22 Time-Saving Tips for the Modern Writer
Because hard work doesn’t scale
Given that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, how do some writers get so much more done more than others?
Sean Kernan sprinted his way to 300,000 followers in a short time on Quora and Medium by writing and publishing more. Tim Denning made six figures at his keyboard by writing 20,000 words per day. Self-published author H Claire Taylor makes a living off her books. How did she rise above average? You guessed it — by releasing more books.
Each of these people is an average human. How do they do it?
Here’s how: They don’t waste time.
This isn’t about “not procrastinating.” Even non-procrastinators waste time. What I’m talking about is the quickest path from the beginning of an idea to the completion of it. You’re about to read the keys to doing just that
Who am I to tell you? Fair question. I’m a professional writer and have been for more than a decade now. I’ve penned seven books, published three, and ghostwritten one. I’ve logged over 1,000 blog posts. I also had a full-time job during that time, where I wrote scripts for marketing videos, speeches for executives, emails from corporate, and — during my worst moments of life — manuals for hardware.
Most writers have a process filled with waste. I don’t have that luxury. Maybe you don’t either. Or maybe you’d rather just get more done. This is the path.
Quick note: The tips below are specifically focused on tools and methods that will save you time, and not just things that are helpful or useful. If you’re looking for recommendations on software, go read a different post.
The Writing Process
Before you get into the browser hacks or keyboard shortcuts, get the basics.
Adding anything to a process takes time. Don’t try all of these today. Instead, bookmark the post. Pick one time-saving tool. Practice that one, and then move on. Over time, your process gets better.
1) Learn to write on your phone
Writers resist using smartphones to write because of intellectual magic that comes with writing. You aren’t just typing, you are changing lives! Doing that sort of work punching tiny letters with your thumbs can ruin that energy.
My advice? Get over it.
Most people can type about 40 words per minute on their phone. Sure, that’s probably only half what you’re able to do on a keyboard, but when you get an idea in the middle of Walmart, why not just dash it down right then?
As with all writing, you can come back and edit it later.
2) Set timers when you write
This was a borderline “time-saving” tip. It’s in here because when I asked every writer I knew for mentioned this was a way to write more in less time.
I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Method: 25 minutes on; five minutes off.
You can use Eggtimer in your browser, but I’ve recently been a fan of using Apple Shortcuts on my iPhone. With a two-step workflow, you can create a button that automatically starts a timer and turns on “Do Not Disturb” mode. Instructions on that below:
3) Develop your skills as a writer
You can’t sidestep this truth. Simply being better is a great way to be faster. You can practice. You can learn. You can improve.
How? Write every day. Figure out how to edit quickly. Type faster. Learn the reason your work doesn’t “feel right.” Have headline templates.
4) Have a “cuts document”
The best writing advice I’ve gotten: stop using the delete key.
Instead, make a file called “Cuts.” Take all your unused sentences, paragraphs, and ideas and put them there. I usually separate my cuts documents by post.
5) Use placeholders when you write
Switching back and forth from writing to research can waste time. Instead, consider writing paragraphs like this in your first draft.
“Obscure Collegeville State’s enrollment service crashed yesterday, leaving [HOW MANY] students unable to enroll for class.”
“[QUOTE QUOTE QUOTE],” said Dean Forester. “[QUOTE QUOTE QUOTE QUOTE].”
Adding placeholders has two benefits:
You don’t get sidetracked by research when you’re writing
It’s very clear what still needs work.
6) Learn to outline better
Outlining is such an important part of the writing process that I made a course on it. Outlines answer the question: “What should I write next?”
Outlines don’t have to be difficult. Start here:
How can I grab attention in the beginning?
What points do I want to make in the middle?
Which idea should I leave people with at the end?
Workflowy is an excellent tool for creating outlines freely.
Writing is done by pressing buttons with your fingers on your keyboard. Whenever you move said fingers from the keyboard to the mouse, it is a waste of time.
Who wants to drag a stupid pointer across the screen anyway? Slamming your fingers against the alphabet is much more fun.
Here are ways to use the mouse as little as possible. These will not feel normal at first. Again, add slowly, and build the new habits as you go.
(Note: I use Windows. Mac users, feel free to lord your nerd credibility over me in the comments later. In the meantime, just sub CMD for each CTRL.)
7) CTRL + X
I don’t use delete or backspace ever. (Remember the cuts document.) Instead, I use CTRL X as my go-to editing tool. On my second and third edits of a post, I use the cut tool like literal scissors.
8) CTRL + V
Paste. Place whatever you cut in the place you want it to go. Again, basic.
9) CTRL + T
Now we’re getting somewhere. This opens a new tab in an Internet browser. Helpful if you’re like me and need a minimum of 12 tabs open at all times.
10) CTRL + Page Up/Page Down
Toggles between tabs. You’re writing a story and need to hop over quickly to the news article you’re getting your research from.
Slowwwwwly lift your hand to the mouse and steer that stupid cursor over to click it? Nah. Just use this shortcut.
11) CTRL + (Any number)
This jumps to a specific tab. CTRL + 1 goes to tab 1, CTRL + 2 goes to tab 2, and so on. CTRL + 9 always goes to the last tab.
Did I mention I love tabs?
12) CTRL + W
Closes a tab. This is handy when the aforementioned tab addiction gets carried away…
13) CTRL + Shift + T
Oops! Didn’t mean to close that tab? Open it back up with this combo.
14) CTRL + K
Hyperlink a piece of text like this.
15) CTRL + F
Easy. CTRL + F. Then type in “quarantine.”
16) CTRL + left arrow or right arrow
You can jump in between words as opposed to just letters (with the arrow keys) or whole lines (with the “home” and “end” buttons).
17) CTRL + Shift + left arrow or right arrow
Jumps in between words, but this time highlights them along the way. Helpful for when you want to quickly select a few words, cut them out using CTRL + X, and then past them in another paragraph using CTRL + V.
Quick note. There are an enormous amount of options with navigation. I’d advise taking some time to play around with combinations using the CTRL key, shift key, arrow keys, and home and end buttons.
18) CTRL + Enter
In most email clients, and certainly on Twitter and Facebook, CTRL + Enter sends the message.
Unless you’re writing in Microsoft Word (which… why?), you’ll probably be in some sort of internet browser when you’re doing your work. Here are some ways I’ve found to reduce the time spent maneuvering these tools.
19) Use tabs, not windows
Have I been clear enough about the tabs thing yet? Easy switching, and you can do it without the mouse.
20) Open your commonly used pages when the browser starts
You know how you do your best first draft work: It’s probably an open editor, some sort of music, and a timer to remind you to stretch, right?
Why even waste seconds opening those programs separately?
In Google Chrome, you can click the settings button on the side, and then choose several websites to open at once. I open Evernote and my favorite Baroque music writing playlist each time.
21) Group tabs for research
You long-form writers are going to love me for this. Let’s say you are diving into great movie quotes. You’ve got 93 tabs open and you’re deep in research.
Then you realize you need to get to your day job, and you’ll need another 93 different tabs for the optimal workflow for that.
Here’s what you do — pocket the writing tabs for later so you don’t have to open them all again.
Click the tab on the far left side.
Hold down shift.
Click the one on the far right.
Name the folder “Movie Quotes.”
Pick up right where you left off next time.
Online Publishing Tricks
I would love to be able to blow your mind here with the best writing software, super cross-posting hacks, or the latest trick for automating 12 processes at one time.
The truth is, I hate that stuff. It’s boring. I like to write. I don’t like much else.
So, here’s my one and only online publishing trick.
22) Self-plagiarize as often as possible
A tweet can become a LinkedIn post, which can become the basis of an article which can become a podcast point, which can become a chapter in a book. I’m saying that like you’d have to improve the piece every time. Not at all. Just copy and paste your best stuff everywhere.
“But won’t people get tired of seeing it over and over?”
No. Nobody can possibly consume everything you put out. It will get lost in the noise or the algorithm. If you think a fan would seek out every piece of work on every platform, you have a bigger ego than me.
(And that’s saying something)
Looking back over this list, it all sounds dull.
If I’d seen a post like this 10 years ago, I would worry about losing the magic of writing. Isn’t writing supposed to be fun? Why worry about efficiency?
Gustave Flaubert tells us why:
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
What these tips really do is trim down the time you spend not writing. That way, you can focus on commas, semicolons, and surprising your audience with an antiquated adjective. Freed from slow procedures, you can finally get around to writing those ideas tucked away in the corner of your mind.
In other words, you can muddle less, and write more.