This post is part of a series dedicated to National Novel-Writing Month. If you’re participating this year, make sure you download my free NaNoWriMo workbook. If you’re abstaining, never fear. These posts will help you become a better writer no matter what (or when) you write.
Whether you’re a beginning writer or a seasoned novelist, one quandary writers consistently face is how to write faster. When I was writing my first book, hitting a thousand words a day was a daunting task. I would pound out 200 words here, 300 there, and I’d just thank my lucky stars if I got any done at all.
Now that I write for a living, I often set my word-count goal at 4,000 to 6,000 words per day. I find that when I write quickly, I am more likely to reach a state of flow, and for forty minutes or perhaps an hour, writing feels effortless.
Of course, hitting such an ambitious word-count goal is not easy, and I can only sustain that kind of pace for a week or two at a time. Still, over the years I have discovered some little tips that enable me to really fly. It all comes down to preplanning, mental toughness, and the willingness to eliminate distractions.
1. Create a detailed outline. A strong novel begins with a strong outline. No matter what you write or what your style, you will always write faster and more coherently if you follow an outline. I follow the “story beats” style of outline (which I’ve written about in the past).
You can think of “beats” as the half-assed CliffsNotes of the book you’re trying to write. I go chapter by chapter and write anywhere from five to twenty sentences about that part in stream-of-consciousness style. Sometimes I’ll mark things I need to research and make up. Then I’ll go back and fill in the blanks before I begin the novel.
2. Spend five minutes imagining each chapter in detail. Even when you create an outline, sometimes your notes for a chapter are only really a nebulous idea for a chapter — something like, “He returns home to find his house empty, wife gone. He waits for hours but then begins to assume the worst. Then he finds her note.”
This is an effective summary, but not super helpful when writing the scene itself. So take five minutes before you write to imagine in detail how the character will experience the scene. What things does he notice inside his house? What smells and sounds are present (or, in this case, absent?) What thoughts go through his mind? What does he do while he waits? Where does he find the note? What is it written on? These are all poignant details that will help ground your writing in reality and allow you to write faster.
3. Turn off the Internet. It should go without saying that the Internet is just a minefield for distraction. Sometimes we log on with the best intentions (i.e., checking a detail for a scene or trying to think up a good surname), but then we end up falling down a rabbit hole of emails, Facebook messages, and cat memes.
If your goal is to make the most of the time you have to write, do yourself a favor and shut it off preemptively.
4. Get out of the house. If I’m working on a novel, there are only so many hours a day that I can write from my house. I have two dogs, a cat, a husband, and usually a sink full of dirty dishes.
I can always find something at home to pull me away from my writing, and that doesn’t help me produce words. I try to get to a coffee shop every afternoon for a few hours of focused effort, but if you don’t like coffee shops, you can try your local library. Heck, you can write at the laundry mat or while getting the oil changed. Your imagination (and the owner’s tolerance for loitering) is the limit!
5. Set a timer. A funny thing happens when I only have two hours to write: Somehow I can still often manage to hit a word-count goal that usually takes me three and a half to four hours to accomplish. This is Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
To write more, then, it can sometimes help to have a scarcity of time. You can create this false scarcity for yourself with a structured writing sprint. Set your timer for 15, 20, or 25 minutes, and see how many words you can write. NaNoWriMo often has live writing sprints you can participate in on Twitter, and sometimes just this small amount of external pressure is enough to light a fire under your chair.
6. Go full-screen. I write my novels in Scrivener because it makes a manuscript easy to organize and allows me to jump between chapters. It’s a wonderful piece of software, but sometimes I find the folders and tools visually overwhelming. When this happens, I switch to full-screen mode and enlarge the text to 150 to 200 percent. It’s amazing how much easier it is to focus when your writing is all you can see.
7. Use placeholders for names and places. Occasionally I’ll be writing a scene and realize that I don’t have a name for a minor character. I consider myself a great connoisseur of names, and I could spend hours (literally) on Nameberry.com.
Rather than go down an Internet rabbit hole trying to come up with the perfect name, I’ll just type a blank line like this ____ to be filled in later. You can also use placeholder names like “Penélope Cruz” and “Hogwarts” if you find that more whimsical.
8. Do not go back to read what you’ve written. Do not edit. This can be hard for beginning writers. Heck, it can be hard for seasoned ones. Often we are self-conscious about how our writing sounds, and our inner critic can get in the way of production.
You’ve heard your critic: That sounds stupid. What, are you writing for third graders? You’ve used that word before. Don’t you know any other words? You have a terrible vocabulary. That isn’t very literary. What would [insert favorite author name] say?
I know. Our inner critics can be rough. The best way not to let them get in the way of the writing is to simply refuse to read what you’ve written until the first draft is complete. Assume that it all sounds great, and just keep plowing ahead.
9. Write to a soundtrack. One way I help myself get in the zone and write faster is to write to music. Often I’ll use exciting scores from my favorite action and adventure movies when I need to keep my novel going at a breakneck pace. But I also like a lot of the premade playlists on Spotify.
If you are a Spotify user already, go to “Genres and Mood” and select “Focus.” There you’ll find dozens of instrumental-only playlists to help you write better. For writers, I always recommend using the paid version of Spotify. Nothing pulls me out of a great scene worse than a random ad in the middle of my music. You can try Premium free for 30 days, or subscribe for $9.99 per month. (Spotify also has a family plan that’s a very good deal.)
10. Use an app like Write or Die 2 or The Most Dangerous Writing App. I consider apps to be a bit of a last resort for writing, but I know lots of people who find them helpful. If you’re the type of person who enjoys video games, you might like writing with one of these tools.
Write or Die 2 uses a carrot/stick approach to writing. You will be either punished with a horrible sound if you stop writing or rewarded with a cute puppy as you hit certain targets.
The Most Dangerous Writing App is exactly what it sounds like: the nuclear option for writers. Basically, you write, and you must keep writing the entire time, or the app will delete what you’ve written.
I know — it’s scary. But I bet you’ll keep writing! My motto? Use whatever works.
You don’t always have to write fast, but sometimes you do (like in the middle of NaNoWriMo). For me, fast writing tends to be less self-conscious and closer to the characters, so I go as fast as my fingers will allow. Plus, writing fast allows me to get my first draft on the page so I can start shaping my novel.
How do you get yourself to write faster? Have you tried any of these tips? Let me know how they work for you!
Photo by Ales Krivec