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How can I write quickly?

I (hi, I’m unforth/Claire Houck) have been asked frequently over the years how I write a lot quickly. I’m a pretty fast writer – for example, I wrote the 5600 words of my May Trope Mayhem fill from yesterday in under 2.5 hours. 

First, a little of my personal history for context. I’ve always written, starting from when I was able to string letters into (very poorly spelled) words and (horrible un-grammatical) sentences. When I started trying my hand at serious, professional-level fiction writing, I joined a community called novel_in_90, which was founded by the author Elizabeth Bear. The purpose of novel_in_90 was “to be NaNoWriMo but more realistic.” Instead of 50,000 words in 31 days, it was 67,500 words in 90 days, or 750 words a day. I participated in multiple rounds of novel_in_90 starting in mid-2005, and in 2007 I completed my first (godawful) novel. When I started, even writing a couple hundred words of day took me forever, but it got easier with time. 

During those same years, I also got a job that required I do professional writing on a deadline: I was a grant writer, and I only got paid when the grants won. That often meant working fast under high pressure, culminating in the weekend I wrote and edited an entire 40 pages grant that was due on Monday. I think, if I hadn’t had a solid foundation of “regular daily plodding writing,” I’d not have been able to marathon when the moment came…and it came because I had to, not because I wanted to. However, I learned a valuable lesson: I could. Subsequently, I found that, when I had the time and space and was rested enough to use my brain, I could bust out a huge amount. Like, I wrote an entire 150,000 word novel in 17 days. 

My personal record is about 200,000 words in one month (it was the month I wrote that novel; I wasn’t tracking when I did that so I don’t know exactly), 25,000 words in a day, and I’ve topped out around 3,000 words an hour. I do know people who can do more…but not many.

Not everyone will be able to do this. Flat out, I MUST preface the rest of this post by saying that. Some people will find that writing fast fits their brain, and for others, it just won’t, and that’s okay. Fast doesn’t equal better, and it isn’t inherently “good” to write fast. Furthermore, even for those who can write fast, not everyone will find the same strategies helpful. I can share what works for me. Try out one item, some items, or all of these – if writing faster is something you want to be able to do, which it certainly never has to be. Use what works for you, and discard the rest.

  1. Sit in your chair, put your fingers on your keyboard or touch screen, and write. You can’t write 1,000 words in half an hour until you write one word, however long that one word takes. I know saying this is obvious, but I’ve been asked “how can I write fast” by people who struggle to write at all…fast can’t be your priority until you’ve got a foundation of just writing. (Honestly…fast should never be your priority, but it might be helpful to you regardless, which can make it worth learning.)
  2. Start small. Set an achievable goal, and make yourself meet that goal (daily, weekly, whatever) come hell or high water, no matter how long it takes you. Keep the goal small at first; you’re not trying to torture yourself, you’re trying to build a skill. If you set the goal high enough that you consistently fail, you’re not teaching yourself anything. And, if you find the goal IS too high…lower it. There’s no shame in working within your limits. Think of it like starting a new work out regimen: you wouldn’t try to run a 10k at a record time if you can’t run a mile slow. Treat your fingers and your brain the same way you’d treat your legs and joints. Give them time to grow, learn, and improve before you try to push yourself.
  3. Trying to write daily is worthwhile if you want to work on your writing speed, because you’ll be forced to try to fit it in as you’re able – that might be ten minutes in your morning, or an hour in your evening, and it might vary from day to day, but making it daily means you have to fit it in somewhere
  4. Building skills takes time and isn’t easy. For some people, it will come easier than for others, and even when you’re fast, going from “I can write words fast” to “I can write damn good words fast” takes practice and dedication and accepting constructive criticism – speed alone will never be worth more than writing well.
  5. Having a community can help. Ya’ll will check in on each other, cheer each other on, remind each other that missing a day or a goal isn’t the end of the world, and keep each other’s spirits up. If you don’t know other writerly folks online, I recommend Weekend Writing Marathon as a good place to start (I used to be a mod there). Once you’re trying to work up to larger word counts in a day, remember that even writing fast will take minutes or hours. You can’t write 2,500 words in an hour if you don’t set an hour aside. Make sure you’re giving yourself the room and time you need to succeed.
  6. You will probably never be able to do high, rapid word counts every day, every week, every month. The best runners in the world don’t run marathons every day. Set realistic long term goals.
  7. Work on projects where you have a clear idea of where you’re going. I’m not saying “pantsers” can’t write fast, because of course they can, but if you want to write fast, and well, and coherently, to create a first draft that’s in pretty good shape, you’ll do better if you have a good sense of what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. That doesn’t mean you need to do all your world building up front, or have a complete outline (I never have either). All you really need is what happens next. I tend to plan projects – and write them – one full scene at a time, with only a vague idea what’s going to come after.
  8. Visualize ahead of time what you’d like to write…but don’t get too attached to what you visualize. When I go to bed, I plan the next scene I’m going to compose, often to the least detail. I then forget all of it overnight, at least all the specifics, and I’m left with a general sense and shape of what’s to come. You’ll never be able to replicate the “perfect” dialog you pre-conceive, so give up on trying to. Instead, play through the scene and think about the emotional beats you want to hit and plot points you want to forward. If you keep that in mind, you’ll be able to get the words out faster than if you’re agonizing over every word or regretting the “oh-so-great” idea that you’ve since forgotten.
  9. Practice different work styles. If writing every day doesn’t work for you, try instead saying, “this is my writing day each week,” and aim for a lot that specific day, and write little or nothing other days. Try writing at different times of day and on different days, fitting it into your schedule. If you’re beating yourself up for not writing when you “should,” it’ll be that much harder to succeed, so instead, as I said for point 2 – set a reasonable goal that fits your life and working style, fitting it around your other responsibilities, and push yourself within that framework, instead of trying to shoehorn into a style that you “think you should” use to succeed.
  10. Track your word counts, and take notes on how much you did and what project you were working on. If you’re also experimenting with different times of day and different days, make sure you note that too. I personally use a simple Excel sheet (well, Google Sheets, now) – column one is the date, column 2 is “starting word count,” column 3 is “ending word count,” column 4 is “=column 3 – column 2”, column 5 is notes. Pay attention to when you succeed at writing faster, and when you don’t, and consider what factors might have played into your success…and then try to replicate those factors next time you’re doing a sprint. Control as many variables as you can while you’re “training.”
  11. If you find social media distracting, trying getting a web browser extension that prevents you from connecting to websites for a set period of time.
  12. If you find you tend to dither before starting, I find it helpful to run through everything that I might do to procrastinate, and when I’m done, it’s like, well, I’ve done all those things, I’ve got no choice left, better write and get it done with.
  13. If you find you struggle with picking up a WIP, try leaving off in the middle of a sentence at the end of a session, one where you know exactly how it ends – or, leave off mid-paragraph, or when you are positive you know what happens next (and I mean literally next, as in the very next sentence.) It’s much easier to “pick back up” when your first words are super clear. (Do not do this if you think there’s any chance you’ll forget or end up in a situation where you won’t return to your WIP for months!)
  14. If you find you struggle to maintain continuity across multiple writing sessions, try rereading what you wrote the previous day before you proceed. Resist the urge to edit it! 
  15. Avoid stopping when you get stuck, even to do research. Don’t know a fact? Add a comment to your manuscript flagging the relevant text, “LOOK THIS UP LATER.” Can’t think of a word? Put in something you can use the “find” function on easily (I personally use “XX” since there are no words that have a double x in them) and so you can come back later, search for your chosen placeholder, and fill in the blanks. Not sure how a scene ends but know the next scene? Jump ahead. 
  16. That said, if you really don’t know what happens next, you don’t do yourself any favors by pressing on. As I’ve said previously, speed alone should never be your writing object. It’s better to slow down, consider your plot, figure out where you’re going, and then write, than to just plow ahead – or at least, that’s better if you want a manuscript you’ll actually be able to use for something at a later point. If you’re truly just practicing, you can also say “screw it, who needs coherence?” and keep going. I’d personally never have finished my first novel if I’d spent a lot of time worrying about making the pieces fit together and yeah, it’s a mess, but it’s a mess I wrote instead of a mess I got stuck on and never completed.
  17. Don’t move the finish line. If you’ve set the goal of 500 words a day, don’t beat yourself up if you get 550 because you think you think you could have done more. If you say you’ll write five days a week, don’t get mad because you DID have time the sixth day but chose to use it on something else. If you make yourself feel like shit when you succeed, what’ll happen when you fail? And when you’re comfortable and really think you’re ready, change the goal – reassess every month, say, and up your goals. While working for speed, trying upping your word count goal without changing the amount of time you allot for working.
  18. Your need to adhere to the above suggestions will change over time. Once, I always had an outline; now I often don’t need one. Once, I wouldn’t let myself stop even to use a thesaurus; now, I find I can look up words without breaking my flow or significantly slowing myself down. This is not an “all or nothing” prospect, nor is it a “do things the same way forever once you’ve found one (1) thing that works” prospect – you’ll experiment, and find strategies that work for you, and then at some point, your needs will change, and you’ll experiment more, and find new strategies that work for you, on and on, as your skills grow. 

To reiterate: writing fast should never be your objective in and of itself! Greater writing speed will come with practice and as a general side effect of improving your craft. Simply being able to write fast is useless; being able to write fast and well will enable you to get more of your ideas out there, so if that’s something you’d like to accomplish, focus on building your general skills and training yourself to be able to use those skills rapidly and in tandem with each other to produce decent writing, in a first draft, at a decent speed.

Once you try, you may find none of this works for you! That’s okay. That’s good! You tried, which means you learned something about yourself and your own writing style, and that too will help you to improve. Keep experimenting, keep learning, and find what does work for you – and accept that no two writers will ever be the same, and one of those differences will be writing speed. Some writers will never write fast, and that’s doesn’t make them any less awesome or valid. And some writers will always write fast, and that doesn’t make them inherently awesome or valid. Only with a suite of related skills that suit your individual life, personality, work style, writing capabilities, goals, etc., will you succeed as a writer (for various, personalized definitions of the word “success”); speed is only one of those potential skills, and not one that’s particularly important in my opinion…yet I still get asked about it fairly often, so here we are, these are my suggestions.

Go forth, and write some words! <3

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