I wrote this up for a class I'm teaching. It may be a good way for readers of this blog to review the essentials, so here it is for you.
Most of us would like to increase out output, but not at the expense of quality. That is, you don’t want to simply put more words on paper. You want to get more of your novel done for each hour of work.
Based on my experiences with hundreds of writers, the most valuable change you can make is to draft the full manuscript with your internal editor turned off. This does not mean engaging in automatic writing or moving to stream of consciousness. It means keeping your focus on telling the story without paying too much attention to making every word perfect the first time through or rewriting along the way. In other words, relax, have fun, and allow your creative self to shine through. Be tough and rigorous later, when you’re revising.
To help you do this, I’ll offer some tips and alert you to some concerns.
Warning 1 Be careful about trying to write faster if you are a “natural.” It is okay to experiment out of your comfort zone, but too much forcing is a mistake.
Warning 2 Don’t try to adopt all the tips at once.
Warning 3 Change is hard, and every change involves trade-offs. If your instincts say a change is not worth it, trust your instincts.
Warning 4 If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Samuel R. Delany, reportedly, never puts a word down until he knows it’s right, and never revises. There are people like this. Rarely. If you are one of them or if a tip or concern does not make sense for you, don’t force it.
This is not a complete set of tips. For me, Fast Writing addresses six steps (Overcoming Blocks, Knowing What to Write, Fast Plotting, Fast Drafting, Fast Rewriting and Fast Synopsis Writing), and each has many opportunities for speeding things up. The tips below are a selection that might be helpful.
The Ten Tips
1. Make a decision on what you will write the day before. Decide which project, which section and which of the six steps you will work on. It is okay to do something else, but do what you committed to do.
2. Measure your work. Count words or commit to minutes. Chart your work every day. Flannery O’Connor wrote 200 words a day exactly. I write 10,000 words a week. For years, I wrote 40 minutes per day. Write what’s right for you. Track it. Consider increasing your commitment once you have a month without missing your goals. Sometimes, doing something like a Weight Watchers weigh in helps people to keep their commitments.
3. Use technology judiciously. This may mean turning off Wi-Fi or learning to use Dragon Dictate (a favorite of mine). Experiment with what will make you more efficient without damaging your work.
4. Make your notes in full sentences. This one is from Ray Bradbury, and it has been a real timesaver. I no longer puzzle over random words like “galoshes.”
5. Write, don’t think. This one is from Isaac Asimov. In drafting (and sometimes plotting), charging forward without worrying about spelling or the exact word can keep fill the pages. When I write nonfiction, I often put the word “bagel” in when I don’t know a statistic or a name or another fact. After the draft is done, I then search for all the bagels and fix them.
6. Try dialogue only. A conversation (especially in romance) often can carry a scene. If you let the characters speak without worrying about what the setting or their faces look like, the pages can fill up quickly. Then you can go back and fill in the visuals later.
7. Master your world without stinting your writing. Often you can run out of things to say for the simple reason that you don’t know enough about your world and your people. A little research often can open things up for you. Just be careful not to have library time consume your writing time.
8. Don’t finish anything, but finish everything. For many people, it is twice as hard to start a scene or a chapter than it is to finish one. Leaving them unfinished at the end of your writing time gives you a perfect starting point.
9. Don’t leave your best stuff in the Green Room. Actors know what I’m talking about. Even Shakespeare can become stale. Lots of writers tell their stories so often that it feels like leftovers by the time they hit the keyboard. Share your story in written form.
10. Have documented processes. For each of the six steps, write down the process you use. Create forms, flow charts, or questions, if that helps. What you want is a definite plan of attack. Then you can avoid the excuse of not knowing (or having decided) what to do next.
Bonus tip: Relax, enjoy, make mistakes, have fun. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”
There are some habits that (for most writers) cut into productivity. Some are easy to fix. Some are difficult. But if you have a bad habit and break it, the benefits in productivity can be enormous, compounded over all the years you write. Here are the main concerns I have seen writers work on to good effect:
- Looping - This is rewriting along the way. I’ve met dozens of writers who have been working on their first few chapters for years. Drafting and revising access different parts of the brain. It takes energy to switch back and forth, making writing a drudgery. Revising along the way wakes up the internal editor, who is happy to disparage the work and create doubts.
- Dithering - Some people allow themselves to decide which project to work on each day. And they often get wallowed in indecision. Or they allow themselves to make impromptu jumps to different scenes —but which ones? Or they have ad hoc revision processes, where they may shift around between macro fixes (like story logic) and micro fixes (like making verbs more active). Setting up the need to make decisions during your writing time consumes energy and bring the work to a stop. Have a process that directs you to an ordered set of choices, and stick with it.
- Promiscuity - Yes, writers have roving eyes for ideas. And the cute new ones often cause a writer to abandon the Work in Progress (especially during the deadly slump that shows up half to three-quarters of the way through the drafting). Noting (and even working on) new ideas is fine — as long as the Work in Progress is being attended to regularly.
- Procrastination - Life gets in the way. Sometimes when it shouldn’t. Why is it that laundry needs doing or pencils need sharpening during writing sessions? Usually, because chores are much more appealing when the writing gets challenging. By all means, take a break from time to time. But remember what Judith Guest said. For every day you take off, it will take a day to get back into the rhythm of the work.
- Random walks - This is related to dithering, and you are vulnerable to not knowing what comes next if you haven’t created a process for your work. Rewriting (which is complex and multi-layered) is a major vulnerability for writers who haven’t documented out the steps that work for them. Taking on everything in a manuscript that needs fixing at once is inefficient and creates confusion.
- Getting “writerly” - I owe this one to Kristan Higgins, who noted that many writers convince themselves they are writing when they are surfing the Web (research), publicizing (especially by indulging in social media), and talking with other writers. All of this is fine in its place, but it is not writing. It’s what Kristan calls “writerly activities.” If you pretend these make you a writer, you are robbing time from the work of storytelling.
The simplest formula for success.
I have compassion for people who want to be writers who feel frustrated or as if their efforts have stalled. Here’s the most successful advice I’ve had for them.
Step 1. Commit to writing 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Put these sessions onto your calendar.
Step 2. Choose a work that will be your Work in Progress (WIP), and commit to working on it during your sessions until the manuscript is complete.
Step 3. Each day before a session, write one complete sentence on what the next day’s work will be. Something like, “Franklin will steal the diamond.” That’s the scene you’ll be writing.
Step 4. Set a timer at the beginning of your session and get right to work. Just write. Don’t research.
Don’t consult a thesaurus. Get words down. Move the story forward. (You’ll probably get a page or so drafted.)
With this process, you’ll develop good habits, grow as a writer, and have the equivalent of a manuscript drafted every year.
And you deserve it. The two hours you give yourself as a gift each week should belong to you. Some moms with kids in diapers have been able to do this for themselves. So can you.