We were told in school we’d need good writing skills for almost any job.
Here’s what we weren’t told: We’d have no time to write well, which is to say slowly. The most critical writing we’ll have to do will not be in a calm, take-your-time situation. It’ll be done in some oh-sh*t-time-crunch-hurry-up-and-send-this type situation.
Consider how many of the following are sent every day:
- Urgent memo to the entire company.
- Status update because a server crashed.
- Offer letter to a job candidate who might sign with a competitor.
- Email to a customer asking they please, dear God, don’t click that link that was the wrong link.
All high-stakes situations. All the kind of hurried written communication people’s jobs depend on. Writing well is important. Writing well when you’re in a damn hurry is a lot more important.
Thankfully, just like writing well, writing fast is a skill that can be practiced and improved.
Here are some tips, exercises, and apps that can get you there.
Embrace word vomit
Don’t worry about the first version. Many writers call their first version “word vomit,” an unsavory but apt analogy. Most novice writers waste the biggest chunk of time staring at a blank screen.
Just start getting some thoughts down. It’s better to have something that sucks, but exists, than nothing at all. Sucks can be studied, picked apart, and improved. Changing sucks into decent can be done. Changing nothing into decent is sometimes impossible.
Short is OK
High school English class screwed up the way we think when we sit down to write. Because our assignments were to write “at least three pages” or “1,500 words minimum.” It trained us to pad, fluff out, and meander. Worse, it trained us that that’s what writing well is all about.
Terrible, and a backwards way of thinking about writing.
Instead, think of the shortest possible way you can say what you need to say. What if someone told a software developer that a program had to be “at least 10,000 lines of code.” That’s insane. Maybe 10,000 lines is what it takes, but 1,000 is much better if it does the trick.
Write things like you mean it. It goes a long way. Passive voice is the biggest chunk of low-hanging fruit here.
- Passive voice sucks.
- What sucks is passive voice.
See the difference? Here’s a primer on active voice if you aren’t familiar.
The quickest path to a long, awkward sentence is too many adjectives and adverbs. Not all of them need to go, but if you find yourself reaching for the thesaurus to sound impressive, stop.
Not only are these lines a pain to read, writing them burns precious time.
I’ll show you. Here’s a line from Ernest Hemingway:
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Now let’s add a bunch of stupid adjectives and adverbs.
“The cruel, brutish world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the exceptionally, ruthlessly broken places.”
See. Papa’s is better. It hits you in the gut and says what it means. The other line is just noise. With all the extra junk, you just lose what the writer is trying to say.
Grammar sucks (sort of)
Is this line a dangling participle? Should you sweat over comma-splice run-ons? If you’re writing an AP English term paper, go for it. In the real world, most people only care if writing makes sense and doesn’t hurt their brain or eyes.
Break some rules. Find your style. A sixth grade teacher would bleed red ink all over my writing. I don’t care. I use plenty of one- and two-word sentences. Like this. It’s a stylistic fragment and it’s part of my style. OK? Have some fun. We’re not diffusing nukes here. Nobody blows up if you don’t follow the handbook.
Copy other people
When some kids from Liverpool started a band, they didn’t want to sound like The Beatles. They wanted to sound like Chuck Berry. When Hunter S. Thompson wanted to learn to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald, he sat down with a typewriter and a Fitzgerald book and copied it. Word for word.
You don’t have to get so extreme. But take a chunk of writing — even an email or a Tweet — from someone whose writing you admire and write it yourself. Over time, you’ll pick up what it feels like to write like them.
Eventually, you’ll learn the rhythms and nuances of writing with voice. Don’t worry, you won’t turn into a carbon copy of someone else. Just like The Beatles and Thompson found their own style, so will you.
Check your word count
Once you start tracking and paying attention to word counts, you get a sharper sense of what kind of explanations are usually 100 words and which ones typically run at 500. For example, without looking I’d guess this paragraph is, oh, 50 words?*
Keep an eye on the word count when you write things. Eventually you’ll develop a sort of internal barometer for length. You’ll become a lot more sensitive to lengthy writing.
*It’s 43. Close!
Act like you’re writing an email to a friend
Tim Ferriss has told the story of when he first sat down to write “The 4-Hour Work Week.” The writing wasn’t coming out the way he wanted, until he changed his approach entirely. He started writing like he was writing an email to a friend. What came out was a lot closer to Tim’s natural voice and style. And it was a bestseller.
Whatever your natural voice may be, I guarantee it’s a lot better than the version of you that’s trying to be “A Writer.” Think of a friend you’re comfortable talking to. Don’t take this generally, I mean literally think of a specific friend. Imagine you’re telling them about whatever it is you’re trying to write. Write for them. When you try to write for everyone, you wind up writing for no one.
Flowstate is an app that will delete everything you wrote if you stop writing. Stop pushing keys, and your text slowly disappears. It’s got a fun sense of danger to it. Definitely more of a novelty and practice tool than a place to get serious writing done. At least for now.
Simply write or paste into Hemingway Editor and the program will automatically highlight problems in the copy, like a lot of problems we’ve talked about here. Long, confusing sentences. Adverbs, passive voice. All pointed out for you.
Word Count Chrome extension
A great way to keep an eye on your word count is with this Chrome extension. Simply highlight and right click any text in Chrome to see the word count.
A good distraction-free writing app
Back in the Microsoft Word days, we didn’t have Slack notifications bouncing around on our screens and iMessage lighting up our brain. The best thing you can do now is shut off distractions and avoid anything with a busy, clunky UI.
A good distraction free writing program goes a long way. Turn off your notifications, put her on full-screen mode and watch the words fly.
There are too many good ones out there to recommend just one. A lot of it comes down to personal preference. But if you want to dive in and do some research, here’s a good place to start.
Of all these tools and tips, nothing beats practice and repetition. Learning to write well in a hurry takes time. It’s a skill you’ll leverage for the rest of your life. You’ll be able to write fast. To get things done, move on.
And go do other things.
This post was originally published on the Statuspage blog in 2016.