How to Write Faster in Seven Easy Steps
by Jim Denney
On the Amazon.com webpage for Quit Your Day Job, my book on writing for a living, there are a number of four- and five-star reviews—and one two-star clunker. The two-star reviewer claims that I urge writers to be more productive by using shorter words—”like using ‘big’ instead of ‘gigantic.’ And he’s dead serious.”
Normally, I don’t let negative reviews bother me—all authors get them and it’s no big deal. But this rankles a bit because I never said that, and I don’t want other writers to be left with a misimpression about the advice I give. The reviewer made an honest mistake, misremembering a passage where I quoted Mark Twain, who wrote:
“An average English word is four letters and a half. By hard, honest labor I’ve dug all the large words out of my vocabulary and shaved it down till the average is three and a half. . . . I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents, because I can get the same money for ‘city.’ I never write ‘policeman,’ because I can get the same price for ‘cop.’ . . . I never write ‘valetudinarian’ at all, for not even hunger and wretchedness can humble me to the point where I will do a word like that for seven cents; I wouldn’t do it for fifteen.”
Now, Mark Twain was not serious when he wrote that, nor was I serious when I quoted him. Twain made a funny, satirical point—but there’s a serious underlying message: As a writer, don’t work harder than you have to. Don’t waste time and effort flailing around at chores that don’t improve your writing or your income.
The ability to write fast not only frees up your intuition and creativity. It keeps you in closer contact with your story and characters. The faster you write, the less likely you are to forget what your characters did and said in earlier chapters. By writing quickly, you keep the entire story fresh and alive in your mind as you write, enhancing the cohesion and flow of your story. Your mind stays focused on your story even when you’re away from the keyboard. Ideas keep surfacing like bubbles in champagne.
Seven steps to writing in overdrive
Step 1: Get organized. To write efficiently and fast, you must be organized.
First, organize your workspace: Eliminate clutter. Open mail immediately, file what is important, and discard the rest. Toss old notes and outdated drafts. Maintain organized files, so that everything you need is indexed and handy. Maintain a regular cleanup-and-organize time on your schedule. I suggest a light tidy-up at the end of each working day, and a thorough cleaning every Friday afternoon, after you’ve completed a productive week. Keep a clean, orderly workspace.
Next, organize your time. Do your writing when you are fresh and at your best, so you can write fast for a sustained length of time. Schedule revisions, editing, errands, research, phone calls, emails, and other non-writing chores for those times when your energy fades.
Learn to say no to the demands people make on your time. Delegate any chores you can. Keep phone calls short and focused. Don’t answer the phone when you’re on a roll. Ruthlessly eliminate unproductive activities. Assess every task in light of these questions: Why am I doing this? What will it cost me do this? What’s the worst that will happen if I choose not to do it?
Above all, don’t procrastinate. Impose tough deadlines on yourself.
Step 2: Set high but attainable goals. Joseph Heller’s satirical Catch-22 was an instant bestseller when it appeared in 1961, but it took Heller ten years to write his second novel, Something Happened. By contrast, Voltaire wrote his satiric masterpiece Candide in just three days. Why does it take one author three days to write a great novel while another needs an entire decade to complete the same task? I’ve found that the most productive writers are those who have a goal.
Our goals should be lofty enough that we have to stretch ourselves in order to reach them—but not unattainably high. Unattainable goals set us up for defeat. I recommend setting long-range, mid-range, and short-range goals.
Long-range goals define what we expect to achieve from a writing career. These are our dreams and ambitions. Long-range goals keep us energized and fired up over the long haul.
Mid-range goals define the specific projects that we are focused on over the next few months or years. Our mid-range goals should spell out the tasks we must complete and our deadlines for completing those tasks. We must achieve our mid-range goals, one by one, in order to achieve our long-range dreams and ambitions.
Short-range goals are really a “Things to Do” list to keep us on-task and focused during the coming hours, days, and weeks. Our short-range goals should include our daily productivity goals, such as, “Write X number of words or pages per day.” They might also include specific projects, such as, “Complete chapters 10 through 12 by Friday” or “Mail three query letters by Wednesday.” Focus on productivity and accomplishment, not just putting in time. “I will write from 10 am till 4 pm” is not a goal—it’s a schedule. Without productivity goals, you may find yourself putting in lots of time daydreaming without accomplishing anything.
Post your goals where you can see them every day. Jessica Page Morrell, author of Writing Out the Storm, observes, “I accomplish a thousand times more when I write down my goals and keep them in a place where I have to stare at them all the time.”
Productivity goals should be ambitious and based on your best past performance. For example, I know it usually takes me three months to write an 80,000-word book. But I also know I have sometimes written an 80,000-word book in just six weeks. So I like to set goals that are closer to my best performances. Setting high goals based on my best performance inspires my best effort.
What if you fall short of your goals? Don’t worry about it. Just try a little harder next time. Sharon Ihle, author of Maggie’s Wish and The Bride Wore Feathers, says, “Never, ever beat yourself up if you don’t meet a specific goal. If you expect five, but only write three pages on Monday, odds are by Tuesday or Wednesday, you’ll have made it up. If you consistently find yourself falling short of your goal, ease up on yourself and revise downward until you feel comfortable, but stretched.”
Step 3: Push yourself to completion. John Steinbeck once wrote in his journal, “When I am all done I shall relax, but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.”
If you want to write quickly, you must push yourself to write quickly. Set a goal: “I won’t break for lunch until I hit two thousand words,” or, “I won’t sleep until I finish this chapter.” Then pound that keyboard until you reach your goal. I push myself that way all the time.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is widely regarded as one of the greatest short story writers in the history of literature. He was in ill health through much of his life, and died at age 44—but he produced an estimated 800 stories, novellas, and plays during his short lifetime (unfortunately, many of them were lost). His mother recalled how he would be seized by a story idea. “Antosha [Anton] would sit at the table in the morning,” she said, “having his tea, and suddenly start thinking; he would sometimes look straight into [my] eyes, but I knew that he saw nothing. Then he would get his notebook out of his pocket and write quickly, quickly.”3
Chekhov pushed himself to complete each story in a single writing session—he refused to tear himself away until he was finished. He once explained his intense drivenness this way: “If I leave a story for a long time, I cannot make myself finish it afterwards. I have to begin again.”4
A writer who pushes to completion not only writes quickly, but brilliantly. Your goal should not be “Make it perfect,” but, “Write it fast!” If you focus on writing fast, you will write well. If you focus on writing well, your writing will be slow—and it won’t be good.
By pushing yourself to write quickly, like Chekhov, you engage the intuitive, creative side of your brain. By slowing down and writing more slowly and analytically, you shut down your creative muse and inhibit your intuition. So set high productivity goals—then push yourself to reach them.
Step 4: Cut out unnecessary work. As a writer, don’t work harder than you have to. Don’t waste time flailing around at chores that don’t improve your writing or your bottom line.
Let me tell you a story—and this time, I really am serious. A number of years ago, a publishing house offered me a two-book deal to write a couple of short gift books. The acquisition editor gave me a stack of books they had published, and I gauged the length of an average book at around 15,000 words (they had a lot of pictures). I asked him how many words he wanted me to produce. His reply: 35,000 words. I said, “Are you sure? That seems long.” He assured me that was the length.
A few weeks later, that editor left the company. I finished the first book and turned the manuscript in to the managing editor—34,800 words. I had hit the word count practically on the nose.
The managing editor emailed me back: “I got the book, Jim, and it looks great! Only problem is that it’s way long and we’d like you to cut it down to 20,000 words max—and if you could get it down to 18,000, even better.”
Relying on the acquisition editor’s assurances, I had written twice as much text as I should have. Now I had to spend days cutting text I never should have written in the first place! I began by simply lopping out three of the ten chapters, then going through the remaining seven chapters and cutting paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word. I finally got it down to a heart-breaking 19,000 words.
From researching to writing to cutting to rewriting, I had spent eight weeks on that little book—eight whole weeks to net a lousy 19,000 words. That amounts to less than 500 words per weekday. That experience was an eye-opener.
When I started the second book, I had the task down to a science. I vastly reduced the research I put into the book. I laid the book out on a seven-chapter outline, I wrote seven chapters, 18,000 words, and I stopped—done, finis. Best of all, the second book was better than the first, because it didn’t need to be surgically altered.
Bottom line: Avoid wasted effort. Work hard at your writing, but don’t work harder than you have to.
Step 5: Put perfectionism to death. You can ruin a book by lingering over it—especially when you obsessively rewrite. In first draft, write quickly, always moving forward, never looking back. In second draft, focus on making it leaner and tighter, eliminating repetition, cutting excessive narration, fixing inconsistencies, and deleting all that flowery prose your reader doesn’t need. After the second draft, let it sit for a few days, then give it a final read-through to buff and polish. It may not be 100 percent perfect—but it’s ready to show to editors.
I once taught a writer’s workshop and a young woman came up to me afterwards and said, “My problem is that I never finish anything. I’m so afraid someone will see a mistake in my story that keep reworking it until I finally get sick of it and set it on the shelf, unfinished. Sometimes, I can’t even get started. I know what I want to write about, and I know my characters, but until I come up with the perfect opening sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story.”
My advice to her: “Give yourself permission to write badly. Obsessive perfectionism destroys good writing. If you’re obsessed with writing the perfect story, you’ll end up with no story at all. When you’re okay with writing badly, you allow the words to flow. Some will be embarrassingly bad words, some will be brilliant. When you go back and edit, simply keep all the brilliant words and delete the rest.
In his noir mystery novel Death Is a Lonely Business, Ray Bradbury writes about a detective named Elmo Crumley (named after James Crumley, a hardboiled crime novel writer). The detective wants to write a novel, so the narrator (a fictionalized version of Bradbury himself) teaches him how to be a writer.
Crumley says, “Tell me again, kid. How do you do it? What should I do?”
The narrator tells him, “Throw up in your typewriter every morning.”
“Clean up every noon.”
What does Bradbury mean, “Throw up in your typewriter every morning. . . . Clean up every noon”? He’s saying: Write quickly and freely. Let ideas and emotion pour out of you, unedited and uncriticized. Spill it all onto the page in the first draft. Give yourself permission to write badly in first draft. Later, go back and clean it up. Examine what you have written, then edit and fine-tune it.
John Steinbeck put it this way: “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” And humorist James Thurber expressed it even more succinctly: “Don’t get it right, just get it written”
Once you put perfectionism to death, once you learn to write freely and quickly, you’ll be able to write brilliantly—maybe as brilliantly as Bradbury, Steinbeck, or Thurber.
Step 6: Practice writing as a profession, not a hobby. I’ve read several books on writing that promote “writing practice”—filling notebooks or journals with stream-of-consciousness observations. For example, one book said you should take a walk, observe everything along the way that is pink, then fill a few notebook pages with thoughts about “pinkness.” Well, there’s no harm in such exercises, and that kind of practice can certainly sharpen your observational skills.
But if you truly want to get serious about being a writer, then I would encourage you to practice writing for publication—that is, writing to sell. Write stories, book chapters, and articles—then submit them for publication. Why is this kind of practice better than filling notebook pages? Because when you write to sell, you write with a specific intention and purpose. You write with a reader in mind. It forces you to learn the profession of a writer.
Novelist James Michener began writing in his early thirties, submitting an article or story about once a week—and was rejected every time. He was forty when his first novel was published. He recalled, “As a younger man I wrote for eight years without ever earning a nickel. It was a long apprenticeship, but in that time I learned a lot about my trade.”
When you are focused on writing for publication, you approach your writing in a disciplined way. You work harder to acquire the skills you need to impress an editor and a reader. You work to improve your speed and productivity—and the excellence of your work. You know your writing won’t just end up in a notebook. It’s going to land on an editor’s desk and be read with a jaded, jaundiced eye. It will have to be powerful and compelling from the very first sentence—or it will be rejected.
So practice diligently, write daily, and submit your work for publication. I hope you collect a mountain of rejection slips along the way, because that’s what serious writers do.
Here’s a suggestion that will help you focus on increasing your productivity and excellence: Commit yourself to producing one unit of writing—a short story, an article, or a book chapter—every week. If it’s a story or article, submit that piece to the top market in the field. Keep doing this, week after week. At the end of one year, you will have generated fifty-two stories or articles—or, if you are writing chapters, the equivalent of one or two novels. If you are diligent, skilled, and persistent, you will have made some sales or you’ll have a novel ready to submit.
Along the way, you’ll acquire some excellent writing habits. You’ll sharpen the all-important skills of writing quickly, meeting self-imposed deadlines, being creative on schedule, and marketing what you write. As Susan Sontag once observed, “By writing much, one learns to write well.”
Step 7: Punch your way through writer’s block. This thing we call “writer’s block” is a different experience for different writers. For some, it is an inability to generate ideas—imagination at an impasse. For others, it’s a lack of inspiration and motivation, an inability to get started, a sense of terminal procrastination and ennui. Sometimes writer’s block is that sense of malignant self-doubt we feel after having our work rejected, ignored, or savagely criticized.
Stop by on Friday when Jim teaches, “What is writer’s block and how can you avoid it?”
Jim Denney is a professional writer with more than 90 published books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series for young readers.
Jim’s writing career has introduced him to many fascinating people. “I’m a big Star Trek fan,” he says, “so one of the great joys of my career was working with actress Grace Lee Whitney on her autobiography THE LONGEST TREK. I’ve also written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams, and two Super Bowl champions, quarterback Bob Griese and ‘The Minister of Defense,’ Reggie White.
Thank you Jim Denney for guest posting today! Follow him on Twitter here
If you’d like to learn more of Jim’s writing tips please visit his blog here
Jim’s Timebenders blogsite here.
To learn more about Jim’s Timebenders books, Battle Before Time here.
and Doorway to Doom here.
Jim also has a book on writing for a living, Quit Your Day Job here.