In a blog post a while back I suggested being a fast writer can be a career ‘edge’. Afterwards a surprisingly large number of people wrote to me wanting to become faster writers, or questioning whether learning to write faster was possible. I was a bit taken aback by the questions as I assumed there was enough published advice out there already, including on this blog, but maybe I was wrong.
Writing faster is, to a large degree, a practice effect: the more you write, the quicker you will become. However if you keep doing things the same way you will plateau at some point if you don’t start doing things differently.
Significant gains in writing productivity can be gained by a combination of the right kind of practice and the right kind of tools. I’ve written about many of these tools and techniques previously, but I’ve organised all the advice here into a three step program, with links to useful resources.
Review your writing tools
Often the ‘industry standard’ software is not the best tool for the job. Take Word processors as just one example. You must move back and forth over the text to achieve flow and make sure everything is in the right place. If you can move around your documents more easily your writing speed will increase. Unfortunately the industry default, MS Word, does not, out of the box, perform this task well.
Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know this is the key reason I am a huge Scrivener fan. Scrivener is a different kind of word processor that enables you to write ‘chunks’ and move them around easily (you can read more about Scrivener here and download a free trial here).
Although I prefer to use Scrivener, it is not always possible, or desirable, to use it end to end in a given writing project. I often find myself collaborating with other MS Word users (ie: 99% of the writing world) and there are certain things Word does well (in particular tables). Luckily translating my text from Scrivener to Word and back again is very easy.
Since the productivity boost from Scrivener is in the drafting process, I stay there as long as I can before switching to MS Word. I overcome some of the problems of MS Word by creating subheadings and assigning styles to them. Then I make a table of contents so these subheadings become clickable links at the start of my document. It’s not perfect, but it enables me to ‘teleport’ around the text more easily during the final editing process.
Database yourself up
Setting yourself up to write is a bit like setting yourself up to cook a stew. If the vegetables are all cut up in advance you can put the thing together much quicker. All writing will rely on some data, analysis and thinking to be done in advance and organised in a useful way.
I’ve outlined the strategy I use to produce ‘thesis ready’ chunks of notes by working on the verbs and I’ve made a verb cheat sheet (PDF) for you to use in your writing. The next step is to use the computer’s power of storing and organising information to the fullest extent possible. I dream of a database that will do everything I need, but I fear it doesn’t exist. To store my raw ‘academic stuff’ I use Evernote and Papers2. Papers2 is the place where I store journal articles. I use Evernote for everything else: webpages, notes to myself, photos of whiteboards etc.
I’m often surprised that more people don’t use Evernote, given it’s free to sign up, syncs across multiple devices and has optical character recognition. If you’re interested, there’s some good advice out there for using it for academic work. By having all my reference material in databases I can do searches using keywords. The computer does all the heavy lifting and displays the relevant material in a list, which I can review to see if it meets my needs.
To organise my notes for writing a literature review I often use a matrix, which can be thought of as an adhoc, home made database. I got this idea from the “My Studious Life” blog, where Jenn often shares useful tips and ideas. A literature review matrix is simply a fancy grid (use Excel or a google spreadsheet) where the columns contain notes from the papers you have been reading and the rows are assigned to various themes. You can use the same basic principle to build a data analysis grid with variables in the rows and observations in the columns. I’ve made a downloadable worksheet to guide you in making your own matrix.
Let go of perfectionist tendencies
My top speed is about 1000 good, publishable words an hour. I base this on the length of time it takes me to write a blog post which is clear in my head before I start. A page of a journal paper full of complex and subtle ideas might take me three times that long. I could be faster; despite numerous attempts to retrain myself I still can’t touch type!
Getting fast required me to get rid of – or at least surpress – my perfectionist tendencies. I’m not going to pretend this is easy.
My perfectionism plagued me when I was at design school as an undergraduate. My teachers tried to explain that good designers do not hold onto ideas too tightly, but I wasn’t a very good student. I found myself frequently stuck on one idea, unable to move on. One technique that did help was to work fast through many design possibilities, using sketches on yellow trace paper. This special paper came on a roll, like baking paper, and enabled you to trace over and over, changing the design as you went in a process my teachers called ‘iteration’.
Good writing is a process of iteration. You have to get the ideas out of your head so you can start fixing them. So the cure for perfectionist writers is … writing. Ironic isn’t it?!
While time boxing techniques like the pomodoro technique can help you focus on your writing tasks, I don’t think they are really a cure for perfectionism. Instead, try using the Manchester academic phrase bank. This cool web page contains a vast store of ‘ready made’ academic sentences sorted into categories of academic work, such as ‘reviewing the literature’ or ‘discussing results’.
By forcing you to articulate the gaps or uncertainties, these sentence scaffolds help you to confront your doubts about your work in a piecemeal fashion. Since you are producing ‘thesis ready’ sentences at the same time, the process of thinking and writing is less anxiety provoking.
There are some writing exercises that can help loosen up your writing muscles. These ask you to practice writing in different ways and for different purposes. For excellent suggestions check out Peter Elbow’s classic book “Writing without Teachers” and Robert Boice’s “Professors as Writers”. I also highly recommend Howard Becker’s “Writing for social scientists” which describes the problems of academic writing beyond the narrow boundaries the title suggests.
I hope these suggestions and tools are helpful to you. My previous ebook “Tame your PhD” contains longer explanations of some of these techniques and look out for my new ebook: ‘how to write your thesis faster’, which will have even more suggestions. But I wonder – do you have any suggestions or techniques that worked for you? What helps you write faster?