains, put as many of them into practice as possible:
- Eliminating as many distractions as possible, so you’re not losing chunks of writing time.
- Making sure that you’re comfortable, so you can easily stay focused rather than getting put off by your hands cramping or your back aching.
- Listening to music that you love, so long as it also helps you stay in the flow of writing.
- Setting a timer while you write as a promise to yourself to stay on task.
- Choosing projects that you enjoy and that excite you, so you’re energized rather than drained by your writing.
- Using templates to structure your writing, making it easy to fill in the blanks.
- Spending five minutes planning what you’re about to write, so you can move forward as quickly as possible through your piece.
- Thinking “rough draft” as you write, knowing that you’ll have plenty of time to edit later.
Which of these will you try for your very next writing session? Leave a comment below to tell us what you’ll be doing.