We are pressured to write faster and faster—and every day, that pressure has steadily grown throughout my 19 years in business.
For example, in 2005, a reasonable deadline for a 1,000-word technical article might be 4 weeks. This year, however, I had a client who asked for a 1,000-word technical article in 48 hours—and it included research, interviewing, writing, fact-checking, and proofreading.
So I constantly look for newer, faster ways to write a first draft—the toughest part of the writing process. Here are a few of my favorite hacks.
Yes, I know it sounds counterintuitive. How could it be faster to handwrite a first draft? But I actually save 10%-15% of writing time if I write my first draft by hand—with pen and paper.
Why? Because I’m focusing exclusively on the content—instead of wasting time tweaking the page footer, fonts, or margins (which are all formatting functions).
Set a timer.
Thanks to Francesco Cirillo’s very helpful Pomodoro Technique, I have cut my draft-writing time into 25-minute “sprints.”
You can use any timer—such as a smartphone—or you can try this super-cute tomato timer.
Write as fast as you can for 25 minutes. When time’s up, take a break for 10-15 minutes and do another task, then come back for another 25-minute sprint.
Write the first paragraph LAST.
The first line of the document is the most important content in the entire doc—and is also the toughest one to write. Leave it til last. Start with an easier paragraph.
Use question headers—then answer them.
If I’m really stuck on a topic for a 2-page report, I’ll write down 6 questions—then answer each of them, with 1-2 paragraphs in each answer.
Now I have 6 great, consistent headers and 6-12 paragraphs of content—plenty for a 2-page report. Add a title at the top, and I’m done.
Examples of question headers:
- How Much Will This Cost?
- Who Is Using It?
- How Does It Work?
- Why Is This Important?
Talk the first draft out loud.
Voice recognition software has made it easier to just talk about a topic—and get it down on paper. (I like to use my favorite Bluetooth headset, and pace around the office while I talk.)
Try the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking (which costs a few bucks, and takes a little getting used to—but is an excellent product). Or just use your basic smartphone email software, which can then email you a first draft.
Use the “Top 10” trick.
For a 1-page report, you’ll only need around 8-10 sentences. Jot down the 10 most important things about the topic, then number them in order of priority to the reader—#1 – #10.
Turn each item into a sentence, then string them together into paragraphs of 2 sentences each (in exactly that order—#1 sentence, #2 sentence, #3 sentence…).
Now add a title to the top. Done.
Start with the easiest chunk—first.
So you’re covering 17 different topics in your report…but the only one you feel really comfortable writing about is topic #13? Start by writing 1 paragraph on topic #13 first.
Once you’re done, tackle the next easiest chunk, then the next one. Work your way backwards to whichever topic is your hardest one.
Set smaller goals.
If you’re overwhelmed by writing a 20-page (or larger) document, it’s probably because you’re imagining how stressful it would be to sit down and write 20 pages at one time. But nobody does that…not even a professional writer!
Set a goal to just write the first paragraph (that’s only 2 or 3 sentences!). Walk away and do something else. Just getting started is the hardest part.
Then come back later, and write 1 more paragraph (any paragraph in the document—it doesn’t have to be in order).
Another option—set a timer to spend 25 minutes just thinking about the document, and what you want to write about. You don’t even have to write about anything! By giving yourself permission to just drink some coffee and think, you might naturally find a starting point.
Learn to write documents up to 50% faster in our writing classes.