Hands up all freelancers who’d like to be able to write their stories more quickly.
I can picture hands shooting up behind computer screens from Brooklyn to Bangkok. Faster writing means more free time, or more money, depending on your priorities.
The good news is that a simple trick can help you focus your mind and complete your articles in record time, and it requires the use of just two letters. This post is brought to you by the letters “T? and “K.”
“TK? is journalistic shorthand for “to come”. “Why TK, not TC”” you may ask. It’s a good question, and I’ll get to that later. For now, the important thing is to recognize that this apparently simple abbreviation can speed up your writing in several important ways.
1. Separate your writing from your research.
In an ideal world, of course, you complete all your research before coming to write the article, so that the writing process is a simple distillation of your perfectly-organized notes.
Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world. In this world, no matter how meticulous you are, there’s always an anecdote or a quote or a crucial stat that you’re missing.
The natural response is to groan, pick up the phone and call your source for the information you need. This is the worst possible thing you can do.
For one thing, the search for a simple quote may turn into a wild goose chase, and suddenly instead of writing your article, you’re sitting in your office being transferred from department to department or, worse, waiting for someone to call you back.
Secondly, even if the research is quick, you—ve still committed the cardinal sin of mixing writing with research. Writing an article is a process of organizing thoughts and facts into a coherent form, and it’s best accomplished in one go. If you constantly interrupt yourself to look things up, it will show in your article. Your thoughts will be scattered, your arguments difficult to follow.
Instead, just write TK. Leave the details for later; concentrate on the big picture. You’ll write more quickly, and won’t need to waste time editing and restructuring at the end because you’ll probably have got it right first time.
2. Avoid distractions.
Even worse than mixing writing with research is mixing writing with Facebook, or mixing writing with watching amusing cat videos on YouTube. This sort of thing is remarkably easy to do, and it can prolong the writing of your article by hours or even days.
Using TK releases you from the need to be connected to the Internet and its multitude of temptations and time-sinks. You can pull out the plug, turn off the Wi-Fi, switch off the iAnything, and simply write.
If you need Wikipedia, just type TK and look it up later. If your brain seizes up and forgets the word for that person who issues parking tickets (this happened to me the other day), resist the temptation to go online and look it up. Just type “TK parking guy” and continue with your writing, and the word will come back to you when you’re thinking about something else (“Traffic warden!”).
Make it a rule. Write it on a piece of paper and tape it to your wall: “Don’t surf and write.”
You’ll cut your writing time in half when you devote yourself to it fully.
3. Don’t get stuck.
In writing any article, some parts come easily and other parts are what Linda likes to call a PITA. I’ve found that throwing yourself relentlessly at the hardest part of your article is a sure way to develop a chronic case of writer’s block. When faced with a tough paragraph, writers can regress remarkably quickly to spoilt children, crying “But I don’t wanna do it!” and stomping off to play video games or [insert your procrastination technique of choice here].
Freelance writers, I’ve learned, need to be nimble on their feet. Dance around the ring, keep moving at all costs. Don’t let the lumbering giant of writer’s block even land a punch. Just type TK, with a short reminder of what you need to do (for example, “TK section on costs”) and keep moving.
4. Eliminate wasted effort.
The best part about leaving the filling in of TKs to the very end is that when you circle back to fill in that stubborn fact or dreaded paragraph, you’ll often find it’s unnecessary after all. The statistic you could have spent an hour chasing down is now part of a section that is getting cut. The quote or anecdote is redundant, because you have others that do a similar job, and you’re already over your word count anyway. This is the ultimate time-saver. Hours of unnecessary work avoided: just press the delete key, and the TK goes away.
It’s my contention that any decent first draft should be riddled with TKs. If it’s perfect, it means you—ve spent too long on it.
This is not just my own personal opinion. I first learned to use “TK” when I was working as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Early story drafts there were filled with TKs inserted by reporters, editors and copy editors, and only disappeared through a process of increasingly frantic phone calls as the deadline approached.
As for the spelling question: TK is one of a series of deliberate journalistic misspellings, like “lede” for “lead”, “graf” for “paragraph” and “sked” for “schedule.” The idea, my editor told me, is that these notes are easy to spot in the copy, minimizing the chances of them creeping into the final published version. A bonus in the digital age is that the letters “TK” don’t occur naturally in any English word I know of, so it’s easy to press Ctrl-F and quickly find what needs to be done.
You could, of course, use “QZ” if you like, or “YX,” but the important thing is that you use something. Pay the writing process the respect it deserves. Concentrate on it with all your mind, resist interruptions, and enjoy the rewards: speeding quickly to completion, and having extra time to spend on family, friends, more writing, or whatever is important to you.
Andrew Blackman is a former Wall Street Journal staff writer turned freelancer and novelist. His work has been published in Monthly Review, the Cincinnati Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Seattle Times, Tampa Tribune, Toronto’s Globe and Mail among others, and his second novel, A Virtual Love, is out in the UK in April. He blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.