Small savings quickly mount up. These ten professional writing tips will help you accelerate your writing process and get more words down in less time.
1. Every second counts. If a task takes five seconds longer than it should and you do it five times a day, you’ll save 12 hours over five years by streamlining it. Here’s a table to help you work out how much time you’ll save (Hat tip: XKCD.)
2. Write less. Just as non-existent code doesn’t crash, non-existent copy is very quick to write. So give yourself a break: cut that section, delete that sentence, move on to the next point and reduce the word count.
3. Spend more time planning. Writing is not the same as planning or editing. Research cited in the classic book Peopleware suggests that programmers who spend more time planning and less time just hacking out code tend to get more done. The same is true for writers. Aim to spend about half your time researching, thinking and planning, a sixth of your time actually writing and a third of your time editing and proofreading. Division of labour is the secret to productive writing.
4. Shitty first draft. Perfectionism is the enemy of fluency. You can type much faster than you can ‘write’. A lot of time spent ‘writing’ is actually spent browsing the web, looking of the window and otherwise procrastinating. So, stop censoring yourself and just type. Don’t worry about the quality – edit later, that’s a separate job and a different skill. You’ll be astonished at how much you can get down if you just leave quality control for later.
5. TK. If you get stuck looking for a fact or detail or metaphor, just write ‘TK’ (meaning ‘to come later’) and press on. For example, ‘Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in TK DATE 1969.’ There, now I can carry on writing without losing my train of thought and look up the date later. Just search for ‘TK’ when you’re ready to fact-check and replace them all with real information. (We use TK because it's such a rare letter combination in the English language that it's unlikely to pop up anywhere else in your text).
6. Use a familiar format. Sticking to a format like a top ten list, a how-to guide, an ‘A-Z’ of something, an inverted pyramid or a story spine can help you write faster by telling you what you need to write next. It’s self-outlining copy.
7. AutoReplace in Word. Someone suggested this to me yesterday when I was teaching a course in business writing at a tech company: use Word’s AutoText feature to add complex phrases without typing them all out in full every time. For example, you type ‘i5’ and Word adds ‘3rd Generation Intel® Core™ i5 Processors’ including all the trademarks. Brilliant.
8. Online proofreading. Once you decide to split your time up, you can actually start delegating some of the tasks. We use professional proofreaders in New Zealand (we email them by 6PM and then get the revised copy back to us by 9AM the next morning) but we also sometimes use Wordy.com for quick turnaround online proofreading. Very efficient.
9. Go distraction-free. Wordpress has a distraction-free editing mode. So does Word – you have to add the Full screen button to the menu bar. There are also standalone distraction-free editors. Switch off everything you don’t need so you can concentrate on writing. RescueTime will even block non-productive websites for a set period so you absolutely can’t cheat
10. Take a break. It may seem counter-productive to stop working when you’re in a hurry to get stuff done but as my colleague Clare points out, taking a break is good for productivity.