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Breaking Your Writing Speed Limit

Whitney gives tips and tricks on improving your writing speed.

I read a Textbroker forum post of mine from nine months ago in which I mentioned taking half an hour to write a 500-word article at my best speed. I now turn out a similar article in about 20 minutes – less, if I know the subject thoroughly. It isn't a land speed record, but it's a good enough pace that I felt I could share some tips on improving writing speed.

You might have distractions that I don't face, or you might write 20,000 words daily and wonder why anyone who clocks in at a maximum of 1,500 words an hour is writing about speed. It isn't a contest against anyone but ourselves, and chances are we can improve no matter where we currently stand. We all have an intrinsic writing speed limit past which the words become a blur and writing quality suffers. However, this speed limit is flexible.

If you were driving to work, you'd spend time mentally preparing for your day. When you're working at home, a routine creates a mental commute that helps you differentiate between writing time and noodling on Facebook. My routine includes getting dressed for work to transition from pajama-wearing indolence to a businesslike mindset. Your regimen might be more involved, or it could be as simple as pouring your coffee. Whatever you do, do it daily. Your writing glands should respond to the stimulus of your routine as Pavlov's dogs did to the dinner bell, producing a steady flow of words.

Timers, trackers and other productivity tools such as Toggl and Focus Booster might be part of your daily routine. I use an old-fashioned whiteboard so that my deadlines literally loom over my head, but you may prefer an app that fills the same function. If you chafe at the prospect of punching a clock, consider the timer your training wheels. It's only there to nudge you in the right direction until you're able to balance research, writing and editing innately. 

If writing and proofreading were all an author had to balance, time management would be easy. Not every writer can afford uninterrupted writing time, but take your writing seriously enough to make it a priority. If you wouldn't accept a dozen calls a day from your family or friends in an office environment, you can't afford to respond to them constantly when you're working at home. Dropping your writing to tend to others' needs sends the signal that your work is a low priority. If your writing pays your bills, it isn't a fluid that fills the interstices in your life; it's a solid with weight and volume, and other things must accommodate it.

Mentally preparing yourself and setting aside uninterrupted hours for writing will help create an atmosphere conducive to faster writing, but eliminating distractions is only half the battle. To build speed, you must also focus on the mechanics of writing. 

It seems counterintuitive to add another step to your writing process to speed it up, but a brief outline can save you time. Moving purposefully from point to point is faster than meandering. My outlines consist of a few words or phrases that sum up each paragraph in a 500-word article. Writing more than that offsets the time I save, so I keep outlines light.

We get paid by the word, not by the minute. Stuff more words into each minute by getting them on the page more quickly. If you're a hunt-and-peck typist, practice touch-typing until looking at your keyboard feels strange. Depending on whether you prefer the carrot or the stick, you can practice with Written? Kitten! or Write or Die to improve your speed. If your hands won't cooperate, voice-to-text software has evolved enough to approach typing speeds. It's worth an investment in a good voice-to-text rig if you'll earn it back by writing more.

The work you choose also influences writing speed. Developing niches and searching for titles within them slashes your research time. Once you've learned the basics of wedding etiquette or xeriscape gardening, you can reel off thousands of words about these familiar topics. When you're ready to stretch yourself into a new topic, choose assignments that ask for overviews rather than in-depth articles that could lead to hours of research on an unfamiliar subject.

Speaking of research, know when you've done enough of it. Some legal and medical articles inevitably take more time, but most clients aren't after an academic treatment. They want an article that keeps readers' eyes on their pages, and you don't need hours of meticulous research for that. When you find yourself opening more tabs than a 1977 Weight Watchers meeting, you're overdoing it. Pull back and focus on what the client needs: engaging writing with enough facts to make it useful.

Writing in your natural voice keeps writing engaging and quick to produce. When you post on forums, you probably write at a fast clip because you're writing the language you speak. Your paid work should feel nearly as effortless as your posts. You may need to polish an article to buff out sentence-ending prepositions or stylistic quirks, but the end result still takes less time than trying to write in another language. 

Using your natural voice also makes editing faster. Editing is vital, but it can kill your speed. Most of your editing time should go to correcting mistakes rather than making aesthetic changes. If you're writing a novel, ponder style choices for hours. When you're writing for clients who appreciate a quick turnaround, pick a sturdy word and stay with it. Your client won't care that you spent two hours debating whether to write “tiny” or “minuscule,” so don't agonize.

Cutting my writing speed by a third would've seemed impossible for me nine months ago when I wrote that post. Thanks to excellent advice on the forums and some trial and error, I was able to raise my speed limit. I hope that my suggestions will help you raise yours too.

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462325 15. November 2014 - 19:01

Thank you for posting this. It is helpful to see, if we are trying to improve, what is looked for as a guideline for improvement.


524429 12. May 2015 - 0:04

Sounds absolutely wonderful, I’m honored to be apart of the team!


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