How to write faster

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.

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 4.22.19 PMWriting 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?

Related Links

How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy

How to write a lot

67 thoughts on “How to write faster

  1. Lynne Kelly says:

    Thanks, Inger. I use voice recognition software, Dragon Dictate, which I now have well trained. The latest version is much improved – so people who have tried and rejected because of inaccuracy rates might want to try again. It saves me hours of typing.

    I am writing a new book based on some of the thesis material. I use voice recognition for writing to get a natural flow of ideas. Then I edit, edit and edit.

  2. Robyn Reid says:

    Oh Wow Maureen! Such a useful posting! I will use some of it with my third years! Thank you. It is so inspiring. If only I had something to write about! How are you today? Cheers Robyn

    >>> The Thesis Whisperer 25/09/2013 10:16 a.m. >>>

    Thesis Whisperer posted: “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 ta”

  3. themodernidiot says:

    Your timing is perfect! Starting a PhD research project from scratch, with no prior knowledge and two unmotivated group members! I might not survive this one. I don’t even have a BA yet!

  4. Vijay says:

    Thanks, Inger. I did tried Scrivener, some how I didn’t liked it – may be am used to write in word? I got 8months left to complete my PhD. I am thinking of to give one more try with Scrivener:)
    Thank you for the great post

  5. The Educational(ist) says:

    I love, love, looooove Scrivener. It’s well worth the US$40.00 (AU$42.00). If you’re a little technophobic when it comes to new software or feel a bit lost when venturing into unfamiliar program territory there are quite a few really useful tutorials on youtube, or if you prefer step-by-step text then ‘Scrivener Absolute Beginner’s Guide’ by Jennifer Ackerman Kettell can be purchased on amazon for your kindle. It can be a little daunting making the shift from MS Word to Scrivener, especially since MS Word is pretty much the default word processor for the entire planet and we’re all super comfortable with it, but using both programs in synergy (along with the others mentioned in this article) will definitely give you an edge in the academic writing process. Great post Inger!

  6. Academic Skills, Melbourne says:

    Absolutely couldn’t make Scrivener work for me–I like linear stuff. But I DO agree that perfectionism is the major reason people write slowly. And that losing info (or laboriously having to search through info) you’ve already researched also slows you right down.
    I love that you encourage people to think what helps them, there are no right answers here, just options!

  7. Eljee Javier says:

    I second using Scrivener! It turned to it after MS Word crashed for the umpteenth time when moving between documents. I tend divide my work into sections and sections within sections so Scrivener works for me. However, it was a hell of a learning curve, having used only MS Word for years, so it wasn’t love at first ‘type’ (*groan*) for me.

    • The Educational(ist) says:

      Yeah, I remember at first I was a bit resistant to the change, but Word kept crashing on me too, even more so after I upgraded to Windows 8 and Office 2013. I think we’ve all been seriously conditioned by our use of all the major desktop applications (MS Office etc.) and our brains find adaptability to new software all a bit too much effort. I’ve noticed a fair bit of resistance, for example, with students giving Prezi a shot over PP. With Scrivener I pressed on and fumbled through all its pretty cool features until I got used to it. Now I use it for everything 🙂

  8. Honestpuck says:

    I go even more basic than Scrivener. I use a really plain editor, Byword, and Markdown syntax. I just thump it out all in one stream as fast as possible not even thinking about thinking about structure.

    Then *long* stuff is broken up into pieces and put into Scrivener for structure and editing.

  9. Gabriela Hajduk (@AmidstScience) says:

    Have you tried LaTeX? It’s quite good for longer pieces of work (i.e. thesis!), you can label sections and find them easily (there is even a drop down menu you can pick them from). It handles big documents with ease, allows for chapters, deals with in-text references and bibliography, produces fantastic tables (once you see them you’ll never say that Word tables are good!), can produce/import figures etc. The learning curve might a bit steep at the beginning, but it’s worth checking out I think.

  10. worriedteacher says:

    Thanks for this. I will definitely be using some of these ideas.
    Depending on what I am writing I sometimes use OmWriter. It is a basic free no frills so no distractions writer. But I do wonder whether increased productivity is a positive goal in and of itse

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  12. rachelbibbs says:

    This blog for me was absolutely amazing! It gave great insight as to how to become a faster writer. This helped me a great deal because I am one of those people who are somewhat of a perfectionist, and sometimes it’s just not needed, so this blog was very helpful!

  13. Binod says:

    Have someone tried using ‘NVivo’ for organising your literature review? As qualitative data analysis software, this gives us great scope of organising our literature review data – we’ve scope of organising reviewed literature as required as well as we can have our notes together. I have not tried linking EndNote with NVivo but this option sounds further appealing.

    • Hanna says:

      I have tried NVivo and found it complicated. It also took up a lot of space and my computer kept crashing. A colleague withe a Mac loved it though! It is definitely more useful for social scientists than for people in the humanities. I am a big Scrivener fan myself. It has a function where you can blend out the background and just have a beautiful white surface to write, write, write on.

  14. Rebecca says:

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Outline mode in MS word – I’ve never used Scrivener but the main advantages above (that you can see everything and move around text chunks easily) are mirrored in outline mode (a View option)
    You just give every section and subsection nested headings, and you can view all the chapter headings or subsections at a glance. You can also move paragraphs or even whole sections around easily.
    I am completely sure there are guides for this online, and it takes very little time to convert your current document so that it can be viewed like this. I use it all the time – it’s definitely a thesis-saver!

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  16. astral education says:

    Have you tried LaTeX? It’s quite good for longer pieces of work (i.e. thesis!), you can label sections and find them easily (there is even a drop down menu you can pick them from). It handles big documents with ease, allows for chapters, deals with in-text references and bibliography, produces fantastic tables (once you see them you’ll never say that Word tables are good!), can produce/import figures etc. The learning curve might a bit steep at the beginning, but it’s worth checking out I think.

  17. junaid says:

    I know it might seem strange. but this whole route is done quite well with onenote 2013 and that can be transfered(recollected) into single Word document.

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  21. nicosonyx says:

    Great read, and a thorough take on the subject. I’ve seen a few posts about improving writing speed by now but can’t really see anybody addressing the issue of typing speed. I think it plays a large role in producing content, whether you write singlehandedly with a pen, slowly, while your mind races through hundreds of thoughts, out of which you grab one or few. And this, in contrast to a speedy keyboard, with maybe 90WPM, writing basically what you are thinking in the moment.

    I’ve written on the topic as well, but more from this perspective. Perhaps you’d be interested in taking a look. It could improve your writing speed also!

  22. Navid Haider says:

    This is really sound advice. The ‘iteration’ technique in particular seems to come in handy a lot — work in layers, like one would do a water-color painting, through various washes. Write first, then go back and edit the whole thing for factual errors, then go back and edit again to check for formatting-errors, that sort of cross-checking is useful.

    Now, here’s something that got overlooked in your post: “Getting fast required me to get rid of – or at least surpress – my perfectionist tendencies. I’m not going to pretend this is easy.”

    I guess you didn’t suppress… or surpass your tendencies, haha. Or did you?! 😀 Thanks for the wonderful advice! Will keep on reading.

  23. Christina says:

    I am preparing for my comprehensive exams, where I will have to write a 6 page double spaced essay (about 2000-2500 words) in 7 hours. It is open book/resources so I am preparing references, etc in advance. We won’t know the topic until the day of, which is the main source of my stress. Do you have any advice about how to structure that time the most effectively given that I can’t come up with a plan in advance? My department won’t give us practice questions, so we have been making them up and testing them on each other.

  24. Anujjindal says:

    writing faster is not an easy task I think, But If you are learning something or you have some amazing idea then Of course you can writer faster. As per my opinion It’s basically depends on your writing skills as well.

    By the great content keep it up!!!

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