As a writer, you probably already write more quickly than the average person (many writers type around 60 WPM). But while you might be able to type quickly, we all know that it takes more than fast fingers to create a great novel: You also need a good idea, focus, and dedication. It can take some people years to bring all of that together and get a first draft down. But it’s also true that many authors go faster — it must be possible, right? How do they do it?
In any discipline, the pros have techniques that help them move faster than average without sacrificing quality. As an efficiency fan, I’ve spent countless hours hunting down these popular techniques and testing them out in order to take my writing to the next level and get my first drafts written faster (and better). Outlined below are a number of common methods I’ve seen recommended over and over again by numerous successful authors. The best part is that each of these techniques only require small changes to put into practice, which means you can start using them now to improve your writing speed.
1. The Pomodoro Method
Do you have trouble finding time to write in the first place because you keep getting distracted? The Pomodoro Method is a way of sectioning off your time and keeping your attention laser-focused on the task at hand. You pick a fixed time period (usually 25 minutes), and start a timer. Then you work continuously through that period. You take a 5 minute break and do it again. After four of these, you take a 15-minute break. What’s nice about these is that they keep the distractions at bay because you know you can get to them shortly, whether it’s checking Facebook or rotating the laundry. You’ll be surprised at how much fixed-time working sessions can help focus you.
When I started using Pomodoros to section off my work, my words per hour and daily productivity nearly doubled. I’m writing this article using a Pomodoro timer right now, actually. You can easily use a classic kitchen timer for this, but I also recommend the Tomighty app as a digital alternative. It’s free, simple, and does exactly what’s needed.
2. Outline by Scaffolding (little, more, most)
I see so many people complain that they have a great idea for a book, but when they sit down to try to write it they just get stuck, or it doesn’t go anywhere. If what’s holding you up is figuring out what to write, then you might want to spend a little more time outlining. One of the easiest ways to write quickly is to know ahead of time what’s going to happen in each chapter, scene, and paragraph. It’s easier to get to that level of detail than you might think. I like to use a technique I call “scaffolding” for this. When you build a tall building, you start by constructing the scaffolding that will hold up your materials and workers while you get the pieces in place. Writing a novel is no different.
I start by writing a few paragraphs that summarize the entire story I’d like to tell. Then I go in and break that up, expanding on each section out into a series of scenes. Then I go into each scene and expand that out into a series of conversation and action summaries. By building your story out this way in a little -> more -> most progression, you’ll soon have a document that spans multiple pages and tells your entire story in summary. If you spend a single afternoon doing this, your book will become significantly easier to write, because you’ll always know what’s coming next!
3. Set Speed Goals + Record Progress
Numerous studies show that setting goals and recording your progress is a critical part of accelerating skill development (or in this case, writing faster). To reach your goals, you need to know where you are now. Whenever you take time to write, you should record how many words per hour you’re able to write using a spreadsheet. The next time you sit down, challenge yourself to beat that goal using whatever techniques you like. Over time, you’ll naturally drift towards more effective strategies to bump your writing up. Seeing your speed improve will also generate positive feelings, which creates a positive feedback loop that will keep you motivated to write more and write faster!
4. Voice Dictation
Many writers swear by voice dictation as a means of increasing your writing speed (and if you want to break the 3000 words-per-hour mark and not destroy your hands, you might need to switch to it). Dragon Naturally Speaking is the most-recommended tool for this, though it comes with a hefty price tag. You can find other options online yourself. It might seem strange, but the authors who recommend it insist that with practice, speaking your text can be just as natural as writing it. Usually about a week of use is required before it becomes comfortable.
Personally, I haven’t had much success with using voice dictation to bump my drafting speed (probably because I haven’t given myself enough time to adjust to it), but if the speed at which you can type is the only thing holding you back right now, many authors speak very highly of this method.
5. Write or Die
Write or Die is a dramatic name for a simple concept: You never edit as you write, because you’re just trying to get the words down as quickly as possible. If you’re so inclined, there’s even software that can help you with this (although I prefer to just self-monitor in Scrivener). The reasoning behind this method is that it’s better to get the story down first, and then cut what’s bad later when you go back to edit. In your editing process, you’ll often cut scenes, chapters, or even whole characters from the book. Why worry about whether they’re just right at the outset? When you sit down to create a first draft, it’s not the time to hem and haw over whether you can use a stronger word here, or whether an emdash or a semicolon would be more appropriate there.
Try combining this practice with any of the other techniques mentioned in this article. Personally, I’ve found that overall quality rarely suffers (since you’re going to edit anyway), and often your work will even be better since you fall into flow states more easily when you’re able to get yourself going.
What about craft and quality?
The first thing the naysayers like to point out is that writing faster means that the quality will be lower. However, as author Chris Fox discusses in his book 5000 Words Per Hour, the opposite can actually be true. “Write more” is the most common piece of advice dispensed when people ask how to become a better writer. Writing faster means that you’re writing more, which means more practice on all the things that matter when it comes to storytelling.
Furthermore, remember that most of these techniques are focused on drafting, not editing. It’s about getting your stories down in a workable form. Then you can spend all the time you like shifting punctuation around and massaging your tells into shows.
Brandon Sanderson wrote five novels before selling his sixth (and first published) novel, Elantris — if you could write your first five books faster, learning every step of the way, why wouldn’t you want to do that?
2000 Ford Mustang speedometer image courtesy of Nathan E Photography, Creative Commons licensed.