Sometimes the hardest part of any creative pursuit is consistency. How do you power though those difficult first drafts to end up with a completed work? Follow the lead of Stephen King.
The prolific author of over 50 novels says he writes 2,000 words a day, every day, including his birthday. King recommends beginners write at least 1,000 words every day, but what if simply writing everyday is a struggle? How can you increase your word count and become a more productive writer?
For years, I spent time and money finding and experimenting with faster ways to write. Unless you’re writing literary fiction, it almost always pay to write with the end in mind, to use outlines and develop self-knowledge about your abilities as a writer.
Outlines are the tool of fast and productive writers. They help you say what you want to say, before you've figured out what it's going to sound like or you've wasted time and energy writing about the wrong things. Outlines help you see if your plot makes sense, if your arguments stand up, or if your blog post is going in the right direction.
Before you start your next writing project, take five minutes to create a writing outline. For example, if you're writing a blog post, break it into five or six sections and an introduction and a conclusion. Each section should contain three to five bullet points corresponding to a point you want to make. If you’re writing a book, write an outline for each chapter using headings and bullet points. For larger projects, write your outline on index cards. Laying these out on your desk or on a wall will give you a visual overview of your work that you can rearrange.
Many professional writers know the conclusion of their work before they start writing. From there, they work backwards to the beginning of their work.
Other writers start in the middle and work towards the end. In other words, it’s much harder and far more inefficient to start your writing project at the beginning. Any professional writer will tell you, the beginning is the hardest part, and it’s impossible to know what you’re writing if you haven’t written it yet.
Research is great, but there comes a time when you need to get turn the jumble of information in your head out on to the page. Welcome to the first draft.
To get your first draft down on the page faster, work through your outline expanding on each of the bullet points. Don’t stop to edit, to correct yourself, or to look for a more impressive word.
Using the same type of keyboard wherever your write will also improve your muscle memory and reduce your typos. While writing your first draft, consider disconnecting from the internet (I use Freedom) and turning off the notifications on your phone so you’re not distracted.
Matthew Weiner, the showrunner of Mad Men, recently told Fast Company that when he began writing early drafts of his hit show, he hired a transcriber to record his thoughts. He did this because he was too tired for the physical act of writing.
"I paid people to do research, inundated myself with material, and even hired a writer’s assistant to dictate to because I was too tired to type. (It also freed my imagination)."
Try using the dictation app on your computer (Windows and OS X both include them) to get first drafts out of your head and on to the blank screen. Or you can use your phone to dictate first drafts and then send the audio file to a transcription service.
Alternatively, I’ve used Rev to write a 2,000-word first draft in 20 minutes. Using this app, you can dictate to your phone and send the audio recording to someone to transcribe for a dollar a minute.
To get your money’s worth from Rev, write your outline before you dictate it.
Editing is a right-side brain activity while writing is a left-side activity. To do both at once is to confuse yourself and indulge in the myth of multi-tasking.
While writing your first draft, if you think of something to research, annotate your work or put an asterisk beside this point. This way, you can avoid breaking the flow of writing. Once you've written your first draft, gather whatever additional facts, figures and information you need.
Next, review the entirety of the first draft and see what you can edit and what you can take out. Kill as many adjectives and adverbs and other useless words and phrases as possible. The editing stage is also the perfect time to:
- Tighten up your introduction and conclusion
- Write descriptive headings
- Add any links and images
- Format your writing with bold, italics, lists, blockquotes, indents, and so on
- Review the flow of your article
Once you've finished editing, it’s time to polish and proofread your work. To proofread your work, either print it out or change the font size and type (this will help you see typos in new light). You can polish your work by reading it out loud and even by recording yourself and listening to what your work sounds like.
If you have an editor, now is the time to show them what you’re working on. This will help you find unnecessary words and the parts of your work that don’t sound right.
Now here’s the most important bit:
Don’t get stuck in a cycle of endlessly polishing and reworking your work or your creative ideas: You must finish what you’re writing. Neil Gaiman is one of many authors who say this is the best way new writers will improve: Write the ideas down. If they are going to be stories, try and tell the stories you would like to read. Finish the things you start to write. Do it a lot and you will be a writer.
Athletes track their times on the track and business people record how long they spend with clients, so why not writers? You can use a spreadsheet and a timer to do this (I use the Pomodoro Technique).
- The time you wrote at
- What you wrote
- Time spent writing
- Your word count
This self-quantification will help you identify blocks in your workflow and figure out the times and occasions when you're most productive as a writer. It will also help you see the types of writing projects you’re good at and those that take longer.
I thought I was at my best writing at night, but this tracking helped me figure out I write best first thing in the morning before I check email or the news.
Write 2,000 words a day and you’ll produce 10,000 words a week and still be able to take the weekend off. Do this for a year and you’ll have over 100,000 words, which is more than enough for a book or a novel. Do this for 30 years and one day you’ll be able to turn around, point to your work and then set a challenge for new writers just like Stephen King.
To write 2,000 words a day may seem impossible if you’re a new writer, but it just takes practice, hard work and self-knowledge. All you have to do is start.
Bryan Collins is a writing coach who helps writers use words to achieve their goals and dreams. His free 20-part email course will help you launch your writing career and become a writer today.