This article is not intended for novelists. While novelists are certainly welcome to read it, I doubt you’ll find anything useful to your calling here. This article is intended for those who write magazine articles, blog post/web content, and perhaps short stories or brief memoir pieces.
While the admonition of “write faster” may seem self-explanatory on the surface, it goes way beyond just hitting the keys at a higher rate of speed. Although that too can help. Isaac Asimov was once being interviewed by Barbara Walters. In between two of the segments she asked him, ”But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?” He said, “Type faster.”1
One of the things I like best about being a freelance writer over being a cubicle dweller or factory worker is the aspect that it’s up to me to decide how much I work and how much I earn. As a corporate employee I worked so many hours a week and got a paycheck for a certain amount every two weeks. Other than the rare opportunity for overtime, I had little to do with how much time I put in or the pay I took away.
As a freelancer, it is entirely — well, mostly — up to me to decide when I work and how much I get paid. No work: no pay, work hard: get paid well, simple as that. Mostly. But it’s more than just keeping my nose to the grindstone longer. I can eek out more profit by making that time count for more by working smarter, not just longer. Here’s how that works.
When it’s time to work, shut down the e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, turn off the phone, hang a “I’m working don’t bother me” sign on the front door if you have to. Dedicate this time to writing; all that other stuff can wait.
The kids? Oh, well, I do not advocate locking your lil darlings in a closet, but maybe set them down with Spongebob or something for a half-hour. Write while they’re napping. Whatever works with your family dynamics.
Organize Your Resources
If you have source material that you’re working from, start by getting that organized. Look for commonalities, make notes of the key points, and highlight the aspects that most apply to the tone you want to set with your article. If you know what you will write, that is.
It is a common thing for journalists and article writers sit staring at a blank page, trying to figure out what to say, or even where to start. This “block” can be crippling if you let it. Don’t let it. Write. Write something, write anything. If you have a topic, just start talking to yourself about what you think about the topic. If you’re writing a blog post and you have NO idea what to write about because you have no constraints on topic whatsoever, just start babbling to yourself – on the keyboard – about what’s going through your head. Even jabbering about how you don’t know what to write will eventually get some inkling of a direction going. Even the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.
The wonderful thing about word processors is that after a session like this you do not have 35 crumpled paper balls to pick up off the floor. You can type and delete and move stuff around to your heart’s content. Not so when we did this on a typewriter. Once you’ve deleted the fluff, no one will see it, so don’t be embarrassed, just type.
Write Now, Edit later
The first time through is a rough draft. They call it a rough draft because it will be – is expected to be – rough. So when you start to write, write. Don’t stop to correct spelling. Ignore the squiggly red and blue lines. Don’t get fussy about structure. Write. Get the thoughts down now, polish later.
David Masters2 recommends using a timer. Set the timer for 15 minutes, and for that 15 minutes do nothing but punch keys. Then 10 minutes to edit, and 5 minutes to polish. He uses this method to produce posts that average 500 words and says the pressure of the 30 minute deadline (timer) trains you to work faster and more efficiently. Adjust the time for longer articles. The important part is the ticking timer. The deadline.
Edit with an Axe
Once you have the words down, go back for the first edit. But, don’t waste time on spelling, grammar, or sentence structure just yet. Look to the construction of the piece first. Look at what you have and start by hacking out any paragraphs that are not relevant to what you’ve decided the finished article should look like.
Then look to the flow. Think outline. Introduce your topic, build your case, then a summation. What points are subservient to what points? Keep it linear, keep it focused.
Do not get sentimental. There may be some sentences or paragraphs that you think are just wonderful, but they don’t really fit now. Take them out. Move them to a snippets file if you like and use them to build another article later, but take out everything that doesn’t add to the vitality of this article.
On the third pass you should have your work solid enough to pay attention to spelling, grammar and sentence structure. Many writers do this stuff first because it’s obvious… and easy. But spending time on these details in work that gets cut is time wasted. Yes, I’m repeating myself on this point: because it’s important. Like a gemstone, you can’t polish the rock until the rough edges have been knocked off and it has a definite shape. Then you polish it to a high luster.
The Final Pass
The final pass should be to have another set of eyes read the article to be sure it is as marvelous as you think it is. As writers, we tend to look at the page and see what we thought we wrote, not what is really there. Effectively editing our own work is difficult.
If you have no extra eyes (and attached human) to help, read the article out loud to your dog. Or your lamp. Who (or what) you read it to is not important, (but don’t tell the dog that) reading it out loud is. You will be amazed at how many mistakes you catch when you do this.
I learned this trick when I started doing radio 5 years ago. I found that I could rehearse a script in my head several times and it still wouldn’t come out right with the first live reading. Rehearsing it out loud catches the flow errors, repetitive words, and awkward sentences. It works just as well for text that others will read in their heads.
A manuscript editing trick can be used here also, if you have the time. That is to lay the article aside for a while: a few days or a week maybe. Do something else. Write something else, play tennis, whatever you need to do, but let that article slip out of your head. Then go back and read it again. You will find errors that you didn’t see before because you were too close to the work then.
Summation and Shameless Self-promotion
And there you have it. Provide a distraction-free environment, organize your materials, force yourself to write, write first, then edit and edit ruthlessly on first pass. Then spiff it up. Then polish.
Do this regularly and you will find you will be turning out better quality work faster than you ever have before. Getting more pieces done faster means a higher rate of return – assuming you already have a market for the pieces you write.
If you do NOT have a market, you’re doing it backwards. If you’re doing spec pieces, start with an outline and synopsis, find a buyer, then write the pieces to their specifications and slant. That is all explained in detail in chapter 5 of my book Writing for Profit or Pleasure, available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.
I hope this brings you a better quality of life through reduced stress and bigger paychecks. Do you have something to add? Comments are welcome. I don’t even make you decipher squally, smashed letters to do so.
1- Asimov Laughs Again (1992)