10 tactics for more efficient writing

Choose an angle, identify what to leave out, work in short bursts, and embrace your clunky (perhaps even unusable) first draft.

“How can I write more quickly and efficiently?”

It’s by far the question people ask me most often.

Here are 10 tips for getting better at getting your ideas out of your head and onto the page:

1. Don’t try to say everything. (Your reader will thank you.)

Don’t feel you have to write everything you know about a topic.

Before you start writing, think about what you’re going to leave out. It won’t just make your life easier; it’ll also create a much more satisfying and enjoyable read for everyone else.

A student recently told me how helpful she found my suggestion to jot down all the things her reader didn’t need to know before starting. It gave her much needed clarity about what they did need to know.

2. Take a tip from time-pressed journalists by finding your angle.

Professional journalists are used to banging out writing on deadline. One way they save time is by approaching their topic from a single point of view—what they call “finding an angle.”

Drill down into the most interesting, compelling or surprising bits of your subject, and make that your angle.

3. Have a research strategy.

It’s tempting to use research to delay the moment you have to start putting words on the page. To avoid turning your research into procrastination, you have to be targeted about it. So don’t just read everything and anything that’s vaguely connected to your topic.

Instead, start with a clear idea of the point you want to make or the question you want to answer—and test every source you consult against that point or question. Ask yourself, “Why am I reading this?” “How can I use it?” and “How does it support or challenge my point?” If you can’t come up with compelling answers, stop reading and start writing—or move on to a source that will help you advance your argument.

4. Craft an elevator pitch before you start.

The secret to writing more effectively is to write with purpose—to know where you’re going before you sit down to write.

So ask yourself what your key message is—or, if you like, your “elevator pitch”: What’s the one thing you want your reader to do, know, feel or think after reading your piece?

Put the answer at the top of your page and let it guide your thinking throughout the writing process.

5. Create an outline with the three-tweet method.

Another way to concentrate your thinking is to think like a social media manager.

Before you start writing, think about the three main points you wish to make. With each point, ask: If I had a single tweet to sum up this idea, what would I say?

6. Start with the bit you feel most comfortable with.

Writing isn’t a linear process in which you start at the beginning and take a straight road, point by point, to the end.

It’s much messier than that, so embrace the messiness and make it work for you.

7. Write in sprints.

Writing takes huge amounts of concentration (yes, even for those paid to do it).

Limit the brain-ache by working in short, intensive bursts, using the online Tomato Timer or a similar tool.

First, switch off all distractions (Twitter, email, Slack—you know what they are). Then commit to writing for 25 minutes, with zero distractions. Take a five-minute break, and start again. Repeat until you’re done.

You’ll be amazed at how many words you can get down when writing like this. I find it particularly useful when I’m not on a deadline, because it stops the drift.

8. Don’t get it right; get it written.

The better part of writing is the editing—that’s when the magic happens. But to get to the editing stage, you need to have something to edit, right?

So don’t second-guess yourself as you go. Instead, actively commit to producing a terrible first draft, safe in the knowledge that you can—and will—go back and edit it later.

9. Don’t try to rescue the un-rescuable.

What if, despite it all, you find you’ve taken a wrong turn and need to rethink your piece? Sometimes it’s easier just to start from scratch.

If you do scrap the current iteration of your piece, take it in stride. A messy (or sometimes unusable) first draft is all part of the writing process.

10. Don’t beat yourself up if you work slowly.

As any professional writer will tell you, writing—good writing, at least—takes time. Every professional writer I consulted for a previous post, Writing speed: How long does it take to write something? admitted as much. So, if you feel you’re slow, chances are you’re doing it right.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie. She teaches writing at the University of Cambridge and is the author of the popular online training course Writing With Confidence: Writing  Beginner To  Writing Pro (90% discount with this link.) Follow her on Twitter @DorisandBertie. A version of this article originally appeared on the Doris and Bertie website.


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