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Article: The Top Techniques for Writing Really Fast. Related Resources

The Top Techniques for Writing Really Fast.

©1998, C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

Are you a professional writer feeling the demand of an information-hungry audience for "MORE! NOW!?" People who write anything, fiction or nonfiction, freelance or employed, are finding greater demands upon them for performance and productivity. 

The public has always been ravenous for entertainment.  And today the greatest demand is upon particular nonfiction writers such as technical writers, business information writers, or health and fitness writers.  Not just for the knowledge they can provide, but also for a new approach or genre called "edutainment." 

So the lines between kinds of writers are disappearing as the call grows for writing that informs and entertains.  Books about computers have to include humor and interesting stories about people who've applied the information in the book and do it super fast because of the speed of technological change. Script writers for the various entertainment media have always experienced the pressure, and do I even need to mention news writers?  How about content providers for the Web? 

And if you freelance but don't have an employer, editor or group of fans screaming at you to produce more, you still want to produce faster just because you can increase your income and decrease hours worked.  It's no wonder that one of the organizations which have sponsored my seminars asked me to develop something that would help writers write faster.  I thought some of what I developed would be a good set of resources to share on my web site.  Of the techniques I recommend in my seminar, Writer's Express, the following are the top of the list. These are the ones I make sure to talk about first, in case we don't have time to cover everything.

Outlining Yes. Writing teachers still advocate outlining because it is the very best tool to keep you on track and your writing flowing smoothly. And I put this first because I am convinced of its #1 position in the writer's bag of tricks.

Did I hear you groan? I'm always amazed at the number of writers who insist that they find the method stifling of their "creative freedom" and never use it. Especially since those are the very writers who are sitting around and complaining that they "can't " seem to get it together to write.

Now, I know that if you are a diehard resister of the idea of outlining I'm not going to change your mind. Just skip on. In fact, resisters probably already have. However, if you're still reading, let me explain --quickly-- from a psychologist's point of view why outlining is not merely the writer's best friend but the fast writer's best friend.

I'll outline it for you this way:

Having a formal organization implies serious intent and serious intent indicates commitment. A sense of commitment leads to follow-through. So you are more likely to keep writing something you've outlined than something on which you merely have unorganized notes.

Having a formal structure provides visualization for the big picture so you constantly know where you are, what you've done, what you still need to do. Being able to see your progress gives you a sense of accomplishment. Accomplishment reinforces commitment to follow through to finishing a final product. So you write faster (i.e. produce more in the time allotted) because you are motivated and structured to keep writing steadily.

There is an additional benefit that helps you keep writing steadily.  Because outlining is so structured, you have the freedom to skip around and write in one section until you are no longer inspired, then in another. You can write faster because you don't have to just sit there until the next idea comes to you for a particular section. When you feel blocked in one place, go to another that is more exciting or if you are no longer excited about the entire project, go to a different project (a different book, article, proposal, whatever). You know that you can always take up where you left off because your notes will always be there in a logical order.

I'm trying --with difficulty -- to imagine a serious writer who doesn't know how to outline. I know many who won't but none who can't. Just to be thorough, however, I refer anyone who needs to learn outlining to this web site:  OWL Handouts -- Organizing Information .

Listing

This is a much less structured alternative to outlining and a good use of a brainstorming mode. Simply make a series of lists of all the ideas you want to include in what you're writing.

If writing nonfiction, just make an open-ended list of the most important points you wish to cover, in no particular order, just as they occur to you. Add to the list or subtract from the list...whenever. For each of the main points make another open ended list of all of the underlying concepts and information you need to adequately cover that point.

Of if you're writing fiction, list all the important events and for each important event make a list the smaller events leading to it, the characters involved and the reasons why the events happened. For each smaller event list the characters involved and the reason the event happened. For each character list descriptive words and phrases that portray that character. For each event list descriptions of the environment in which the event took place and list all the separate actions involved in the event. In the actions list where the action involves dialog, list the dialog in a script style format.

(For example:

Robert: You can't mean that!
Arlene: I can and I do.
Cynthia: Both of you shut up!)

In case an idea occurs, I make my lists in steno pads which I keep near me at home and which I take with me whenever I go out -- you never know when you'll get inspired or just plain pick up some information or idea from some outside source.

I also make lists in HyperCard ® directly or transfer my handwritten lists to HyperCard®. (See the section "Computer Assisted Writing" for more discussion of HyperCard ® and other tools you might use this way. As of this writing, HyperCard still works.)

Eventually, I organize the lists into formal, ordered outlines and keep the outlines expanding until I have a finished project.

Paragraph/Phrase books

Paragraph books and phrase books are, well, books full of paragraphs and phrases. Of course, all books are full of phrases and paragraphs, but in a paragraph/phrase book, each consecutive paragraph or phrase is an independent "document" in and of itself, not related to the paragraph prior or subsequent to it, not part of the "flow" of a coherent body of text.

The paragraphs/phrases are categorized by subject, arranged in list format and sometimes each paragraph is identified by a code. And the big idea is that you should use the paragraphs or phrases to fill in the holes in your writing project. There are remarkably few commercially available examples, but those that are available permit you to use the phrases they provide in your own published works. This is quite like the use of clip art. It's just words rather than pictures.

Paragraph/phrase books are similar in style and use to books of quotations. They are simply far more extensive and useful. They are also more comprehensive than a thesaurus, which will only give you word alternatives. But while I'm speaking of those other sterling writer's tools, let me pause to give you links to some on line:

InfoBear's Reference Shelf , A Web of On-line Dictionaries  and
 C:\Internet pages\Rnet\reference\quotations.htm

The first paragraph/phrase book I ever saw was designed for writing business letters. I was immediately captivated by that creative and flexible alternative to form letters. All the issues likely to be raised regarding customer service, billing and credit were addressed in a variety of ways. Every possible section of a normal business letter was covered, from salutations through complimentary closes. Even some great P.S.'s were there. Each major section was classified with a letter (or letters as the number of sections grew). Each paragraph or phrase within the section was numbered. So, the code for composing a complete letter might look like: A3, N22,S5,XX64.

Imagine how fast it was to answer correspondence when all you had to do was read the customer's letter and determine the correct response. The paragraph book even helped with that since we didn't have to figure out how to handle an issue that had been handled so many times before that there was a reply paragraph in the book for it. Then we'd jot down the code for the paragraphs that nicely opened and closed the letter with a solid answer sandwiched between. We'd simply finish up by sending it off to the typing pool (this was a long time ago) along with the customer's file so that the typist would have an easy to read name and address and could also file the latest addition immediately. Now we'd have it automated on our computers or network servers, naturally. We had computers then, but they took up rooms of space and common user interfaces were keypunch machines that produced stacks of data cards. Yes. I'm that old. Laugh at me and I'll beat you with my cane.

But back to you and paragraph/phrase books you can use today.

The best way to get a paragraph/phrase book is to make your own. And you really need both a physical copy to search manually -- pun intended -- and a virtual copy from which you can cut and paste. However, I recommend that what you do first is obtain a copy of the following phrase books.  (Click on the name to order from Amazon.com).  The Professional Writers' Phrase Book and/or The Romance Writer's Phrase Book. Both give you a good idea of how to develop paragraph books that serve your own particular writing genre. Follow their formats to develop pages of phrases and paragraphs. Someday I hope to have the time to make up some sample pages you can download. Meanwhile use the recommended two books and this page to give you a guide to developing your own. [Do get the books. It is quite difficult to adequately explain a paragraph/phrase book. It must be demonstrated. You have to see it, touch it, work with it to understand it well.]

There is at least one piece of software that is something like a paragraph/phrase book. It's called ClipWords. You can get it at:  Epigraphics Clip Words Software

Another book that might help:

When Words Matter Most, Robyn Freedman Spizman. Great for personal writing. Not designed as a paragraph/phrase book for inclusion in others' published works.  However, may give you some ideas for paragraphs and phrases you want to develop in your own paragraph book.  Just click on the name to get it from Amazon.com.

Interviewing a very different kind, a very different purpose.

A fun technique that allows you to talk to the dead or imaginary or otherwise absent people. And to real, living people who will not actually appear in your text.

Interview your characters and let them write themselves. Yes. Truly. Put each in an imaginary chair in front of you and have a virtual dialog. In fact, invite more than one at a time and let the interviewees interact like on a talk show. Do this privately. It cuts into your writing time if you get committed to a mental institution.

Interview the founding fathers (and mothers) of your field and have them explain the material you are trying to get across -- write down what they say. E.G. A philosopher might interview Plato or Aristotle, a physicist might interview Einstein, a psychologist might interview Freud (and argue with him).

Interview (real) potential readers and ask what they want to read.

Interview colleagues and ask what they think of what you are writing about. Don't have them read your work, just tell them the subject and ask for advice and ideas. Record what they say with tape, if they will allow it, otherwise just take notes. If they are experts in the field, especially if they are well known, you might end up turning it into a "real" interview and referencing their contribution.

Dictating

I learned the value of dictating into a tape recorder at the same time and place I learned about paragraph books. There was still plenty of original composition to be done and dictating just ripped right through it.

It is so much faster than trying to write it down. You can type maybe 65-70 words per minute accurately if you are a trained touch typist, but you can speak at about 200-250 words per minute.

The problem with typing or handwriting is that you think so much faster that you lose a lot of your idea just in translating from thought to page. Since you can speak that much faster, even though you still can't speak anywhere nearly as fast as you think, you do capture much more. Additionally, while your thinking is also a great deal faster than your ability to speak, much of the speed is because your thinking is in pictures or wordless understanding. You can capture some of that insubstantial material by dictating a few words that briefly capture the picture or analogize the understanding. For example: "I'm trying here to convey the impact of watching the bandages come off and seeing a patient realize his sight has been restored."

You can use this method in so many places and situations where you can't write or type. Driving, walking, doing chores, kicked back in a recliner, sunbathing.

It's a great way of taking research notes.

The real secret of the technique is that when you use it in conjunction with an outline and a paragraph/phrase book you can speed through your writing so fast you'll check yourself for windburn.

Naturally, you'll have to transcribe it or have it transcribed, but it still saves great gobs of time. Try it. Once you get over the initial strangeness you'll be delighted with it.

Just one warning: Unless you are dictating business letters or something that another will have to transcribe for you directly into final form, don't succumb to the notion of editing yourself as you talk. You'll not only lose the time savings, you'll go backwards. Dictating is not the same thing as giving a speech. You don't need to say complete sentences. You don't need to be in logical order. Just go stream of consciousness and get everything down as fast as you can. Editing is easy after transcription.

Computer Assisted Writing

The main uses of computer assisted writing for speeding up your performance are 1) organizing processes and data, 2) brainstorming, and 3) coaching.

There are mucho good programs for helping writers organize and develop stories, articles, scripts and books.  I encourage you to explore as many of those as you have time to download and evaluate demos on.  Just go to my search page, pick an engine and type in the words "writers software."  You'll get plenty of hits. However, there are a few that I want to bring to your attention.

Brainstorming type: 

• ParaMind Brainstorming Software (I haven't any first hand experience with the program, but it sounds good from what they explain on their web site and they have demo versions available.  It's almost always best to try a demo before buying any program.)

Writing coach type:  

• Ordering The Writer's Software Companion: Software for Fiction Writers  (You can get a demo version.  I did.  It is a good program.  I was particularly interested in the program because Nancy Kress was involved in its development.  I'm a fan of her fiction and appreciate her column in Writer's Digest magazine.  So, I was pleased to find I could recommend the software.)

Organizing Processes & Data:

• Plots Unlimited Demo-Screenwriters Online (This is, as the title suggests, for developing plots.  I have the book version, so this is a personal recommendation.)
• Epigraphics Clip Words Software  (Remember I called this to your attention earlier when talking about paragraph/phrase books.  I thought it belonged here, too.  It is another program I don't have first hand experience with, however, and recommend that if you can't get a demo that you buy it from a sources that guarantees you can return it if you don't like it.)

Make Your Own Computer Assisted Writing Program

• You can always make your own if you are inclined toward a little simple programming. It's beyond the scope of this article to teach scripting or authoring programs, but here are some suggestions for ways that don't require much new learning or "standard" programming skills (like C++ or CodeWarrior)
• The easiest way to make your own is to use a word processor's template-making function to make structured pages. Now this is a snap. If you can type in a word processor you can do this -- just design the page with the format you want to use & use the "save as" function in the word processor to save it as a template.  Also you can use Adobe Acrobat and other portable document makers, which has the advantage that you can share your templates on your own web site.

Although the major word processors come with various types of templates you can use as models for making templates of your own, it would be best to have models of templates made specifically for writers. Right now the only place I can find some templates for writers you can download as models is here:


A Romance Writer's Research, Software, Seminars and Resource Center from Vanessa Grant
What is going on that the only sources I'm finding are from romance writers?  Doesn't anyone else have enough love to give away some samples?  Look for me to upload some of my own templates fairly soon.  Nice thing about writing articles to publish on the web is you can make changes any old time.  Add things.  Edit.

If you have HyperCard® or SuperCard® (Mac) or HyperStudio (PC or Mac) you can make great interactive templates and paragraph/phrase books. To get good examples and ideas of what can be done, go to Royal Software Home Page for professionally polished stacks or start your search for HyperCard-related stuff at: INFO-MAC HyperArchive ROOT .
• An internet browser like Netscape that has a web page composing function (Netscape Communicator 4.0) will let you compose a page visually, no HTML required.  You can design the page any way you want and then share it online or just browse it locally.  That's probably what I'll use to give you my own templates.  (If you can program HTML, you can have beautiful pages of writer's templates using the new CSS.  It's a real kick.)

The Time Is Right! The Importance of Timing & Scheduling

If you want to make the best use of your time, you must remember that the most consequential choices are when you write and for how long on any specific occasion. If the expression "ready, willing and able" ever had a good application, it's here, because you need all of those qualities to produce quickly and in quantity. (Please note this caveat: I'm assuming that you have sufficient discretion in the use of your time to make the adjustments I recommend. Not everyone does.)

The Best Time To Write:

There are three particularly good times for writing:

• 1. In accordance with personal energy cycles. When do you fee the best about working? Have the most energy and ambition to do anything? Are you an early morning person? Do you come alive at 10 p.m.? Schedule yourself to write at the times you have the most energy for doing so. If you don't, it's only logical that you are going to take more time to write simply because it is harder for you. Now, this advice is for the ideal situation, of course. It assumes you can set that schedule. Actually, most writers can -- even those whose writing is done for a 9 to 5, bureaucratic, autocratic #@$%* employer. The aim is to schedule writing when you have the highest "readiness quotient" for it.

• 2. When inspiration strikes. This is the most personally rewarding time to write. You feel so great while you're doing it you probably wish the whole world well. Undoubtedly you zip right through it. One of the great reasons for having writing materials or a tape recorder always within reach is that you can't be sure when the lightning bolt of inspiration will strike.  It has been said that success in anything is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  I like to think that you can avoid some of that  perspiration and capture all the benefits of inspiration with a modicum of preparation.

• 3. When time providentially presents itself.  If you have to wait a half-hour at the doctor's office, if your lunch date suddenly cancels, if you find yourself in a 10-mile-long traffic jam are you prepared with materials so that you can write or dictate.  Sometimes it seems we have far more of those unexpected breakdowns in plans than we have planned time for writing.  For those of us who need to make more time for writing, those are heaven sent opportunities if we're prepared.  I think I told you earlier that I almost always have a steno pad at hand.

The Best Time To Not Write:

According to research, it appears that we can only focus effectively on a problem or project for about 40 minutes.  After that, our attention starts wandering and we start making mistakes. That means that we need to take breaks.  Let me repeat that: WE NEED TO TAKE BREAKS!  How often do you keep on going for hours without breaks?  You get more and more tired.  You get frustrated with a decreasing ability to produce.  You become resentful of the work, your coworkers, interruptions.  You don't know why you can't seem to find the right words or your ideas seem trite. Shall I say it again? WE NEED BREAKS.

Taking breaks helps reset the optimal work period clock and increase readiness and willingness to work. Also, if you write at a computer, you need restoration time for your eyes. Breaks should be a minimum of five minutes and are best taken away from the writing environment. Treat breaks like pauses between courses of a fine, large meal and take them as opportunities to clear your palate to bring a clean experience to the next course. You get extra benefits if you use break time to meditate.

Fun With Time Limits:

Another consideration in timing and scheduling is time limits.  There is a helpful structure and motivation in setting artificial time limits. For some it brings a sense of competition, gaming, racing ("I can beat that time."), for others, a sense of relief. ("I only have to write for 10 minutes. That's not much.") I call this the "salamis and elephants" idea, based on the most common two images used by trainers who teach personal organization and time management. They'll either ask: "How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." or "How do you eat a salami?" Answer: "Cut it into manageable slices and eat one at a time."

Here are two useful examples of setting artificial time limits:

• The x-minute exercise (use 5, 10 or 15 minute segments, no more) -- allow yourself only x minutes to write a particular section of your project. Make sure that it is a stretch but keep the size of the expected result reasonably possible.

• The deadline. Set a time certain by which you must complete an assignment and turn it over to a confederate to read. For example, Chapter 3 must be finished by Monday, 3 p.m. It is essential that you have someone who will accept your promise of completing the assignment and hold you to it. You need to have a real deadline to inspire speed. Make the deadline short enough to have to push for it, but, like the x-minute exercise, within reason.

How to Write a Book on Anything in Two Weeks or Less.

Ok, this is not a technique. It's a book about a systematic approach to writing fast. It's a very, very good book. By Allen and Ellie Deever. This is a book for ANYONE who writes, whether just beginning or many-times-published.

I got my copy of the book at the seminar the Deevers teach for Learning Annex in the Los Angeles area. I went to the class because I was already developing my own seminar ("The Writer's Express") and I wanted to see what the competition was doing. They were doing something quite different from me. And quite different from anything else I'd seen. The seminar is well presented and the exercises and approaches the Deevers use are founded in solid, applied psychology. If you use their system, you will write faster and enjoy it more. If you can get to their seminar, great. If you can't, get the book. Even if you can get to the seminar, get the book. The more ways you know to write fast, the better.

Sorry, but I can't find these folks present on the Web, so I don't have a link for you, but here's the address. You'll have to write for the latest pricing and ordering information on How To Write a Book on Anything in Two Weeks or Less:

W.M.E. Publications
P.O. Box 1673
Tustin, CA 92680-1673

On the other hand, I do have a link for you if you want to contact the Learning Annex (http://www.thelearningannex.com/index.html) about the seminar.

There are a number of further references and resources I want to share with you on writing and writing faster, but this article is already long.  I generally try to make Web articles as slim and to the point as possible.   So look for more later.  And if you know of any online or off line resources I should reference, email me.  I'll check them out.

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