I started this year like many, with new goals. I was about the possibilities that a new decade brings. Then events happened that made spring of this year the ultimate example of a phere. So how to write faster when everything is burning down around you?
Everyone has had to cope with changing schedules. For some, that’s meant more time to write while others have had their writing space swallowed up by other obligations.
For me, with a brand new baby who came in March and a three-year-old home from preschool, this season in my life has required me to get creative to find time to write.
For the writers I work with, I’ve seen two things happen.
First, they are like me and new obligations have imposed on their time. Second, they are finding tons of time to write only to have resistance rear its ugly head and say, “see, it’s not that you don’t have time to write, it’s that you can’t write.”
Both circumstances have led to the same result: writers who had high hopes now feel discouraged because they must dig themselves out of a hole if they are to get their writing goals back on track.
One solution I constantly think about and have discussed with countless writers has been: what if I could just write faster? What if I could sit down for an hour, or even just thirty minutes, and really make some progress? It’s one thing to find thirty minutes in your day to write, but if you constantly come away with nothing during that thirty minutes you will get discouraged quickly.
So having lived in the ultimate testing ground for figuring out how to write faster, I’ve put together a list of tips that work for me or other writers I know. I hope one or two will help anyone who aspires to have more productive writing sessions.
These aren’t just productivity tools. They actually feed off of and lend to the tools us Story Grid nerds rely on to write stories that work.
Five tips for writing faster and more efficiently:
1. Give yourself the smallest project possible.
It’s very romantic to think about siting down at your computer and letting the words come effortlessly. Writing your story from beginning to end as it pours out of your mind, flowing like a stream simply following its natural path down the mountain until it unites with the impressive ending of the river.
If that happens for you, then awesome! Keep at it!
If you more often sit down to write only to discover you have no idea what you should work on or even where you left off last time, this tip is for you.
Writing a novel is overwhelming. Writing a scene is a little less overwhelming. Figuring out the Inciting Incident of a scene is less overwhelming than that.
By breaking your writing into smaller tasks, you take the enormity of the project away. Your brain feels less stressed out about the undertaking. The smaller the project, the less stress your brain feels about it.
This isn’t about plotting (so don’t stop reading all you pantsers), it’s about pinpointing the next incremental task that will move your project forward (a method used by many productivity gurus). Even if you want to plan nothing else about your story at the very least you can break it down by scene. If you don’t want to list out every scene in your story before you write it, you can identify the next scene.
For example, if you are writing your story in chronological order you can say to yourself, okay, today I wrote X scene, and now Y scene comes next. You’ve just identified the next smallest part of the project (that you’re comfortable breaking it down to) and when you sit down to write next time, your brain will think about that piece of the project rather than the overwhelming project of “writing a novel,” and it can get to work much faster.
One of the reasons I felt drawn to the Story Grid method is that it helps you break down writing projects into smaller and smaller pieces. I believe you can use Story Grid tools to conceptualize a story from the top down. You can use it to come up with a concept, then a general outline and write it through all the way to the very last sentence of the ending payoff. And if you don’t want to plan it all for the first draft, those tools will help you break up the next draft into bite-size pieces that give you small, digestible tasks to work on, rather than the task of “completing the second draft.” Here is a sample of what I mean:
- Want to come up with a brilliant story idea and figure out if it works before you write it (or start the second draft)? Fill out the Foolscap. Check out this article for some great tips on how to get started.
- Have a story idea and want to make sure it satisfies the obligations of your genre? Spend your next writing session reviewing the “Secrets of” articles on genre by Rachelle Ramirez and identify your global genre. Then you can start writing scenes that satisfy the conventions and obligatory scenes of your genre.
- Want to make sure your story has a structure? Work on the five commandment scenes that every story needs in the Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending payoff. See here for more on thinking through those scenes.
These are just the start, there are many other tools in the Story Grid tool box and I highly recommend that you take the time to learn them. They will provide you with a framework to break up your writing into the smallest projects possible. Focusing on smaller tasks will free your brain from overwhelm and allow you to write better at a much faster pace.
2. Decide what you will write next before you end your current writing session.
At the end of your writing session, identify the very next thing–that incremental task we talked about in tip number 1 – you will work on when you sit down to write again. Identify it before you stop working, don’t leave it until your next writing session. The more specific you can be, the better. This tip works for three reasons.
First, it requires you to identify the next incremental task you will work on at a time when you’re primed to know what that is.
At the end of your writing session, you are more likely to be in the groove and feel more connected to the project. You know what you should work on next. Take advantage of that momentum while you have it.
Second, it moves the decision-making process from the beginning of your writing session to the end.
For the same reason that you want to break your project into smaller tasks, having that task already decided for you when you sit down to write is key because it eliminates choices. Because you can start working on that small task now, instead of deciding what that small task is when you sit down to write, your brain will get to work much faster, and therefore the amount of writing you get done will increase.
Third, when you know what you are working on next your brain, whether consciously or unconsciously, works on that task even when you are not sitting at your desk writing.
This is why it’s important to be as specific as possible when you identify your next task. For example, if you say “tomorrow I will write the next scene,” your brain will think about what that next scene entails until you sit down the next day to write it out, and you’ll write faster than you otherwise would have. But what if you decided the day before, when you were feeling in tune with how the antagonist might disguise his connection to the crime, that tomorrow you will write the scene where the antagonist plants a false clue that will incriminate another character? Now you’ve gotten more specific and instead of thinking about what the next scene could be, your brain thinks about the details of what will happen in that scene. How much faster do you think your writing will go?
3. Before you stop writing, set a time to write again.
Since March, the Story Grid Guild members have taken part in writing sprints every weekday. As I mentioned, I have a three-year-old and a newborn. Finding time to dedicate to my writing projects has been challenging to say the very least. These sprints have kept me on a schedule. I can’t make it to all of them, but I’ve made it a practice to identify which ones I’ll be signing on for at the beginning of each week. Sometimes I fire up my computer and don’t get more than twenty minutes of actual writing accomplished during the two-hour sprint. But it still benefits me to know that these writing sessions are coming up because it keeps my writing project on my radar and it gives me a time when I know that I’ll push the needle forward even if it’s only a tiny bit.
Knowing when you will write next keeps your brain motivated to think about your writing.
To use the example from tip two, if you’ve identified your next task as “write the scene where the antagonist plants a false clue to incriminate another character” your brain will work through that scene even when you’re not writing. But how much effort will it devote to it?
If your brain knows you will work on that scene the day after tomorrow, it will feel a sense of urgency to figure it out. If it has no idea when it will be required to produce, it won’t feel any reason to get to work and it will find more pressing things to think about. Putting your brain on a deadline will cause it to put more effort toward solving your story problems, which will give you a head start to your next writing session. You will write faster in that session because you’ve already accomplished a lot of the thinking that comes before you can write.
The second benefit to writing regularly is that you’ll enjoy the psychological reward of accomplishment. When you regularly make progress on your writing project you feel good about it and those positive feelings put you in a better frame of mind when you write next. The sprints are not the only time I write. But if I can get one small thing accomplished during that time, then I feel good. The next time I can squeeze in an impromptu writing session I am writing from a place of positivity and not distracted by the guilt I feel for ignoring my project for however long, which allows me to get down to the task of writing faster, and produce more words on the page.
You can implement this tip in a variety of ways. Writing sprints that you have organized with other writers, setting an alarm or a calendar invitation for specific times of the day and week, planning to write immediately when you get up or after you go for a run, etc. The important point to getting the most out of this tip is that you set a specific time that you will write next. Don’t just say that you’ll write five more hours this week, rather commit to the day and at least general time that you will write. By committing to a time, you’ll get the most out of the urgency it imposes on your brain and the positivity that comes from satisfying your writing commitments and these benefits will increase the amount of writing you can do in a single writing session.
4. Treat editing and writing as separate tasks.
If you search for writing tips on the internet, you’ll come across this one on every list that pops up. It comes in the form of advice to turn off spell check or avoid rereading what you’ve written until you are ready for the next draft. Those are good tips but it goes deeper than that and I think we all have a tendency to let one task bleed into another.
Editing and writing engage distinct parts of your brain, and it is very inefficient to switch back and forth between those parts. For that reason, you need to make sure you’re not trying to do both in the same writing session.
If you’re writing, commit to writing the scene or part of scene you set out to write and avoid getting caught up in the details, it will bring your creativity to a halt by turning on the analytical side of your brain. In the same vein, if you are editing for story structure, make notes on the problems that you need to address, but don’t actually do the work to fix them. The creative side of your brain that does the work of fixing the problems will slow your analytical brain and leave you unable to see the structural holes in your story. Read here for more on why it’s important to keep the tasks of writing and editing separate and how doing so will make you faster and more efficient at each.
5. Use these tips as tools, but don’t enslave your muse.
If inspiration hits, don’t be a slave to these tips. They are meant for 95% of the time when your work takes determination, the blue-collar part of your job as a writer, as Shawn Coyne describes it, and not the smaller percentage of time when you feel inspired. If you get an idea for working on a particular scene, or some dialogue, or outlining general story ideas, work on that instead of what you’ve identified through the tips above. The goal of these tips is to increase the speed of your writing and you will never write faster than when you are in a moment of inspiration.
And, if you employ some of the other tips I’ve listed, I bet you’ll find yourself needing to use this one more often than you ever have. Keeping your story on your mind by consistently thinking about it, breaking it up into doable tasks and feeling positive about it because of the progress you’re making will set the stage for your creative brain to thrive and bring you more inspiration.
Conclusion: Take away the decisions that stand in the way of writing!
There is a common principle behind each of these tips that makes them work: removing decisions from the writing process helps writers focus and in turn, write faster. Each of these tips requires you to decide what you will do or when you will do it before you sit down to write, taking the decisions that lead to procrastination, stagnation and other productivity road blocks away from us and allowing our brains to focus on the task at hand. The more specific you can be about your intentions, the better you’ll be able to focus on that intention, and better focus leads to faster and more efficient writing.
I hope you find some tips that work for you!