The Renegade Writer

How to Write Faster: 7 Tips

If you’ve been writing professionally for a while, you’ve probably noticed that pay rates at most magazines have remained the same. A dollar a word is still the magic number — as it was in the eighties and even earlier. Add in inflation and the fact that assignments are getting shorter but still requiring the same number of sources as longer pieces, and you can argue that magazine payrates have actually declined.

One way to help offset dropping payrates is to write faster so your per-hour rate is higher. Fortunately, I’m a very fast writer. Just this week, I completed an 800 word assignment that paid $400 in about two hours, interviews and all. $200 per hour is nothing to sneeze at. (And if you do sneeze at it, stay away from me! I’m too busy to get sick right now.)

People always ask me how I write so fast. I addressed this partly in my post Channeling Your Inner Squirrel. In a nutshell (get it? squirrel? nut?), it took years of practice and learning to trust myself. But for those of you who want to up your pay now, not ten years from now, try these tips:

1. Specialize. When I write on nutrition topics I often already know the facts, and just need nutritionist sources to back me up with some snappy quotes. Because I write so many nutrition articles, I know what trans fats are, which foods contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which antioxidant is known to protect your eye health, and how many calories are in a teaspoon of sugar. Armed with this knowledge, I can often whip out a nutrition piece in quick order. And don’t think you have to specialize in just one area — my other niches include business and pets.

2. Type faster. I type like a dork, using only four fingers and my thumbs, but I type fast. I’d probably be even faster if I learned to type for real. Learn 2 Type offers a free typing test and exercises to help you learn to type faster. If you learn to type super-fast, you can transcribe your interviews as you conduct them, saving you lots of time and the pain of having to listen to your own voice on tape.

3. Delegate it. If there’s anything you feel you’re unbearably slow at, hire someone else to do it for you. It may seem counterintuitive to shell out bucks when you’re trying to earn more of them, but think of it this way: While someone else is transcribing your interviews, doing research for your articles, or helping you promote your book, you have time to do what you’re best at. For example, I paid my virtual assistant to turn about 175 of my paper clips into PDF clips that I can e-mail to my editors. While my VA spent those 15 hours scanning my clips, I was querying and working on articles that paid up to $250 per hour.

4. Break it up. Whenever I write a service piece, I use bullets or subheads to divide up the text. This has two benefits: It makes the article easier to read, and it makes the article easier to write. How many times have you spent 20 minutes laboring over a transition? If you use bullets or subheads, you don’t need transitions at all — you can jump right into the next point. True, you have to then come up with snazzy-sounding subheads, but that’s still way easier than trying to formulate a transition between two barely-related facts.

5. Don’t over-research. I often read about writers who are over-researchers: They interview 12 people for a thousand-word piece, download study after study, and generally stuff files full of papers they think might come in handy for their article. While I certainly don’t advocate half-assing your research, you can often get by with a fraction of that amount of work. I generally interview one person per 500 words plus one extra. So for a 500-word piece, I interview two people; for a 1,500-word piece, four.

6. Cut them off. A year or so ago I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest magazine on how to handle difficult interviewees. One of the types — the one I have the most trouble with — is the “Run-On Rhonda.” This is the source who talks and talks and talks and…you get the idea. She won’t let you get a word in edgewise, sidewise, or any other wise. And after an hour on the phone with this source, you end up with one usable quote — if you’re lucky. If you’re a wussy like me and afraid to get all assertive with your sources (“Shut up! Oh, for the love of all that is holy, will you please shut up!”), let them know up front how much time you’ve scheduled for the interview. I allow a half-hour for most interviews plus a half hour in between interviews just to be on the safe side, and after 25 minutes, if I feel I have enough info, I fib and say, “I hate to cut this short, but I have another interview scheduled at 12:30. May I follow up with you if any other questions come up while I’m working on the piece?”

7. Info TK. In magazine parlance, TK stands for “to come,” and it means that you’ll be adding in the information later. (Why a K instead of a C? Beats me.) Can’t remember the name of an author you want to cite? Drop a TK in there and keep going rather than interrupting your writing flow to search for the name. Stuck on a word? TK it. Later on, as you revise or edit the piece before handing it in, chances are the right word will pop into your head.

Got more tips? Add ‘em to the comments! [lf]

Sep 30, 2006 Advice, Ass, Observations, productivity, Self improvement, Writing

14 Responses

  1. DianaBurrell says:

    Great post, Linda!

    I don\’t write anywhere near as fast as you, although I did write eight book chapters in two weeks. Or was it one? Needless to say, it\’s an experience I don\’t wish to repeat, but I\’m always looking to speed up my magazine work. Some things that have helped:

    1. Scheduling end times for my interviews. That is, they\’re not scheduled for 12 p.m. — they\’re scheduled from 12 p.m. till 12:30 p.m. Open-ended interviews are bad news, especially if you continually let your sources take control of the interview.

    2. Edit as I write. I used to write a sloppy first draft, then go back through for a second draft, and so on. I\’ve learned to slow down and get it right the first time. I\’m a tinkerer and can\’t stop editing, so this saves me a lot of time, as counter-intuitive as it seems.

    3. Write first thing — everything else comes second. I hate writing so much that I just want to get it done as soon as possible. If an article is hanging over my head all day, it drains my energy and just takes that much longer to write. When I sit down at my desk at 9, the phone goes to voicemail and I write at least until 11 before checking e-mail.

    4. Outline. Yeah, I used to hate my 5th grade English teacher, too, but really, it works, even if to get the major points of my article in order.

  2. Oh, Diana, it does my heart good to hear you say in public how much you hate writing! Thank you!

  3. Pangloss says:

    Thanks for these great tips. I especially like the TK one. And, I second Lanora in hailing Diana for admitting she hates writing. Sometimes I feel I need therapy just to deal with my love/hate relationship with my profession.

    I also wanted to make this comment related to Linda’s original post. As you said, assigned pieces are getting shorter, but the research requirements are not. Just last month, I was assigned a 1000 word piece, to include “a minimum of 8″ sources. Good grief! It took me longer than it should have to write that article because it was so hard to squeeze 8 sources elegantly into such a short piece. If editors are going to scale back the length of their articles, they need to scale back the research requirements as well!

  4. Katherine Waters-Clark says:

    When I’ve got a tight deadline, one way I deal with the time crunch is to do “email interviews.” I send an initial email to my source announcing the GREAT NEWS that I’d like to interview them for an upcoming article. I then write, “As luck would have it, I’m on a tight deadline…” and then ask if they would agree to an online interview. I will attach NO MORE than ten questions, including one that says something like, “Any other comments” or “Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?” Many of my sources have appreciated the email interview, since it’s shorter, they can answer the questions at 2 a.m. if they’d like. I like it because it’s short and sweet and I get my quotes typed for me!

  5. Ricardo Galarza says:

    Wow! I’m really impressed. I think between Linda’s post and Diana’s reply, you just get most of the best tips for writing faster, and in just a few words. You two really complement each other, ah. Please, keep on writing together. Why not, precisely, a book on writing fast this time around?

    I have to say I write for Spanish magazines; I rarely publish in English –tough I’ve had my hits– but the writing process is exactly the same. Plus, Spanish-speaking writers don’t share experiences; much less, tips. So bear with me, please.

    I normally do all that you mention, except for the “brake it up” tip, which I consider an inelegant shortcut. As a reader, I usually put down an article when I see more than one set of bullets. It gets tedious; and the way I see it, writing is writing, and listing is listing. So unless it’s absolutely necessary (as it may be in some how-to pieces), I’d go for the transition. Subheads, however, are a whole different animal. You need them, most of the time, when you’re writing a piece over 700 words, not so much for you as a writer, but for the reader to get a break.

    As for the “specialize” advice, fine, but that’s not always the case. I used to do most of my writing on my own beat (politics) and used to turn in a 1500-words piece also in less than three hours. But the real speed problem comes up when you do not know the subject you’re covering. Before, my ratio for beat/non-beat stories was about nine to one. Now, it’s almost the other way around; most of the assignments I get these days are for financial and business magazines, and it takes me a whole writing day to finish a 2000-words piece.

    So I would say: if you are writing about a subject that you don’t know well, try to do as much research as you can before your first interview. You don’t have to own it, as you may do with your beat, but, at least, feel comfortable with it. Also, if you don’t have a tape recorder, get one; you’re going to need it this time.

    Because if you are only taking notes and don’t know the intricateness of a complex topic (say, big business, stock and commodity speculation), you have to write down most of what the interviewee is saying; otherwise, you run the risk of not connecting the dots well in some parts of the text, or of committing an obvious blunder; and you may be in for a huge embarrassment. And it is jut too much for you to take everything down, concentrate on the unknown subject, on the follow-up question, on the time, on taking control of the interview, so the person doesn’t go on and on… It’s insane! A tape recorder will get you out of trouble. Whenever in doubt during the writing process, everything is there, a play bottom away. Let the machine do the learning; you ask the questions and write down some power quotes, just as you do when working on your own beat.

    That said, I’d like to comment on the other tips, the ones I agree with. Diana says, “schedule end times for interviews”. Absolutely, yes. And, perhaps, I would add to that: don’t let them beat around the bushes. I always try to take control of my interviews; and if the interviewees talk too much or go off topic, I gently cut them off. I learned that from watching Ted Koppel on TV, the best interviewer I’ve ever seen. Good old Ted would cut off his interviewees so smoothly, that none would even notice it. He would wait for one of those non-stop talkers to take a tiny little breath, even in the middle of a sentence, and he would (boom!!) shoot his question –his face, undaunted.

    It was a joy watching him do that. That is what, in TV journalism, they call, “a diamond cutter”. In TV, especially in live TV, you have no choice but cutting the guy off, but you have to be careful not to do it so abruptly, that it would look impolite.

    So don’t be afraid to interrupt your subject, just do it nicely. You will save precious time. Watch TV interviewers, to see how they do it. There’s no Koppel around anymore –I know– but you still have some of them that, at least, try to do it. Chris Matthew is one of those; though, most of the time, he does come across as rude. You can watch Olbermann, on MSNBC; he’s fairly good at that. But by no means follow O’Reilly’s techniques, unless you want to be punched in the face by your interviewee.

    Outline? Of course, no question about it. Not only it gives you speed, but also order, clarity of mind and, even, relaxation. I write the outline on the computer screen and in bold letters, so I can erase the items as I go integrating them into the text. That’s pretty fun; I call it, “running against the bolds”. You see the bolds go thinner and thinner with every new paragraph you write, and it really gets you going.

    But the one tip I value the most here, is Diana’s “edit as you write”. That’s the best method for me; I’ll say that again: for me. And I’m glad to find, at least, one writer who also uses it. As most people here, I’m always looking for tips to speed up my writing; and all the books and articles about it tell you: don’t go back, just write and write, you’ll have time to edit the whole thing later, get it done, it’s a first draft, and all that jazz over and over.

    They insisted so much upon it, that one day I said, “OK, may be I’m wrong”, and decided to write a piece their way. I wrote a first draft –about 2200 words. Then, a second –1800 words. After that, a third –a little over 1600 words. By the time I red it through, it was so awful, that I had to start rewriting again like a maniac. The end result: considerably, more time wasted and a Frankenstein I didn’t like one bit. But I said, “well, may be this is what they mean by ‘a final draft’”. So I sent it to my editor; and I’m talking about my most frequent flyer, who loves my writing, buys at least two stories from me every week and is always telling me I’m her best pen on the lot. She even calls me in at night, sometimes, just to say: “What a great piece, Ricardo!”, “you are an amazing writer”, or “it is so motivating to edit your work,” and the like.

    The day I turned in my glorious “final draft”, she calls right away: “What is this? What happened? I’m sorry, but this is terrible. Are you OK? This doesn’t even look like you wrote it.”

    Needless to say, I was embarrassed. I told her the truth, and she burst into a laugh that sounded like a rolling thunder. Then, I offered to write it again. She said, “no, that’s fine; I got it, but, please, don’t do that again” and kept on laughing.

    From then on, I stuck to my guns. I’m a compulsive editor, I guess, so I edit every paragraph I write, sometimes, even, every sentence, until I get write. When I finish the whole piece, I go back and do a little polishing here and there, and voila! No first draft, no second one, no third one, no final draft. In sum, no time wasting.

    So here is a tip now for those who write articles and books on writing faster: when you advise others to write the entire piece through and edit it at the end (first draft, second draft and all that song and dance), specify that that’s the way it works for you, and that other writers (OK, a considerable minority, if you will) prefer to edit as they go.

  6. Ricardo, thank you for your thorough comments and advice!

  7. I like the “break-it-up” point. This is something I recently discovered a few months ago, and I have been using that method since. It makes my blog articles so much more readable. I also use bold type and red to keep paragraphs interesting. Great post, and thank you for the information!

  8. Bakari says:

    In terms of typing–especially transcribing interviews—I strongly suggest learning how to use Dragon Dictate by Nuance. It’s a voice to text application that works especially if you’re simply reading text that you need to transcribe on the computer. It’s also useful for writing articles, but for many people oral dictation is an entire new skill. Nevertheless, Dragon Dictate is a useful tool have for those straight forward writing or brainstorming needs. Definitely helps reduce hand typing.

  9. Donn King says:

    Just found the article, even though it’s been here for a while. Just had to comment, though. As an old news reporter and copyeditor, I learned the TK thing long ago, but never heard where it came from, except speculation. I always heard it was because a capital TK off by itself sticks out like a tomato in a cucumber patch. For sure with modern “search” functions, there aren’t many words that have a t immediately followed by a k. To make the use of search even easier, I put it in square brackets. Searching for [TK] will surface those markers immediately.

  10. […] How to Write Faster: 7 Tips – The Renegade Writer […]

  11. Julie says:

    I had an ex-boyfriend who is still a working TV and film writer and has been for years. He told me the way he writes so fast is by doing an outline and then just putting something down on paper without any editing. Then he goes back and cleans it up, but it’s much faster to do it that way than to try and edit along the way and be a perfectionist.

  12. Aldwin says:

    Hahaha I always find (and hate) writing. It’s tedious and really brain draining. Articles like this always motivates me to go back to writing tho. So thanks to you, I’m now about to write a new entry on my blog. :)

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