Before I go into the specifics of writing non-fiction quickly, I want to mention that there are plenty of advantages to writing slow. It leads to a certain meditativeness and nuance that’s often impossible to achieve when writing for a quick deadline. Most of the best writing involves quiet contemplation, careful consideration and a seemingly endless process of editing and revision.
I’m a fan of slow writing – but I also realize that writing needs to get finished and get in front of an audience, especially in a reporting or blogging context. As a news writer, I certainly know that posting quickly is essential, and it’s a skill that takes some time to learn.
When seeking out advice on writing with clarity, purpose, and speed, there’s probably no one better than writer Roy Peter Clark (who I’ll refer to as “RPC”).
A few months ago, I binged on his various books and interviews. This post is a summary of the advice that has helped me the most.
Figure out what you’re writing
When conceiving of the story, ask yourself questions that will develop the story’s focus, which can be thought of as the central idea or theme. For instance, ask yourself: “What is this story about?” and “How can I explain it?”
RPC advises writers to find a focus early in the writing process. The focus may also change from the time you get the idea through all the research, but “finding the focus early helps you focus your reporting on a certain line of inquiry which is less expansive,” RPC writes.
Don’t go overboard on research
When dealing with any topic, it’s important to check facts and survey other opinions, but it’s also very easy to do so much research and conduct so many interviews that you get lost.
At this point, you might think I’m doing a satire of fast writing, but I’m not. A lot of people like finding little-known facts and hearing other points of view – personally, I love it. But it takes an experienced writer to know when you have enough background to write without leaving out something important.
Think of your job as a writer as being a distiller of pertinent information, and it’s your job to not only decide what is most pertinent, but to find what is most pertinent. This means being able to sort through information quickly and find what is relevant to include, not what is trivial.
Don’t wait too long to write
Many writers think about research and writing as separate activities, but it’s faster to be doing both at the same time. For instance, if you find a fact or a quote that you want to use, write it down and get an idea of where it should fit into the piece.
This is all just temporary, but it provides written material and structure for the piece, which can then be moved around and edited as needed.
RPC even advocates “pre-conceiving how the story will come out, or creating a hypothesis based on what you already know,” which is something that might strike people the wrong way – especially those who adhere to a strict “Journalistic Method” where any preconceptions need to be exorcised.
But this needn’t be the case.
Research can help you understand the sorts of quotes and facts someone is likely to say before an interview. Your line of prepared questions will also help you. Make sure to be open to anything you weren’t anticipating – because that’s actually the stuff that might be most interesting to readers.
RPC notes that your pre-writing is just something that helps you along. He writes, “As you dig into the story, you revise your original notions with each draft. The final draft will be very different, but you’ve at least provided a scaffolding.”
Break everything down into a game-plan
Every piece is different, but writing can be thought of arranging words, sentences, and paragraphs in the right places.
Sounds simple right?
This can be a good way to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed by the writing process.
Once you’ve figured out what you’re writing, you’ve already got some writing done, and you feel that your research is adequate, you’re ready to put things together.
Decides which points need to be included in the piece, and work on the order. Break things down so that you know each paragraph you need to construct the piece. You now have to write the paragraphs around these points. Also, consider the flow between paragraphs using connecting sentences.
Factor in time for revision
Many writers neglect to factor in time for rewriting.
While the idea of writing flawless sentences and paragraphs on demand is appealing – it’s also nearly impossible. Revision is often necessary, and it’s something on which people bargain too little time.
Your readers will really appreciate this as well, not only because it’s free of spelling and grammar errors, but also because it will have flow and stylistic flair that makes your writing stand out online.
People really do care about quality writing online.
RPC says he hates the idea of blogs and other online writing being a place where writers can merely “Dump” their random, unedited thoughts. In fact, he has pointed out that online writing often requires greater editing given length restrictions (ie. Twitter’s 140 characters) and limited attention spans.
Just because online articles might not have the physical limits of paper, it’s important to ask yourself if each paragraph, each sentence, and each word works to convey your meaning.
Media theorist Jay Rosen writes thought-provoking academic articles, but he also writes clever, concise and incisive Tweets. In praise of Rosen’s Tweets, RPC writes: “in spite of its brevity, it reveals a curious and governing intelligence. These sentences are not dumped, friends; they are crafted.” Even posts that aren’t serious or that are playful show the effects of crafting – not dumping.
Give yourself enough time to edit and revise your piece – no matter how long or short it is.
Have realistic expectations
Many of the anxieties people have around writing actually stems from how the piece they imagine in their head doesn’t match with what’s on the page. It’s disappointing, and causes many people to hate their writing, and to fear even starting.
RPC says writers should avoid listening to their “critical voice” at least long enough to get a rough draft done. “Tell that voice in your head to shut up — early in the process — then drag it back on stage during revision,” he says.
Giving yourself time for revision will also help you get your writing to a more polished state.
RPC also says it’s important to understand that a piece written in an hour won’t be in the same calibre as something that took months of research, interviews, and writing. Letting go of ideas of perfection is necessary in order to write quickly.
Writing projects can tend to linger on because there are always changes to make, new facts and voices to include, and different directions to focus on.
Deadlines put an end to these endless revisions.
Even if you don’t have a deadline, it’s important to self-impose deadlines on long projects. And to avoid having to finish a large piece of writing right before it is due, it’s always a good idea to set an artificial deadline that provides a cushion in case not everything comes together on time.
I’ve found that putting myself under a deadline helps me stay focused and productive.
At its best, a deadline can be an impetus to act.
One of my favourite ways to enforce deadlines is to use “time tracking” apps which, as the name implies, acts like a stopwatch that records how long it takes to perform a task down to the second. This way, you’ll have a better idea on how much time it actually takes you to write a piece, but I also find that it helps encourage me to use my time more efficiently. You see that every minute you spend procrastinating is time that you’re not working towards the deadline.
My favourite time tracking app is Toggl, which is available for PC and Mac, and there are apps for Android and iOS.
Finally: Practice! Practice! Practice!
This post contains some advice that I’ve used to make my writing fast. Even on topics I know quite well, I’ve found myself bogged down during the writing process, but some of these methods have helped me get back on track and produce work with which I’m pleased.
I should also note that I’m always trying to strike a balance between quickness and quality, which is something I imagine I’ll always be working on as a writer.
I mentioned time tracking apps as a way to impose deadlines, but knowing how long your writing is taking can help you understand when you’re writing quickly, with attention to which pieces turned out well and took little time.
As you learn to write faster, keep track of the approaches and shortcuts that work for you. And please share them in the comments!