5 Ways to Write More, Faster
You can’t change the world if you never write the first draft
When the smell of coffee hit, my brain lit up.
“It’s time to write.”
I’d walked into the Starbucks ready to write for four hours. Kate had a meeting with colleagues right up the road. I dropped her off, grabbed my latte, and cracked open my laptop.
The problem? I’d forgotten the power cord. I tapped the power button and looked at the bottom right corner of the screen.
73 minutes of battery remaining. Crap.
Since I’d already ordered my cappuccino, I decided to squeeze as much juice as I could out of the time. An hour of writing had to be better than nothing.
What was I able to achieve? Only one of my more popular posts of 2020. In less than 60 minutes, I went from idea to full first draft, chugged the rest of my coffee, tightened up the writing, and published the finished version.
A world of unlimited power can blur your attention. Without a safety net, what you want to write about quickly comes into focus. That’s the first unusual trick: leave the power cord at home. Here are four more I’ve discovered in my ten years of writing professionally.
2. Go to a Coffee Shop… but Don’t Look at People
Bong Joon Ho is enjoying the spotlight right now. One reason for this is his friendship with Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese. The other reason is that he wrote Parasite, the 2020 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. This movie is surprisingly quotable for American audiences… given it’s in Korean.
It’s worth examining the writing habits of someone who might be crowned the next King of Hollywood. How does Bong get so much writing done?
Coffee shops and cafeterias serve as his writing sanctuaries. He can’t just sit anywhere, though. When he’s ready to write, Bong will find a corner seat, and then he will specifically turn his back to the crowd.
“I’ll hear the conversations, even though I’m trying not to, and this helps me with my dialog.”
Bong is able to stay focused on the task at hand, but still capture the authentic human nature his films are renowned for.
3. Switch Writing Projects Every 20 Minutes
Staying on the theme of 2020 Academy Award winners, Taiki Waititi recently earned new fans when his movie Jojo Rabbit won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Waititi has been in the industry for a long time as an excellent writer, director, and actor.
As someone who is often juggling multiple projects, Waititi gave some unusual advice for working on more than one idea at a time.
“This is a good system. Break up your work load into 20 minute breaks. After 20 minutes, force yourself to move on to the next project. After that, the next one… what’s good about that is you’ve only spent 40 minutes away from the original project.”
At first glance, this seems like a simple Pomodoro technique for writing. But the forcing of a project switch instead of just a normal break shakes your brain out of a rut. When you move over to make progress on the second project, you're likely to stumble on ideas for the first one.
By the time you get back to the first project, you return with fresh energy and fresh ideas.
4. Stop Looking at the Screen While You Type
Spell checkers are the devil.
Okay, they aren’t the devil exactly, but at times I wish they’d never been invented. Of course, they are helpful in later drafts, but not when you’re trying to get words on a page.
Some days, I can’t seem to get through a single sentence without hopping back to correct where I said “taht” instead of “that.” On these occasions, I black out my visual stimulus entirely.
This is easy if you’re using a desktop. Simply make sure your cursor is where you plan to type, push the button that turns off the monitor, and type freely. If you’re on a laptop, fold the screen all the way forward so it’s hovering just over your fingers. Another alternative is to close your eyes like a pianist maneuvering through a particularly beautiful passage of music. (This will get you weird looks if you’re writing in public, though).
Your fingers will tell you “I did that one wrong!” Ignore them. Just type. Get the words from your brain to the page as quickly as possible.
When you finish, the page will look bloody. It’s okay.
That’s why they invented right-clicking.
5. Use Placeholders
This a trick I learned in my short-lived news journalism career. Often we would be three hours away from a deadline, and have a paragraph like this one the front page:
“Obscure Collegeville State’s enrollment service crashed yesterday, leaving [HOW MANY] students unable to enroll for class.”
“[QUOTE QUOTE QUOTE],” said Dean Samuels. “[QUOTE QUOTE QUOTE QUOTE].”
By the time we finally did wrangle Dean Samuels into giving us a number, we simply plugged in the holes and pushed the story to print. This opposed to waiting for all the quotes and then trying to compose an entire story under pressure.
Amateur writers often make this mistake — they believe writing needs to be done from start to finish. This keeps them from finishing. In truth, probably 90% of what you need to write a post, an article, or even a book exists in your head. For the rest, add placeholders.
Adding placeholders has two benefits:
1) You don’t get sidetracked by research when you’re writing
2) It’s very clear which parts of the story still need work.
Placeholders are my weapon of choice when it comes to cranking out a first draft. They are also key levers I pull to make a post really sing by the time it reaches third draft status.
Whether you’re working to create the next quotable line for your feature film, or simply crafting a Seth Godin-style short post, you need to have ammunition for the days you can’t seem to get momentum.
Don’t let the resistance keep you from getting your story out. Once again, here’s the arsenal of tricks to get moving:
Unplug your laptop
Find a cafe and turn your back to the crowd
Switch projects every 20 minutes
Turn off your monitors
Experiment with these to see what works for you. Line them up with where and when you already write.
Remember, the ideas in your head can change the world.
But not if you never get the first draft finished.