How to Write Better, Faster
Chances are, if you work in an office, you have to write – emails, reports, pitches, blogs, tweets. Or maybe you’re trying to work in a better office (like ours) and are faced with the task of writing three dozen cover letters.
Whatever your writing needs, I’m guessing you’d like to be able to write better and faster.
And I’m here to tell you that it is possible.
Really? What Are Your Credentials, Madam?
Thank you for asking. In my first job out of college, I wrote about 10 articles (~500 words each) per day. They weren’t Pulitzer-worthy or anything, but they’re out there on the internet. And they got us traffic (though I don’t recommend that approach to SEO today).
Me, age 22 (via GIPHY)
And then there was the job where I cranked out as many as 30,000 words per week to get duplicate content off my company’s website. And also to drive traffic.
My point is: I write fast. And reasonably well.
Okay, Yes, Please Sign Me Up for That
Hang on. I won’t pretend that there’s a shortcut to being able to write well. Writing well requires that you read a lot and write a lot. Period.
But even if you aren’t a turbo writer (and aren’t trying to be), I believe that you – yea, that anyone – can write better. And faster.
12 Tips for Writing Better, Faster
I may be a sample size of one, but I can tell you that these 12 tactics have worked for me consistently for the last dozen years (which, for you math fanatics, comes to one tactic per year). So there’s a chance that at least some of them will work for you.
1. Outline the whole project before you start.
Include data points (if you don't have them, dig them up), supporting resources you’ll link to, and any key phrases you know you want to use. Think of this as figuring out what you want to say before you have to actually say (write) it. Some of this can happen away from your desk – for example, I wrote the intro to this piece in my head, in the shower this morning. When you do this, you have all the hard thinking done ahead of time, so when you sit down to write, all you have to do is write.
2. Attempt to induce your flow state.
Achieving flow (aka getting in “the zone”) will give you a fighting chance of getting your work done.
So when you do sit down to write, be rested. Consume caffeine. Pop into full-screen mode. Find somewhere quiet or listen to music without lyrics. Then write.
3. Write in a plain font.
This will keep you from being seduced by the beautiful serifs and think everything you write is gorgeous. (I am especially distrustful of Perpetua and Garamond and I am not alone.)
4. Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft.
5. Write a terrible first draft.
I promise that editing it will be easier than you think.
6. Pretend you’re explaining something to a fourth- or fifth-grader.
Write things the way you’d say them.
7. If you can’t figure out how to say something or can’t think of the right word, stop.
Go back. Often, when you’re stuck on a word or phrase or idea, there’s a problem earlier in the sentence or paragraph. Rewrite the sentence or paragraph in the dumbest, simplest way you can. I guarantee that this will help clarify things.
8. Make arbitrary decisions.
If you’re not sure how to structure something (list? Short paragraphs? Subheaders?) or which order ideas should go in, make an arbitrary choice. If it doesn’t work, you can change it in step 10.
9. When you finish a draft, take a break.
Do something else for at least an hour, but ideally a whole day.
10. Return to your draft with fresh eyes.
Here, you’ll see things that don’t quite work or don’t make sense or don’t flow as well as you’d like (remember: you just wrote a terrible first draft).
Change those things. This is called “revision” and a lot of people are scared of it.
Revision is where you figure out how you should say what you’re saying. Sometimes revising will mean reordering paragraphs or taking things out. Sometimes it’s about restructuring.
You’re re-seeing something with the goal of making it better.
11. Rewrite your masterpiece with the intention of improving overall concision, word-make-sensiness, and the “does this even work at all?” factor. Revise for clarity.
12. Read the whole piece backwards by complete sentence.
That means last sentence first, then second-to-last sentence, and so on. This will help you catch problems that you might miss when you get into the forward-moving flow of a piece.
The process looks like this:
Figure out what you’re going to say, say it, then figure out how to say it better.
Outline, write, revise.
This works because you’re eliminating all of the non-writing work from the writing process – the stuff that’s likely to slow you down or trip you up. When you work like this, all you have to do when you write is actually write.
Reader, it can be fun.
But Brenna, What About My Existential Dread Around the Writing Process?
Ah. Great question. Sometimes, we struggle to write not because of the writing itself but because of some underlying dread or belief about ourselves as writers or people or whatever. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but probably you should address that.
Because if you don’t, you can write like the LITERAL WIND and you’ll still procrastinate and get stressed out.
So stare it in the face. Wrestle it. Conquer it.
And, you know, if you aren’t able to, you can always outsource.
Are You Saying this Whole Post Was a Pitch?
It didn’t start out that way. I swear. But, you know. If you need help….