Image: Lady Writing a Letter (1887) by Albert Edelfelt/Artvee
Every day, you and I write. We write emails, text messages, letters, birthday cards, and search queries. This is a practical guide on how to write faster, because we spend so much time writing. This isn’t about touch-typing faster or handwriting faster, but the process of getting what you’re thinking down on paper faster. I wrote this with professional and career-related writing in mind, but I’m sure you can apply it to personal matters as well.
Who am I?
If you want to cut straight to the tips, you can scroll three sections down from here.
I’m currently working a full-time assignment at WorkOS as its editorial director, where part of my job involves coaching a lot of busy people on how and what to write. Another part involves editing people’s first or second drafts. I work not only on the blog and technical content marketing, but also on recruiting docs, the engineering blog, starting a podcast, and so on. If you’re reading this and working full-time in tech or outside of it, there’s a good chance we probably have similar-looking schedules!
Outside of WorkOS, I’ve also run my own editorial studio Wonder Shuttle, where I work with people inside organizations—executives, engineers, product managers, designers, etc.—to write and start their blogs and build an audience. Selected clients include Shopify, Twilio, City of Toronto, Wattpad, and Skillshare.
I’ve also written as a full-time staff writer at Lifehacker from 2014–2015. I’ve written a book entitled Creative Doing, which will be published by Holloway in autumn 2021. I’ve written at Medium and earned a sizeable audience of 12,000 followers. I also write this blog.
Why Writing Takes Your Career to the Next Level
I’ll sum up what Shopify’s managing editor Anita Clarke told me, which is what she tells her engineering team about writing Shopify’s engineering blog. Writing is valuable because it:
- Builds your influence and demonstrates subject matter expertise
- Expands your professional network
- Improves your communication skills
- Attracts the right talent to your team
Byrne Hobart has written a great post about how writing is a great career move, and also how writing is networking for introverts. Writing scales much better across space and time than attending an event (unless you’re speaking, which you can film and upload online). That’s why writing is a great skill to add into any career, and why so many multi-hyphenate careers and unconventional career paths involve writing.
While this piece won’t cover the topic, writing and journaling can also provide creative wellness benefits, and help with brain overload.
Why Writing Faster Is Essential
Writing faster is essentially the equivalent of a 7-minute workout. Many people who previously might not have worked can follow it to live a healthier lifestyle. It’s the difference between, “I wrote all these blog posts,” compared to, “I wish I had the time to write all these blog posts,” or “I meant to write all these blog posts.” You don’t have to consider yourself a writer, or even a creative person, to get started.
All good writing starts off terribly—a point I’ll repeat later—so basically, get used to it! Get through the first draft faster. And write a lot of stuff.
Remember, it’s a radical act to declare, “Hey, I’m gonna write because I said I would write.” On average, we spend almost an hour of our day on social media. We can choose to end our Netflix spree an episode early, or to scroll a bit less, and instead, to write. Even when it feels like we don’t have enough time, we can make time.
Below, I’ve listed some techniques that clients have collectively paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars to coach their teams on, or to collaborate with them on. Let’s dive in!
Getting Started Writing
Image: The Writing Lesson by Morris Shulman (1935 – 1943)/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library
One of the most dreadful parts of writing is getting started. So, don’t try to lump it all together and get it right on the first try. Save judging your own work later, especially as you’re getting started. The ideas are fragile. Just focus on putting the words on the page. Here are some of my best tactics for getting started.
1. Write or do nothing.
This is a rule from author Neil Gaiman, who says, “I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.”
2. Write an outline.
Scope out the (approximate) word count and break it into an outline. For example, when I started on a piece for Marker, I knew the end article would be around 1,200 words. I’d start an outline for the piece, break it into probably three sections of 300 words each, and a 150 word introduction and conclusion. It focuses and limits the time-consuming process of research to the essential.
3. Write 50 words or for 5 minutes, whichever is shorter.
There’s a saying that 80% of success is showing up; the best examples are showing up to the gym, or flossing one tooth. Of course, that’s not literally the case—showing up to the gym and immediately leaving won’t provide any health benefits—but it does get you much closer to getting started, and is the start of building a good habit. That’s the whole point here—the idea is to set an immensely low quota for getting started, so that it takes way less motivation. Just get started writing 50 words or 5 minutes, whichever is shorter, and you might realize you just made meaningful progress on your writing.
4. Write by adding to a note.
A blank page is incredibly intimidating. So, don’t start from scratch. Consider things that you’ve already read or written that you can add to. Some of my blog posts start like that—just as an elaboration of or a response to an excerpt I’d liked. Nowadays, with over 1,000 notecards in my Zettelkasten, I have more starting points as well. (That’s how this piece started!)
5. Type 500 of someone else’s words.
The technical term for this is copywork, and it’s a prompt I included in my book Creative Doing. I write, “The idea is to get better at writing by typing out a piece of writing you like. Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way. I go into a lot of detail on my process here. If you’re about to write a blog post, type up 500 words from another blog post you really liked. Then, get started on your own.
6. Write it like an email.
I have many suspicions as to why this works (there’s a clear audience, many of us write emails or text messages often and are more comfortable with it, etc.), but try writing whatever you’re about to write like you’d write an email to your best friend. You can always edit it out for tone or language later.
7. Write the middle first.
Headlines and introductions are often the hardest things for me to write. So instead, I just start right in the middle. I work my way down to the conclusion, and then up to the introduction as the very last thing I do.
8. Write by speaking.
Like Seth Godin writes, nobody ever gets talker’s block. That post completely changed the perspective I took on writing. There are days where I muck up all my sentences in meetings—but I do it anyway. And the same goes for writing. I took Godin’s advice literally and decided, if it was easier to talk, then I should just get software to transcribe my writing and then edit it directly. More than a few of my first drafts were started when I was pacing on my balcony, and talking to my phone about a topic.
9. Write by hand.
Writing by hand is actually slower, but sometimes being slow enough allows you to have time to think and generate those breakthrough insights. It also helps that the distractions of the internet are limited when you’re writing without a computer.
10. Write a list.
When in doubt, write a list. If you’re starting a presentation, “5 wins I’ve had in the past 3 months.” If you’re planning priorities, “5 things I want to start this month.” If you’re writing a card, start with, “5 things I appreciate about this person.” Lists make for great starting points to get the brain moving, and sometimes good final drafts as well.
11. Write what you did today.
You know what takes a long time? Research. Digging into the past, learning about new topics, and such. That’s all well and good, but if your goal is simply to write, then you are best off documenting. You want to write what happened today, what happened 20 minutes ago, etc., while it’s all fresh in your head. You don’t need to go back into your journals, photos, or inbox to jog your memory.
12. Write when you feel like it.
Strike when motivation is hot—in a pocket notebook, in an email to yourself, or in a note on your phone. You can copy and paste it all together later. Whenever you have an interesting idea, always write it down. Do not assume your brain will remember it. I trust myself with a lot of things, but I also know my brain does its best work when it is available and free, not when it is bogged down with things to remember.
Enjoy the Writing Process
Image: Window Writing, Chicago (John Simmons), 2018.118/Harvard Art Museums collections online
Now, you’re in the thick of it. You’ve gotten started writing. It’s probably not your finest work yet, but you’ve made progress. It’s much better than nothing. Your main goal now is to complete a first draft, whatever you define as acceptable.
13. Write a shitty first draft.
Expect your first draft to be flaming hot garbage. That’s why it’s your first draft—not your final one. The goal is to keep moving while you have momentum, to reach the milestone of completing your first draft. Allow yourself to improvise.
14. Mark rough patches with “TK,” and skip to the next part.
Inevitably, there will be some point where you get stuck. For me, it’s often when I have a quote or stat in mind that I want to find in order to support a point I’m making. The worst thing to do here is to exit my word processor and impulsively open a new tab in my internet browser. Most of the time, I not only don’t find it, I actually end up in a rabbit hole of pointless research. So now, I don’t stop writing. I just write the letters “TK,” add in a note (it might look like, “TK find quote on shitty first drafts”) and move on to the next sentence or paragraph. Avoid anything that’s not writing—including researching and editing—during this part of the process.
15. Write like you talk.
I spend a fair amount of my time in collaborative writing—usually working to translate my colleagues’ or clients’ thoughts to the written page. I’ll ask them a question about something that confuses me, and they’ll give me an answer. Then they pause, and say, “Okay, so what I’m really trying to say here is …” and I start writing down their words verbatim. It usually turns out to be an incredible starting point, from which we can polish and edit as we move forward.
16. End with, “Anyway, …”
Conclusions are slightly less difficult to write than introductions, but can still be tough. One of my favorite prompts comes from Matt Webb, who starts his conclusions with the word, “Anyway, …” It’s helped me get unstuck so many times. Most of the time, I do cut the word “Anyway,” and start the conclusion without it.
Complete Your Work by Editing
Image: The Writing-Master of the Old Schoolmaster (1836) by Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl/Cleveland Art
Editing is really where the magic happens. And this part might sound really difficult—but really, it feels incredibly natural when there’s a draft in front of you. Even if it’s a terrible draft, it’s really easy to find the parts that you can take to make it good. There are also many techniques to editing, so you don’t get stuck trying to make it perfect. You’ve already written pretty fast, and now you’re going to make your writing better. It’s worth noting that I don’t get a chance to use all of these editing techniques anymore; I’ll use different ones for different types of edits. For example, if I have 30 minutes, a very brief line edit will involve checking links (#19) reading it silently (#20), whereas a developmental edit would need 10–20 hours, and take multiple rounds involving all of these steps.
17. Read it out loud.
There are so many obvious mistakes that you can catch just by reading your work out loud. Awkward phrasing, misspells, flow, line breaks, repetitious words, and so on. This is a great way to go through your piece in detail and find the places you want to work on.
18. Print in triple space and edit by hand.
This is a technique I got from Robert Caro’s Working, in which he writes about editing his drafts triple-spaced, with pen and paper. The triple spacing is particularly useful: there’s enough space to actually make substantive and developmental changes. If you’ve found yourself drawn to stationary in the past—like pens, papers, notebooks, etc.—this will be particularly useful for you.
19. Make sure all the links work.
If you won’t do any other edits, at least make sure the links work. A lot of people skim now, but they stop and click on the links. I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve edited with broken links or bad links. (Try to use primary sources, too!)
20. Read it silently.
Reading your writing out loud is great for catching subtle mistakes, but reading your work silently is what most people are going to actually do. Reading your work silently means you’ll have an idea of where you’re getting bored or lost—and when you might need to hook a reader back in, or pause with an image or bullet points.
21. Change the font style.
Even though the words will be the same, shaking up the typography from what you’re used to will also get you reading with fresh eyes.
22. Aim for acceptable.
One of the most torturous parts of the editing process is deciding when something is done. For most of us, if we’re already short on time, perfection is a luxury we can’t afford yet. Instead, we’ll need to aim to meet a standard we set for ourselves. Decide on what acceptable or quality means to you beforehand, and once you’re there, publish your writing.
23. Cut! Cut! Cut!
As you write and edit, you’ll run into countless ideas to add more to the original scope of the piece. “Wow, it would be great if I dived into the history of writing faster here,” for example. It’s probably true—it’d be interesting and engaging!—but it’s not essential. And so, you’ll need to break it into a separate idea and write it another time. Right now, your job is to edit this piece and finish it, not to expand on the piece.
24. Release it.
For some people, this is the most difficult part of the creative process. That’s why regularly releasing work, keeping the muscle moving, is valuable. Your writing is done. It’s acceptable. Send it. Publish it. Release it. Print it. Deliver it. You’ve done your best. What happens after is out of your control.
25. Send it to a friend.
There’s nothing more valuable than receiving someone else’s in-depth, intentional, feedback. They’ll call out things that don’t make sense to them. This is the chance for you to understand where you can improve. I actually like sharing my writing with friends after it’s out—I even shared my original book with a publisher after I released it independently. I don’t like the idea of my complete draft sitting with someone else indefinitely. I also don’t like assigning my friends deadlines. But, if it makes more sense to you to send it to a friend before you release your work, then do it.
As you might gather, writing is a small part of a larger process—thinking, researching, ideating, learning, promoting, sharing, and so on. But none of that means anything without actual writing and releasing. Writing is usually the constraint. So, writing faster is a skill that helps widen the constraint—the flow and expression of ideas.
There’s a lot more that I can write on the topic of writing, but this is a pretty great guide into how to write faster. If you’re looking for prompts, check out this piece on how to be more creative. Have fun!