That will change the way you write.
My first novel took seven years to write. This is something I wore as a badge of honor as I was doing it, but that embarrasses me no end now.
My second took seven months.
I’m halfway through my third one now and I can tell you I whipped up a 20,000-word outline for it in a week, while I was away from home last Christmas, visiting family I hadn’t seen in almost a year.
That I should write this fast is not surprising to me. It’s the speed at which I write nonfiction. I’ve been a journalist. I’ve dictated 1,000-word stories from the back of a taxi. I know how to write fast and I’ve done it for most of my career.
What surprises me is not that I’m back to writing fiction fast, but that I was ever slow in the first place.
And when it comes to writing fast, we cannot have that conversation before we talk about writing slow.
Why you write slowly
There are a few reasons writers get stuck on one book or project for years and years on end. Let’s talk about some of these reasons and understand how they keep us stuck.
- You believe that fast writing means bad writing
- You lack the commitment to finishing
- You put books and authors on a pedestal
- You’re too attached to research
- You’re writing about extremely personal events
Which one is yours? (Read on to find out.)
1. You believe that fast writing means bad writing
This is such an industry trope at this point that we even have condescending terms for writers who work fast—this author “churns out” several novels a year and that writer “cranks out” thousands of words a day.
So many writers believe that it’s quality OR quantity when by any reasonable standard, your quality should remain the same or get better while you get faster and faster.
I did not have this problem because, like I said, I’ve been a journalist for almost two decades and it’s a job requirement to write fast, to deadline. Not only was the work that I’d done fast some of my best work but, in fact, the long-form story for which I won a “Journalist of the Year” award was written in a day. I’d procrastinated on it for weeks, having finished all my research, then wrote it all up a few hours before it was due.
This is, indeed, the way most journalists work.
So why, then, do we stall in fiction? Why does it take us months and years to get to the finish line?
Here is why:
In fiction, the myth of the slow, deliberate writer is extremely prevalent.
You are told that if you take seven years to write a book, it will be of far greater quality than if you take seven weeks to write it.
As a reader—and most writers are readers—you have an automatic bias. You don’t want to spend $9.99 on a book that an author “cranked out” over a weekend. You want to know that there’s blood, sweat, and tears in every word of that book. So, when you start writing, you bring that ridiculous expectation with you. You feel like the only way to “earn” respect and money for this art is to slave away at it, even when that slaving away is entirely unnecessary.
(By the way, many published writers pretend their books took a lot longer to write than they actually did exactly because of this reader and industry expectation.)
2. You lack the commitment to finishing
Yes, we all want to write books, and most of us have dozens of ideas for bestsellers that will change the world.
Ideas, however, are worthless until they’re implemented.
Most writers have a real commitment problem, and this also stems from those pesky belief problems. The idea that writing is hard work, that writers slave away at their keyboards, that it’s drudgery and the rewards at the end of it are minimal, if any.
The Dorothy Parker quote, “I hate writing, I love having written,” was a witty throwaway phrase until an entire generation of writers latched on to it and made it their personal rallying cry. It’s ridiculous, really, because writing should be fun. It should be enjoyable! You wouldn’t choose to become a pilot if you hated flying. Why on earth would you become a writer if you hate writing?
Consider yourself incredibly lucky if you get to sit at your computer in your pajamas (or lack thereof) and make up things that people can pay you for.
When I talk about fun, I’m not talking kittens and rainbows (though both are a part of my process, obviously). Writing is challenging work—that’s where the growth and satisfaction comes from. Doing something difficult, solving a problem, and then coming out on the other side with a piece of work to show is an incredibly satisfying feeling, and that’s exactly what writing should be. Having fun with writing doesn’t mean you won’t come across obstacles or have to figure your way out of problems. All it means is you’ll enjoy the process of doing so.
Writing, especially writing professionally, can be incredibly difficult. But if you continue to buy into the myth of the writer as a tortured artist slaving away at their keyboard, you will continue sabotaging any progress you make and stealing any incentive or momentum you have to get to the finish line.
3. You put books and authors on a pedestal
This is another common reason why writers take so long to finish books. Especially novels. Especially their first one. It’s because they make it mean something, more than it actually is or has to be.
I’m so incredibly guilty of this one.
I had such a stuck-up notion of what a book should be, something leather-bound and in a library, to be treasured and enjoyed and relished. I didn’t want to write nonfiction books for writers; I didn’t want to work as a personal development author; that’s not what I wanted to be known for.
So I wrote nothing and was known for nothing.
The problem for most of us who grew up reading a lot and loved books as children is that we have very strong, very potent memories of going to the library, of loving books, of hiding under the covers with them, of smelling the pages, of caressing the pages. When we had favorite authors, we got their entire collections, and their box sets were our most prized possessions.
When I think of my own author career, I erroneously combine my memories of books with the reality of them. I think of my novels, like Murakami’s, all parts of a set, sitting there together in a cohesive whole. I forget, much too often, that once, Murakami too only had one unpublished draft on his desk.
When you start comparing your beginning to someone else’s middle, you have no chance of ever matching up.
Everyone begins somewhere. But if you’re trying to begin where they ended, you’re going to stay stuck for a very long time.
4. You’re too attached to research
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the words, “I need to research some more before I can start writing.”
That “more” has turned into weeks, months, and for some writers, years.
The idea that you must know everything about what you’re writing keeps so many writers stuck, and it’s sad because nowhere in the imaginary writer’s rulebook does it say that writers must know everything about a certain subject before they can start writing about it.
Yet, so many of us will not grant ourselves the permission to say something, anything, about a subject before we’ve deemed ourselves experts in our own eyes.
This is procrastination, pure and simple.
Yet, I dare you to try to convince a writer knee-deep into research that it’s not. Most are incredibly committed to this myth.
And if that’s you, well, now you know.
5. You’re writing about extremely personal events
This was the reason I stayed stuck for so long. When you’re writing about something deeply personal and traumatic that you haven’t healed from yet, it can create blocks and problems with the writing.
For me, my first novel ended up providing a much-needed outlet of expression and it proved to be a far greater help than any therapy I’d had before or since, but I only understand that now, in hindsight. When I was writing it, however, I simply couldn’t understand why I would come to the novel, write thousands of words, then fall into a pit of despair and take months to return to the project again. What’s worse, this story was important to me, and because it was a part of my healing, I couldn’t write anything else until I’d finished it.
Perhaps you feel that the book you’re writing is going to reveal family secrets. Perhaps it’s about a part of your history that no one knows. Maybe there’s something that’s taking a lot of courage for you to share, and committing it to paper terrifies you. These are all incredibly common reasons why writers get stalled on books and projects.
That’s not you writing slow, that is you being afraid to write.
And so it takes weeks, months, and often, years.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and I could fill a book of my own on the reasons writers don’t write or the ways in which we sabotage that slows down the process.
It is important to understand these reasons because if you don’t know why you’re writing slowly (or not at all), then no amount of tips, advice, and strategies about writing fast will help you. If you’re still gripping on to your research and refusing to let it go, me telling you to show up to your desk every day and write will be of no use because you’ve convinced yourself that you have nothing to write until you’ve finished becoming an expert in your subject.
This is why most tips about “writing fast” fail.
Until you understand why you write slow, you cannot turn that around.
So now that we’ve done that, let’s talk about what you’re here to really learn about.
I have a three-step process for you that will help you write faster.
Faster than you’ve ever written before.
How to write faster
Three simple steps:
Step 1: Figure out what’s keeping you slow
Step 2: Write like a journalist
Step 3: Put arse in chair with sprints and streaks
Let’s discuss them in detail.
Step 1: Figure out what’s keeping you slow
The first step in learning how to write faster is to figure out why you’re writing slow. What belief systems are you buying into? What time traps are you creating for yourself? How are you inefficient in your scheduling that doesn’t allow time for you to write? What myths do you buy into that stop you from being productive when you could easily be so?
Do you need help or time processing certain emotions before you can write parts of this book that are trauma-inducing for you?
Once you know the answers to those questions, we can move on to the next step.
Step 2: Write like a journalist
Let’s talk quickly about what journalists do. They write to deadline and especially when it comes to freelance journalists and bloggers, they’re acutely aware that the more they write, the more they will make. The faster they write, the more they will make. So, many of us learn to write quickly. Plus, journalists don’t have endless time to finish assignments. There’s a clear deadline. Do the work, submit the work, get paid.
So what do freelance writers and journalists do that allows them to write quickly?
What is the difference between writing nonfiction and fiction that makes one so fast and the other so slow?
This is a question I had to grapple with for a long while because, as a nonfiction writer, I’m incredibly fast. I was, as I’ve already mentioned, incredibly prolific. I’ve written 1,000+ commissioned stories for newspapers and magazines and 3,000+ blog posts for my own website. That’s in addition to ten nonfiction books and several ghostwriting projects.
Why could I write thousands of words as a journalist, sometimes reporting and writing an entire 1,000-word story in two hours, and yet be completely empty when it came to my fiction?
To understand this, I had to go back and look at the process by which I was writing my novels.
I realized that when I sit down to write a story for a magazine or newspaper, I’m not trying to figure out what it is. I have pitched the story and been assigned it. I might need to go do some additional research as I write, but I know what my angle is, I know what the payoff for the reader is, I know what I want to say.
I have CLARITY.
With my first novel, I had no idea what I was trying to say. I was trying to write a novel, tell a story, but I didn’t know what the story was, who it was happening to, or why I was even trying to write in the first place. I figured it out eventually, as most writers do, through a long and laborious discovery process, but I could have saved myself so much time and heartache, not to mention the time spent writing and throwing out fifty thousand words, if I had just done the basic work of finding clarity about the story I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell it.
Clarity, let me be clear, doesn’t mean that you have to outline. It doesn’t mean that you need to have done the research. It doesn’t even mean that you need to know what happens.
What clarity does mean is that when you sit down to write a scene, do you actually know what the scene is? Do you know the point of the book you’re writing, the story you’re telling? If you don’t know what you want to say, of course the blank page is intimidating. However, if you know what you want to say, then it’s just a matter of putting words on a page and then rearranging them until they work.
These days, I’ll almost never sit down to write unless I know what I’m writing. That’s not to say that I know everything, I often don’t. That’s what’s so fun about writing and creativity. Once I start, there’s so much there that I couldn’t have seen coming until I started writing. Like most writers, I write to learn what I think. But in order to get started, I need to know where I’m going with it.
I have clarity.
And when you have clarity, the writing is not only much faster, but easier, too.
Step 3: Put arse in chair with sprints and streaks
The third and final step is what I like to call Putting Arse in Chair.
See, fast writing is not about how fast you can type or how quickly you can get words on the page. Writing fast can often come down to a simple question: How much time did you put Arse in Chair today?
If we want to talk about how fast you can actually write, we must define what we mean by writing fast.
Most writers, on average, can put 1,000 words on the page in an hour (once they have clarity around what they’re trying to say). On bad days, that number can be lower; on good days, higher.
Some writers can routinely put in more words in an average hour—they’re our speed writers.
Some writers, especially those still in the early stages of their careers or who haven’t put in much practice, average 500 words an hour. Those are our slower writers.
Still, no matter how fast a writer can type, there is a cap on how much of it they can do in an hour, and that usually maxes out at 2,500 words and is often not sustainable over a period of several hours. Also, no matter how slow a writer is, it’s near impossible to write fewer than 100–200 words unless you’re simply not trying or don’t know what you’re trying to say.
There is a difference between writing fast and typing fast. If we assume then that the average writer is writing 1,000 words an hour, give or take bad days, skill levels, and difficulty of work, authors who write books “fast” are typically just spending more hours planting their arses in the chair.
Want to write fast? Give your arse more chair time.
This doesn’t mean you sit there for three hours willing the words to come out. That means, simply, setting up enough 15-minute writing sessions in your day where you’re sprinting and making it count.
Speed doesn’t come from short-term tactics and strategies. It comes from planting that arse in the chair, as many times as you can, as many days as you can, for months and years on end. Even when it doesn’t work, even when it doesn’t sell, even when all you can do is throw it away.
Because words, even when they don’t work, serve a purpose.
They lead you to what does.
You do it until it becomes natural. You do it until it becomes effortless. You do it until it becomes routine.
Natural, effortless, and routine inevitably create speed.
“Arse in the Chair” is a metric I actually track (sitting down to write doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, don’t you think?) I make a note of the days my arse hit the chair and I make a note of how many times a day it did so.
Sprints and streaks are at the core of how I now do my writing. They’ve led to easy and consistent 3,000-word days on the days that I write.
- Sprints: This is the secret to how I manage to write so much these days (often between 2,000 and 5,000 words a day). I have 10-minute, 15-minute, and 20-minute sprints scattered throughout the day that help me rack up my word count. This is especially useful for those of us who don’t have long hours in the day to devote to writing. Set a timer, write with a focused intensity, and then you’re done.
- Streaks: If sprints are the mechanism through which I’ve achieved my word count goals over the last year, streaks are the foundation on which it is all laid. Streaks are simple—you show up daily and mark each day that you worked on a calendar. In a few days you’ll have a streak, and your goal is to keep that streak going for as long as possible. The longest streak I’ve had so far this year has been 59 days, but I’m hoping to beat that with my current one.
Both these tools have been instrumental in me not only raising my word count substantially, but ensuring that I make it to the page every day, that I’m actually focusing on the thing that I really want to do, which is the writing.
The sprints, if I can convince you to do them, will change the way you write forever. That’s certainly been the case for me and many of my writing students. So many of us have been taught to write for “an hour a day” or write “1,000 words a day” that we torture ourselves for long periods of time when nothing’s coming. Instead, I recommend you get clarity on what you want to say, sit down for 10 focused minutes and let it rip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can produce.
What the streak does is that it allows me to focus my attention on what truly matters in a writer’s career: Words on the page. It makes me show up daily for the work. Not the marketing, not the selling, not the promotion, but the work that brings me joy.
When I’ve made the words the focus, I’ve been much happier in my career and with my writing.
And there it is, the secret to writing fast. These are the three steps you need in order to ensure you’re writing faster, being more prolific, and doing more of the work you love.
Figure out what’s slowing you down and eliminate those mindset issues; get clarity on what you want to say and how you’re going to say it; get your arse on the chair daily.
Simple, easy things that lead to a productive and prolific career that you can be proud of.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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