You can get it written well, quickly, or cheaply—pick two.
It’s a mantra freelancers know all too well. Although they say it tongue-in-cheek (kind of), it highlights a tension that’s inescapable for anyone who cranks out copy in a work context.
It’s the tension between writing better and writing faster.
Always the optimist, I’d like to believe that given enough time, everyone is capable of crafting polished and powerful copy. Unlimited time is a fantasy, a pipe dream in a world where the quantity of work we produce is just as important as the quality of that work.
For most of us, it’s simply not enough to write well. For the sake of our companies, our clients, and even our own sense of professionalism, we need to become more adept at navigating the tension between quantity and quality in copy creation. Here’s how:
1. Know the assignment.
The first step toward better, faster copywriting is to know the assignment. Before the first word ever appears on your smeared and smudgy laptop screen, you need to answer big questions about format (“What am I writing?”), audience (“For whom am I writing?”), and objective (“What am I trying to accomplish?”). To meet expectations (internal and external), you’ll also need to identify deadline and word count before you begin the writing process.
2. Gather information and resources.
The best chefs gather their ingredients before they fire up the burners. Great writers work the same way, collecting the necessary research, information, and seed content before they begin writing. If it’s taking too long to locate solid information, don’t hesitate to ask colleagues or other contacts for assistance in finding content that is relevant to your project.
3. Devise a (basic) plan.
Before I plunge into a first draft, I find it helpful to create a broad outline for the assignment. This outline doesn’t have to be detailed or complex, just a rough sketch of the main points for each section. If you know your average writing speed and your target word count, you should be able to estimate how long it will take to complete the assignment. In general, 200 to 300 good words per hour (for the total assignment, including research) is a good goal for an average writing pace.
If you’ve laid a solid foundation through research and planning, words will flow like beer at a college reunion. OK, that’s probably an exaggeration, but adequate preparation does help. Avoid distractions and monitor your progress, using your average writing speed and target word count as a guide. If you’re stuck, write anything just to get the ball rolling and worry about editing it later.
5. Have a strong endgame.
At some point, you’ll need to make the decision that your project or assignment is finished. Left unchecked, the editing process can drag on without delivering any substantive improvements to the copy. So after you’ve drafted the piece and performed a round or two of self-edits, ask a co-worker to check for typos and to suggest how your copy might be refined.
Over time, most of us develop a system that enables us to write solid copy at a decent pace. Instead of resting on their laurels, the best writers look for ways to tweak the process and create even higher quality copy in shorter periods of time.
Tim Morral is a senior copywriter with Walker Sands. A version of this story first appeared on the Walker Sands blog, Footprints.