Sometimes, though, the best way to increase your output is the simplest: write faster.
Writing faster is one of those things that is easy to say and understand, but hard to put into action or actually accomplish.
There are really three ways you can write faster and neater:
- Improve focus (remove distractions)
- Improve your raw typing speed
- Improve your process
We’ll cover each in detail, and we’ll also give tools and suggestions for how to improve on each lever.
Focus Better: Flow State and Deep Work
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” – Cal Newport
Ever felt “in the zone” when writing? Where the words are just flowing from the pen (or keyboard), and you barely have to look up from your screen? It almost feels like magic. This elusive state is usually referred to as “flow” and is ultra desirable if you’re a writer (or any kind of creative).
Getting into the flow state is difficult, however. It requires two large pieces:
- Removal of distractions
- Deep concentration on the task at hand.
First, we need to remove obstacles that may hinder our concentration. To do this, in our modern era, is not an easy task. If you’re like me, you have Slack notifications that take your eye from the page, noises from your phone when you get a new notification, and the ever looming threat of a more desirable task that sits only a few tabs away on your computer screen.
Part of avoiding these things is surely will power, the ability to cloud out distractions. Part of avoiding these things, also, is avoiding the need to avoid them; to make them cease to exist.
For the first part, focused attention and the avoidance of distraction, we have meditation and mindfulness. If you have the ability to notice passing phenomenon, but not let it wreck your concentration flow, you have a special power. All of us need help in this area though. Try developing a habit of mindfulness in the morning and/or at night.
There are several free or cheap solutions available. Some of my favorite guided meditations are:
For the second part, removing distractions from your field of vision, we have several web solutions. Some of my favorites come in the form of paternalistic Chrome extensions. Here are a few you can try out:
Once you can eliminate the majority of your most potent forces of distraction – Reddit, Facebook, and Hacker News, for me – you can also work on eliminating these constant streams of noise from your resting life as well. Turns out, it’s not wonderful for your health to be constantly distracted and robbed of attention.
As Cal Newport put it in his phenomenal book, Deep Work, these distractions can even harm you when you’re working, when you’re trying to relax in the evenings. This, too, is harmful, he claims:
“If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration.
Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow.
Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”
Focus, and Find Flow
Now, that covers the gist of the “avoiding distractions” problem. Now, how the heck do we get into a flow state?
To be honest, it’s not something you can predictably do. All you can do is put in the work, trust the process, avoid resistance, and hope the muses work their magic.
I’ve found, however, that doing these things makes it more likely to reach that state:
- Enjoy what I’m working on
- Work on something challenging (but not impossible)
- Listen to loud, fast punk rock (though your music choice may be different).
- Work at the same time every day( the optimal time is different for everyone, for me it’s early morning).
- Don’t worry about perfection or quality, just focus on getting words on paper.
- Trust the process, and don’t stress out too much about an outcome.
One thing is certain: there’s no tried and true formula to getting into this state. Some things may help you (like the above list does for me), but it’s largely a personal endeavor, and even personally, you may find that your formula doesn’t work every day.
For the music thing, some websites even produce binaural sounds that are supposed to aid you in concentration. Here’s one such site:
Do you have to love what you’re doing to be in a flow state? You’d think that it would help, at least.
Though it probably does help, initially, you can certainly will yourself to focus on something you don’t naturally have “interest” in. In fact, by doing so, you often develop interest in the thing and a satisfaction around working on it. Here’s how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it:
“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”
Essentially, you don’t need to be naturally obsessed with a subject to get into a flow state. Simply by focusing attention on something and maintaining interest, you can lock into a flow state. Here’s where we can really move the needle in our writing lives.
This is a pretty complex topic, you may want to do some reading to deepen your understanding of Flow and Deep Work. Here are a few books I love on the topic:
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise
Now, let’s move onto something more technical: the speed at which you can type.
Writing Faster: Tips and Tricks to Speed Up Your Keyboard
Unless you write everything via dictation or with pen and paper, you can probably make some gains by increasing your typing speed. Most of us spend several hours per day typing, yet we almost never look to this lever as a way to increase output.
Just think, what could a 5% improvement in speed mean? If you normally push out 2,000 words per day, perhaps that means you can push out 2,100 words per day. Multiply that by 300 days of writing, and you have an extra 30,000 words per year (several articles, or 1-2 ebooks). Not too bad.
How can you speed up your typing pace? There are three ways I’ve found do the trick:
- Change your keyboard setup
- Try dictation
- Take courses
Change Your Keyboard Setup
One trick often used by programmers is by changing your keyboard setup.
Mat Mullenweg, founder of Automattic (and WordPress.com), swears by the Dvorak keyboard setup.
The normal one, the one you likely use, is QWERTY. It looks like this:
Dvorak is just “a different arrangements of letters purposively chosen because it is more efficient for typing the English language. For example, instead of my left hand resting on the letters ASDF it rests on the letters AOEU.”
It looks like this:
Obviously, there’s a cost to switching, in that you need to learn the new system. Mullenweg, however, says the process of switching isn’t too difficult or time consuming.
However, he notes that the true limit to your typing speed, at least with most writing work, isn’t your typing speed, but your thinking speed. Here’s how he puts it:
“My writing speed did not increase significantly. Although I could type faster than ever, the limiting factor in my writing speed is and was the way I formulate sentences in my mind, often thinking of several different ways to say something. However in situations where I can type without thinking too much, for example taking notes in class or at a conference, it has been a huge benefit and often I can keep up almost in real time with what’s being said.”
So, you know, Dvorak might not help you with creative writing, but it may just help you write notes or quotes.
Other ways to type faster include:
I’m actually someone who thinks vocally, so I’ll often take notes via dictation or voice recording (which I later transcribe to written works). This can help you speed up writing, especially when you’re writing something like a speech, or even a first draft of a thought piece.
If you do want to look into dictation, Google Docs has a native “voice typing” option, or you can looking into a professional transcription service like Rev.com.
It’s not for everyone though.
One thing that does help everyone? Further education.
That’s right. There are tons of courses available, in person and online, to help ramp up your typing pace.
Some of them are completely gratis. Here are a few free programs I like:
Here are a few paid programs you can check out as well:
In any case, practice and application will save you here, and year after year of pumping out content (with proper typing form) should bring you gradual improvement.
Process: Why The Way You Do Things Matters
Process is an interesting point. It’s really the highest leverage point, but it’s the muddiest in terms of its immediate takeaways.
It’s fairly easy to understand that you shouldn’t be checking Facebook every 3 minutes, or that being able to type faster theoretically should improve your overall output.
But process is nebulous and contextual. Everyone has a different process that works for them.
That’s true. But there are also a few tricks that seem to help most people write more articles. Here they are:
- Write against sharp deadlines (with your back to the wall)
- Prep like a chef (and cooking will be easier)
- Eliminate tedium and chaos
- Automate what you can
- Use your momentum to your advantage
Let’s go over each one in greater detail.
1. Write against sharp deadlines (write with your back to the wall)
This is my favorite “hack,” although it is not for the timid. Essentially, what you do is overpromise, and overdeliver.
Set deadlines that you deem just on the near side of aggressive, but still doable. This way, you’ll constantly be under pressure, and due to obligation, simply unable to procrastinate.
This is a technique heralded by Ryan Holiday, who is incredibly prolific. As he puts it:
“I’ve found that my output depends almost entirely on my level of commitments (either internal or external).
Consider it kind of a reverse Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will take exactly the amount of time you have budgeted. In this version, I posit that: You will write, produce, do, and turn in more if you have regular, standing commitments that you’d feel bad about breaking.”
This strategy has many forms and names. Often, it’s talked about in relation to the “burn your ships” method or the “death ground strategy,” where you put your back against the wall so you need to fight your way to victory (with no other options):
Or as Sun Tzu put it in the Art of War:
“When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go, they are firm, when they are deeply involved, they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight.”
In this approach, you give yourself no other option than to write fast and push out quality content.
2. Prep like a chef (and cooking will be easier)
A really good outline can save you hours, days, or months (depending on the scope of your project) of repetitive rewriting and headaches. While there is a benefit to stream of conscious writing at times, if you’re putting together an article, it often helps to build out an outline first.
Ryan Holiday puts forth this anecdote as evidence:
“An author friend recently told me that he’d written 115,000 words for the book he was working on; a book that contractually was only going to be 60,000 words. And worse, it was only just now that he’d really figured out the thrust of the book.
It almost broke my heart.
Obviously there are many different ways to skin a cat, and I’m not hating on another writer’s style because there are many legitimate ones. But this writer could have written that book in half the time if he’d simply started with a clear outline before he started.”
Almost all prolific content writers I know are adamant about outlining. At the very least, you can spin a title, an intro, a conclusion, and a few subsections you know you want to cover. It doesn’t have to be robust and ultra-detailed. But some sort of map, laid out in advance, can help direct you when you’re writing.
Next, we have research.
Depending on the type of writing you do, research may be one of the most important and time consuming aspects of the craft. Even if what you do is primarily creative or opinionated, there’s likely a large amount of reading and research you need to do to put forth a coherent story.
Having all of this research in place and ready to go by the time you need to sit down at the typewriter will help you get your wheels turning. Having a well-tagged and categorized Evernote full of sources and quotations eliminates the need for you to do this scavenger hunt during the output process.
Going even further, Ryan Holiday’s advice is to always be researching. Here’s how he puts it:
“Because I am always researching, I have somewhere close to 10,000 cards on various themes. Each potential book, once it gets enough cards, gets its own box. And I just bought a box for my next book … before the paint is even dry on this new one.
This is the kind of feedback loop that creates impressive returns in your writing.
If you are constantly ingesting new material through research, you will naturally follow threads that keep you interested and most importantly — writing.”
And here find a high powered secret to writing output: note taking may be just as important if not more so than the actual writing process. Good and prudent note taking makes it easier to do the writing.
Finally, you can sometimes outsource the research process. If you have the resources, you can have an SEO team (or specialist) build out documentation and a roadmap to help you hit certain keywords. If your work is largely non-fictional, and you have to include many sources, you may find a research assistant can help you fill the gaps.
Other things you can outsource to save you time:
- Graphic design and art
- Marketing and promotion
Clearly, these things require resource allocation and spending money on outsourcing. But you may find the time saved on these tasks allows you to perform at your best when you’re writing the content.
3. Eliminate tedium and chaos (organize yourself)
Don’t waste your time on tasks you hate, like uploading Google Docs to WordPress (use Wordable instead). Organize your files in a common space (like Evernote or Google Drive). Any time you can save from menial tasks, it’s a good thing for your writing output. Any time you can clean up a chaotic process or environment, you can spend more time on doing the work.
If you find research tedious, you can get help from Wonder.
Here’s what to do: conduct an audit of your current process. Find key points in the system that you think are slowing you down, causing needless frustration, or distracting you from the mission. Find solutions (either tools, tactics, or outsourcing) to get you out of these tasks.
4. Automate what you can afford to automate
On the point of automation: there are several solutions that can help you automate boring stuff.
If you find yourself typing the same sentence or paragraph over and over again, try TextExpander.
Obviously, you can use Wordable to automate the process of uploading your draft from Google Docs to WordPress.
Again, do an audit of your process and find things that you do constantly and repetitively. How can you automate them? Most of the time there is a dedicated SaaS solution for it.
Obviously, don’t go overboard on automation. You still want quality, of course. But some tasks can surely be automated with no minimization of quality.
5. Use momentum to your advantage
Here’s the thing about routine: sometimes you’ve got the hot hand and sometimes you come up short. It’s still important to put in the work every day (hopefully at the same time), but sometimes, you’ll notice that you’re more effective than other days.
Go with it.
As Tversky and Kahneman talked about, cab drivers often make much more money on rainy days than on sunny days, simply due to increased demand. However, they’ll still work similar hours on sunny and rainy days.
This is irrational. Why?
They could simply work overtime on rainy days, and more than make up for the lack of rides on sunny days. They’re more productive during the rainy days, so they can milk that productivity for everything it’s worth.
When you’re in the zone, don’t let it go to waste.
Writing faster is an admirable and worthwhile goal, but the solution is multi-fold.
You need to focus and eliminate distractions. You should increase your core typing output. Finally, optimizing your writing process will bear the greatest fruits in terms of pushing out more quality writing work.
Some of the writing faster tips on this list can be considered “hacks,” single points of greater productivity, such as changing your keyboard for easier typing. Some, however, are years long endeavors that bleed into other areas of your life (deep work and flow are two that come to mind).
We all want to write faster and write better quality content. These tips should help you do that, and even if it’s only 1% more, that compounds over time.
Did we miss any tips? Feel free to let us know in the comments!