Thursday, August 21, 2014

Writing Fast by Peter Andrews

LUCY BURDETTE: Some of us have been having a discussion on and off about whether it's possible to write fast and well--and if it is, how to do it. So I thought it was time to have our pal Peter Andrews back, with his tips on becoming more productive as a writer. Take it away Peter!

PETER ANDREWS: Sometimes, you have to do it your own way. My grandfather loved golf so much, he built a two-hole course on his farm. He taught me and all the other kids the basics  -- how to hold the club, how to swing fluently, how to stand, etc. When I was 14, I came up with a trick that got me from tee to green in one shot every time. I lined myself up, twisted my legs, locked my knees together, and smacked the ball. 

My approach looked absurd, even crazy. It did not please my grandfather, but it allowed me to beat everyone I played (including him). I did it my way, and I reached my goals.

How you write is a very personal decision, intimately related to the experience you want to have and the goals you want to reach. The “right” way for one person may be a disaster for someone else. Dictating how someone else should write? That’s crazy.

But I do share tips on how you might become a more productive writer, improve your chances of achieving your goals, and, perhaps, write more effective prose and better stories.

Being more productive means increasing your output of final copy. This isn’t the same and writing more words per minute. It’s possible to double your word count and halve your productivity if the methods you use lead to sloppiness or frustrate you at the editing stage or encourage you to take on too many projects. Or just feel wrong. (After giving a new approach a fair chance, if it hurts, stop doing it.) But, usually, if you can turn your inner editor off and compose at a faster speed, you can increase your productivity. Here are a few tips I have for doing this:

Use a timer. Starting the clock can be like firing a gun for a race. I usually set my timer for forty minutes and try to get a set amount of words in the time period. I don’t rewrite at all. I ignore misspellings. I don’t do research. And, when the best word doesn’t come to mind, I insert the word “bagel,” and clean the bagels up later.

Don’t dither. If you have more than one project, set your goal for what you will work on the day before. I write a full sentence, e.g., “Mike will blow up the submarine.” The next day, I can write whatever else I want, but I must keep the promise to myself to write forty minutes on the work in progress, so Mike must blow up that submarine. Oh, and I must write a new sentence for the next day. “Mike must escape the cyborg sharks.”

Don’t loop. Looping is going back to rewrite (repeatedly and obsessively) during the composition time. This is, for most people, a bad habit that is very difficult to break. It kills productivity. Whatever the arguments are about right brain/left brain, I have no doubt that the inner editor wrecks the work of the creative half. And it is exhausting to switch back and forth. 

Finding a way to charge forward even as the urge to fix everything grows within you is likely to lead to stories that come more easily and are more fun to read. Sometimes, a way to build this capability is to make a small promise to charge forward for just ten minutes without interruption. (This can be difficult for some people, but most can do it.) Then, each week, add ten minutes per session of “no editor” time until you’ve learned to shut it off most of the time during composition. For some people, a faster way to shut off the editor is to use a dictation program. It usually takes about a week to get comfortable with dictation.

Those are just a few key tips. Many more can be found in my blog. (I also teach an online course and will have a book out in October.) I have two caveats. The first is not all tips will work for you. Some won’t be a good fit, and that’s okay. The second is don’t try to change your approach to writing all at once. Trying and mastering one technique at a time is more than enough. You are developing your own way to work and that way will serve you through a lifetime of writing.

Writing more productively can help you reach goals, and may be essential if you hope to be a commercial writer, given market demands. At a workshop I attended recently, Liz Pelletier of Entangled said writing quickly can also help you uncover your voice – and distinct voices are what editors and agents are always on the look out for.

You may, however, be a delicate flower whose art would be damaged by interference. Or a crazy, twisted golfer with your own idea of what success means. If so, please ignore the tips. But before you decide, consider this.

There is a story that, at one point, Salman Rushdie, a great prose artist, was the fussiest of writers. If he found that the pencil at his writing station had moved to sit at a slant, he would find it impossible to work. The whole day was lost. Then the fatwa was declared on him, and he was forced to live on the run, dodging from safe house to safe house. He made a discovery – once he was forced to forsake his concept of ideal conditions or quit writing, he could write in wretched conditions. And his new approach to writing didn’t hurt his work.

LUCY: Thank you so much Peter! (I sure would like to see that golf swing...) Last time you visited, I became motivated to try dictation, which I love for many reasons, though it drives me crazy too. This time, I love the tip about writing a note stating what you'll accomplish the next day.

How about you Reds? Any of this strike a chord? Or leave you cold? Other tips that work for you?

Peter Andrews teaches How to Write Fast and is the author of a forthcoming book by the same name. He has worked as a speechwriter, teacher, chemist, and radio producer, and he is the co-author of Innovation Passport. He can be reached at forgingthefuture at


Mark Baker said...

Forget the tips, when do we get the story of Mike vs. sub vs. mechanical shark?

Ramona said...

Hi Peter--very useful post and website. Just Tweeted your "write fast" tips.

I write for one hour every morning in an uninterrupted sprint. Sometimes it's fast, sometimes it is slow, but it is consistent.

Edith Maxwell said...

Ramona beat me to it. The uninterrupted hour of sprinting, with the internet turned OFF, is key for me. Also your sentence is like what Ramona calls the sprint journal - write down your goals for the hour or the scene before the hour starts. I always do that in pen and I go sit in another chair - which somehow opens up the creativity, especially if I'm in the dreaded middle where I have no idea what happens next!

Great tips! Thank you.

Hallie Ephron said...

Peter, I am printing this and pasting it to my wall. I'm a chronic looper. I don't feel as if I CAN move forward until I've looped back an I'm constantly second-guessing myself and shifting the plot. I (usually) love the finished product but getting there is ugly ugly ugly and on this last book I was very late delivering the finished manuscript.

So I'm going to try your "charge forward" for ten minutes before looping back and see if I grown more productive.

Love the golf swing story. Tell us more about the new book!

J.A. Hennrikus said...

Great advice. As deadlines loom, critical advice.

Mary Sutton said...

Like Ramona and Edith, I'm a big fan of the hour-long sprint. Just sit and write. Don't edit, don't over think. I've gotten very good at chaining my inner editor in the basement so she can't derail my progress.

I try to end each sprint by setting up and writing a 2-3 sentence synopsis of the next scene or two. That way, the next day I sit down, re-read the last three or so paragraphs, and have my goal for the day. Last night I got inspired and have my next five or six scenes lined up - but I try for at least one.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Peter! Very wise words. I also do the sprint — sometimes multiple sprints in a day.

Ellen Kozak said...

Here's my way to write fast:

1. Write in the morning BEFORE you log on to the internet or check your e-mail.

2. Use brackets to set off something you want to double check for facts or whatever and just keep writing. You can look it up later (see #4 below).

3. When you have finished your stint, print it out on cheap paper or even stuff that has printing on one side. SET THAT ASIDE.

4. Don't look at it or touch it until you've finished the day's other work and errands. At the end of the day, just before you go to sleep, edit your hard copy with a pencil. Then go to sleep and chances are you will dream about your story, or your subconscious will process it.

5. First thing the next morning, jot down any ideas you had overnight, and then type in the corrections you made on yesterday's copy.

6. when you get to the end of typing in the edits, you will find that it is really easy to just pick up from there (at least, I do.)

7. Know your limitations. When you're out of steam, you're out of steam. Take a break.

And Mary has a point. I have found that if I wrap a chapter, and have an idea of what the first sentence is of the next chapter, it pays to set up the beginning of that next chapter before quitting for the day.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Mark To fight those pesky cyborg shark, Mark makes thousands of burly clones of himself. These are swept into a waterspout where they best the sharks. I'll call it Mikenado.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Ramona I love sprints. I especially like them when writing along with a community. My CTRWA peeps have been known to break for a Facebook singalong halfway through. It's like The Spinners on steroids.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Edith Distractions can be a big problem. I close my fun browser and leave open my cold impersonal one for research. But a mentor of mine rents an Internet-free zone at a neighbors for her work. The goals make a big difference to productivity. I like the idea of writing them down beforehand. When I race past what I've set up the day before, I do it the way you do. But getting them down the day before allows my subconscious to get involved. (And the dreams... Bollywood's got nothing on me.)
Changing space is a good idea. I do that when I get stuck.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Hallie If you can beat looping, I think you'll be more productive and have more fun. It can be tricky. If you hit any bumps along the way, check out my posts on looping or send me an email.

Peter Andrews said...

HI, J.A. I'm glad this came at a good time. I had one student who had a deer-in-the-headlights experience after receiving a three-book contract and another who needed to rework her process after a stroke. Both found tips that got them back to productive sessions. (And both were very determined ladies.) Good luck with your deadline!

Peter Andrews said...

HI, Mary Great process. I think you'd find a big market for an editor chaining service. Stick to inner editors. The other yell about adverbs and Oxford commas all night. And chaining them up in technically illegal.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Susan I've done the multiple sprints. They were a big part of my life last NaNoWriMo. For me, it meant shifting back and forth between typing and dictating. Also, I found I was most productive on a day with multiples if I kept them to about 45 minutes each.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Ellen I love the way you've documented your process here. Nice. Easy to understand. Easy to replicate.
It's not too far from what I do. The only real difference for me is I compose one manuscript in the morning and edit a different manuscript in the afternoon.
I started out as a writer with many projects going at the same time, and cutting down to two (plus some nonfiction) is the way to keep my inner attention-deficit kid happy.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

All I can say is WOW! You guys are such a productive bunch, and Peter is a champion coach...

Would love to hear from some people with we can more of Peter's wisdom:)

Kaye Barley said...

These tips are finding their way to me at a time when I desperately need them - thank you!! I'm finding writing the second book in a series to be loaded with more problems than I ever imagined.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

HI Peter! (And I agreewith MArk BAke--where's the cyborg story?)

Anyway-- it is so ridiculous how I trick myself into writing. I DO have a word count for the day, a must-do. And I also set my intent: Today Jane will save Polly.

(Tomorrow's intent is to find a new name for Polly.)

But I trick myself by saying: I cannot do ANYTHING ELSE until I do 200 more words. Or until the word counter gets to a round number. Or until it's 2:22 pm. NO getting mail, e or otherwise, no get a diet coke, no check the laundry. No research.

Sadly, it works. I think because it makes small, attainable goals, SO I have lots of little victories every day.

I'm so in love with bagel, I cannot tell you. Thank you!

Rhonda Lane said...

Hi, Peter. Another Looper here. ::hand raised:: I'm going to have to revise it until it's pristine anyway, so I might as well do it now, right? Come to think of it, that's where I am, revising and "housebreaking" that sprawling first draft.

I'm So Close to The End that I have what NASA used to call "Go Fever." I'm fighting knowing endings shouldn't be rushed because I hate that as a reader, yet I also know I need to keep making progress, plus I need to use the right word to enhance the story tone. Nor can I forget the rhythm of Scene & Sequel, but not too much Sequel, only Just Enough.

It's enough to make me glad I've been traveling and don't have a contract.

So, my question is, how do you apply your How to Write Fast techniques to revisions? Thanks!

Kathy Reel said...

Peter, your post is wonderfully informative while being entertaining as well. I'm having a brain freeze on who, but it was a well-known author who said if history was presented as stories, it would be much better retained. So, it is with your writing tips, as you have made them stick with fun. Even though I am not an author, I do write quite a bit (book reviews, blogs, book discussions), and my favorite bit of advice from your post is "bagel." I constantly interrupt my writing in search of that apposite word. Now, I will use a "bagel" word instead. Looping is another bad habit of mine, so I will also take note of your advice there.

I plan on visiting your blog. I actually love reading about writing. I'm impressed with the fact that you allow for the "crazy golfer" method in the face of your writing tips. Thanks for an enjoyable learning experience today. Oh, and I'm on board with those who want to know if Mike escaped the cyborg shark.

Kim said...

Lucy, thank you for asking Mike to write on this subject. It's very timely for me. I was struck by this particular sentence: "How you write is a very personal decision, intimately related to the experience you want to have and the goals you want to reach." Rarely does the discussion of productivity include the "experience you want to have." I so enjoy the writing process and realized a few years ago that this enjoyment was waning. It took me a while to realize that it was because I was editing as I went along. Computers make it so easy to cut and paste and change and change and change. Just recently I've started printing out everything I've written at the end of each day. I put that in a notebook, which means it can't be edited until the entire first draft is done. I might go back and write some notes on it, but I can't go back into the computer and edit to my heart's content. Not only am I more productive again, I am back in love with the actual process of writing a story pell-mell, secure in the knowledge that I can always go back and change things in the next draft. Thanks, Mike, for this great food for thought!

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Lucy/Roberta
Thanks for inviting me. Delighted to be riddled with questions.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Kaye
I do think it takes extra fortitude to write a series. So much to keep track of! And all those established details and story needs can be distracting. I think giving yourself permission to write off track can help. Also, I remind myself "it's supposed to be fun."
Good luck!

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Hank
Trickery is permissible for a good cause. Whatever keeps that storyteller weaving a good tale.
Rewards help, too.
Thanks for sharing your approach.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Rhonda
Revisions don't start for me until I have a full draft composed. Even though some scenes are embarrassingly bad and a few are told in summary, the story lurches forward to The End.
Once I get to revisions, I do them in waves. Generally, I work from big problems with the story, through problems with scenes, down to making the copy pristine. I use an ever-evolving set of adopted and adapted techniques along the way, but I don't even attempt to keep all the balls in the air at once.
I did a series of 8 entries explicitly on rewriting. The first five are indexed here

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Kathy
I'm glad your having fun. I think that's part of the Jungle Red culture.
I don't know who recommended storytelling as a route to engaging with history, but I did find an interesting article on the topic.
Bagels work unless you write a lot about delis.
Mike has to get away. I'm a HEA guy.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Kim
Mike is busy with the shark, so I'll answer.
One of my proudest moments was when a talented artist friend posted "It's supposed to be fun" on his easel and attributed it to me. I'm so happy you found a way to get back to the joy of writing. And I strongly suspect that your fun comes through to your readers.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

thanks Peter, for the great blog, and for all the comments today! we hope you'll come back when your book is out so we can all jump on that...

Deborah Crombie said...

Peter, thanks for the great post! I'm printing it and putting it next to my keyboard. AND buying your book when in comes out! (By which time I'm sure I will have met all my writing goals... :-))

And thanks for giving us permission to do it our way. I'm always told "write first thing in the morning." That doesn't work for me and the fact that it doesn't has always made me feel like a failure. I CAN write before lunch, once I've gotten doggie duties and business stuff out of the way. And I love shutting myself in my office and writing in the afternoon.

What's helped me deal with the internal editor is Scrivener. Each scene has a synopsis, so that tells me exactly what I should be writing. Then I tell myself 200 words before a break, or 500. Whatever works for that day or that scene. I will reread a scene in Scrivener and do a little editing--often that's a way to get started on the next scene. When I've finished a chapter, I cut and paste it into Word, print it, and edit with a pen. I put the changes in the Word copy, then it's back to Scrivener for the next chapter.

That sounds convoluted but it's really not. Hope someone finds it helpful. And I don't think that's looping... Is it?

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Lucy/Roberta
This has been a delight. The book sits now in a Scrivener file, waiting for an edit. I'll be doing a workshop at NJRWA's Put Your Heart in the Book Conference, so October is a hard deadline for me.

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Deborah
Glad the post was worthwhile for you. I actually like you process. And who says morning is best? My wife is a late night writer, and I love her work.
On looping, it's only a problem if it's cutting into your productivity. If you are meeting your goals and hitting your deadlines, it's no one's business business but yours. If you want to cut back on that aspect and see what happens, that's your business, too. My guess is that another choice (dictating?) might make a bigger difference in the short run. Send me a note if you have any questions.

Anonymous said...

Peter, you are wonderful! I'm going to try some of your ideas. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Kim said...

Ha - Sorry about that Peter. I was obviously so engaged in Mike's activities that I melded the 2 of you together. Many thanks for your kind words!

Peter Andrews said...

Hi, Thelma
Thanks for stopping by. I hope some of the tips really work for you. Please feel free to send a note about your experience or if you have any questions.

Peter Andrews said...

HI, Kim
I live in Mike's shadow.

Kait said...

I saved this post for when I would have time to really read and savor it. Great stuff. I write in scrivener and one thing that has worked for me - those little synopsis cards at every chapter. I write key points for each chapter and I connect the dots. Then, before I leave scrivener - I jot a few highlights of the next chapter. My version of the cyborg shark. I'd love to see the golf swing!