The Renegade Writer

The Two Letters That Will Help You Write Faster

By Andrew Blackman

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.

Feb 14, 2013 Advice, productivity, Writing

54 Responses

  1. Lauren @ AchieveIt says:

    I like the “dance around keep it moving” analogy. Often I just write a sloppy first draft just to know I Have something down. Then I take a break, and come back and do the arduous task of editing. Much easier for me than sitting for an hour staring at the screen.

  2. Hi Lauren

    You make a good point – in my post I said writing and research are separate activities, but the same also applies to writing and editing as you say. Much better to leave it for a while, then come back and get stuck into the editing. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Great post. I do this all the time. I usually put a series of Xs like this: XXXXXXXX Really easy to spot and I know exactly what they mean! If I think I might not be able to remember what I’m looking for, I leave myself a note in squiggly brackets, {like this}. I don’t ever use these brackets in writing so they, too, are easy to spot.

  4. Great article; very useful. It was like you read my mind for tips on how to write more efficiently – thanks for this!

    • Hi Rouillie

      That’s great, I hope the tips work for you! It’s surprisingly easy to write inefficiently, as I have found out the hard way, so every little bit helps. Thanks for your comment.

    • Nickie Snow says:

      Agreed! I know am a decent writer but I was just accepting that I am a slow writer–not well suited for tight deadlines. I can’t wait to try this with my next batch of articles.

  5. Lyndie Blevins says:

    I like these ideas. I recently saw a reference to ‘lede’ and could figure out it meant ‘lead, but had no idea of the connection…

  6. Kaye Heyes says:

    Thank you so much, Andrew! I’m just starting out as a freelance writer and I am very guilty of the writing/research thing – and even the writing/facebook thing sometimes when I get stuck.
    Without even trying it out, I know this will save me loads of time. Which has got be a good thing…

    • Thanks Kaye. Don’t worry, I think we’re all guilty of those! Hope you do save some time – you’re right, it’s got to be a good thing (although I have sometimes worked hard at saving time, only to waste all the carefully saved time on new distractions!).

  7. “TK” –I love it!

    As someone with ADOS (Attention Deficit Oooh Shiny!), I must admit, I have the tendency to go completely off topic when I’m researching something for an article. I think TK can effectively side-step that. I’ll be trying this on my upcoming posts.

    Thanks! :)

    • Haha, ADOS – that’s great, Francesca. You know you’ve got Attention Deficit when you get distracted before the end of the acronym :-)

      I think the internet makes it easy to be distracted, and to let different activities merge together. Research used to be necessarily separate from writing, because you had to get up from your desk and go to the library or record office, or at least leave your papers and pick up the phone. And socialising was totally separate. Now it’s just one click to get from one to the other, so it’s easy to drift between activities with little control.

      Hope this little trick helps you on your posts!

  8. Tania Dakka says:

    <3 it! I stink at going with my flow – Maybe this will help.

    Thanks!

  9. Anne Grant says:

    Hmm…I do believe I could use this method in other areas of my life as well.

  10. This is a great post, although I thought the art reflected the writer- guess not if he’s a guy! I underline info I need to check out. I actually use tk for ‘took’ or ‘take’ in notes when interviewing and in Autocorrect. So that shortcut would not work for me. Whatever works for each writer– as long as we’re writing! Love Francesca’s ADOS!

    • :-) No, the picture definitely isn’t me! I’ve never one a race in my life – I’d be somewhere at the back of the photo, with my hands on my knees, gasping for air.

      That’s a good idea, using Autocorrect for “tk” to “take”. You might be better off with Daphne’s XXXXXXXX! And yes, ADOS made me laugh.

  11. Jordan Riggle says:

    Hey Andrew, great post! It really made me think about what I’m doing when I write and why.
    It seems what we’re emphasizing here is speed (in the first draft). Get it down, get your thoughts together on paper, and go with the flow.
    Afterwards, comes the editing. The evaluation, the pause, and deliberation.
    When we mix the two, we waste valuable time flipping from one brain hemisphere to another. UNPRODUCTIVE!
    Power through the first draft – let yourself go and keep moving. Then come back and edit. Thanks for the reminder! It helps.

    • Hi Jordan

      Yes, that’s exactly it. Whether you use TK or XXXX or brackets or whatever else, the idea is to keep focused on writing while you’re writing, and leave everything else for another time. In an age where multi-tasking is king, it’s easy to forget the power of focus. You’re right, hemisphere flipping is very unproductive. Well put.

  12. Lisa says:

    This was a great post. As a beginner, it was a helpful reminder that I am not the only one who can drift off on a tangent if I open google. I also appreciated the explanation about the intentional misspellings that journalists use. Thanks.

  13. Erica says:

    I love this! I’ve heard of it but no one ever explained what it means. I usually use brackets to enclose a quick mental note. As in [check spelling] and [add quote from that so and so].

    Also helpful, typing with your eyes closed. Works great for brain dumping and rough first drafts. If you can’t see the distractions, they can’t distract you.

    • Hi Erica

      Wow, typing with your eyes closed! What a great idea! I think it would be good for me, because I am that weird and crazy thing – a touch-typist who doubts himself so much that he still has to look at the keys as he types, thereby losing any benefit from being able to touch-type. Closing my eyes will be good training. And will definitely keep out the distractions (apart from the ones already lodged deep inside my brain, but there’s not much I can do about those!). Thanks for the tip!

  14. J'aime says:

    This is great advice, thank you!

  15. Barb Tyler says:

    Awesome advice, Andrew. I’ve always typed “(?)” when I’m stumped for a word, fact, or difficult graf. It’s a great way to keep the words rolling once they start.

    Like Erica, I’ve done this no-peek typing thing, but instead of closing my eyes, I turn my monitor off. It works great for eliminating distractions, although I sometimes end up with sentences that look like they were typed by a cat.

    • Hi Barb

      Sure, that’ll do it – as long as those words keep rolling, and the tangents remain unvisited, all is well. Ah, another advocate for no-peek typing: I’ll have to give it a try now. The image of sentences typed by a cat made me smile! Turning off the monitor gives me more confidence, though – at least I can look at the keyboard, to make sure I’m not one letter out all the time, or ibw kwrrwe iyr.

  16. Great post! The other reason to keep forging ahead is that you don’t want to bug your source with lots of emails. I gather all my questions and send them en masse instead of piecemeal because that streamlines the process and helps ensure that a question doesn’t slip through the cracks.

    • Hi Susan

      Thanks! Yes, that’s another great reason – should have mentioned that in the post. There’s nothing worse than emailing again and again, saying “Oh, just one more thing…”

  17. Beth Skw says:

    Programmers often use FIXME in code (all caps, all one word, just like that) – also easy to search for. Just another word for TK. :)

    • Thanks Beth! We’re gathering quite a few different alternatives here. FIXME would certainly stand out, and be easy to search for. Would probably also make the program stop working, which would reinforce the point that something needed to be fixed :-)

  18. Dr.Paul Zemella says:

    It is essential to follow these tips you have as there are times when writing an article can be distracted with a whole lot of day to day ventures and mishaps. One of the suggestions i can add is stick with the keywords relevant to your topic and write from there and evade going through the details not until the foundation of the article has been establish. And from there, just as you said earlier, go through the bigger picture first and the content details later.

    • Hi Paul
      Thanks very much! Yes, if you’re writing web content where keywords are important, then that’s definitely a good way to structure it. And in general, “bigger picture first and details later” is an effective approach.

  19. erin says:

    I totally do the TK dance! I just wasn’t calling it. I usually write something like “fill in with xyz here” and highlight it in yellow (especially on multi-page projects). In fact, I’ve discovered that writing the bones/skeleton of a piece and going back to fill in helps me feel like I’m still accomplishing something, I’m still moving forward and getting somewhere (i.e., at least getting headings and subheadings laid out). Back fill! Back hoe? Back fill! But it’s “TK” from now on. Thanks!

    • Hi Erin

      I like it, the “TK dance”! Has a better ring to it than the “fill in with xyz here” dance. That’s a good reason to use TK in itself. You don’t want to see me dance, though. Not a pretty sight…

      To address your serious point, yes I can certainly relate to that need for progress. It’s great to fill in the bones quickly, then flesh them out, and then think “OK, just got to fill in the TKs now.” Psychologically it’s better than getting stuck on one little detail for ages before moving on. Thanks for commenting!

  20. Dana Sitar says:

    This is such a great tip, thank you! I tend to note with parentheses or elipses where something needs to be added or changed, and highlight it sometimes. But unlighted, it’s hard to spot, and highlighting adds an unnecessary step. I’ll definitely start incorporating “TK”!

    • Hi Dana

      Thanks, I’m glad it’s helpful! Yes, I find it is easy to miss things like parentheses or elipses, and it’s horrible if something like that ends up in the final copy. Highlighting is one option, but is a bit cumbersome for me personally. Glad I converted someone else to TK!

  21. Rio H says:

    Excellent. Best submission yet. I want it tattooed on my thumbs. Thank you.

  22. [...] Blackman presents The Two Letters That Will Help You Write Faster posted at the Renegade Writing, saying, “This is a series of tips on writing more quickly by [...]

  23. kittyb78 says:

    An informative article. Thanks for sharing it with us. :)

  24. Karen J says:

    Andrew ~ This is great. Thank you!
    I often find myself spending HOURS crafting a *Comment*, fer pity’s sake – TK will help me at least get the gist of it on paper, so I can decide if the thought is even worth completing!

  25. Great tip! Thank you so much for relating something so simple, yet so effective…as usually the best things are. I didn’t go to J school so I love learning tricks like this.

  26. […] for their polished-yet-unpublished pieces. On a personal note, I can tell you that his guest post for the popular blog, The Renegade Writer, on using the “TK” method while drafting has saved me tons of time writing magazine articles and anything else in which a […]

  27. I’ll be sure to try this technique.

  28. Kim says:

    Andrew, thank you do much for this tip. I’m just starting out and have been working for a web marketing company. I need to write about all sorts of things which I need to research. Initially I did the research first, copying and pasting a whole lot of information I didn’t need on a separate word doc, which was very time consuming! I learned a lot about the subject, however it was way more than I needed to for the work I needed to produce. Then I ditched this idea and read a bit before I started and kept darting back and forth between writing and research. This is also very time consuming.

    Your tip will save me hours. I’m so grateful that newbies have the opportunity to learn tips from seasoned writers and that seasoned writer, such as yourself, continue to provide them.

    • Hi Kim

      You’re welcome! Glad you found it useful. I can relate to both of those scenarios, actually – despite being “seasoned”, I still make plenty of newbie mistakes. Writing sometimes seems to be a process of learning the same lessons over and over again :-) It’s good to hear that my tip might help save you some time, though, and I really appreciate your thoughtful comment.

  29. […] one’s courtesy of Andrew Blackman’s guest post The Two Letters That Will Help You Write Faster on The Renegade Writer. “TK” is journalistic shorthand for where you need to fill in the blanks […]

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