People ask us how we can crank out so much verbiage (say 5,000 words of finished, polished prose) on projects on a weekly basis. Writing like a wordsmith ninja takes three basic elements: quality caffeine in measured doses, reading lots of good writing– and more importantly– having and implementing a really simple and basic writing process.
Why? Having a process in place helps increase your writing capacity, plain and simple. No– writing isn’t factory work and Night Owls Press is definitely not a content farm (see Wired’s take and Google’s policy to take them down)– but we do advocate having a process. By following a few tips and tricks you can train yourself to write much more without sacrificing on quality or clarity. Here’s our advice on having a writing process:
1. Write to a model. Unless it’s an unconventional piece, or some arcane, avant-garde number– most writing projects have predictable standards. The writer looking to write better and faster should take advantage of this predictability. Don’t be turned off by the monotony of writing the same thing over and over again; instead, use this consistency to your advantage. Over time, every writing team (Night Owls Press included) accumulates a portfolio of work that has the same structure, the same ‘bones’. If you could do an X-ray of everything we have produced– reports, feature articles, and even books– you start to see commonalities emerge.
Here’s how we make use of models: Do an inventory of work you have created and classify them. Find a set of ‘samples’ of each type and rank them by quality or complexity. The objective is to have a handful of finished products that represent the creme de la creme of each type– these will serve as your models. Ideally, you will have these templates or models for a policy report, an analytical report, a business/management e-book, a self-help e-book, and so on. Dissect the model and see what makes each one tick– word count, layout, writing quality, structure and organization. Once you have a recipe, you are on your way to writing better and faster.
2. No blank checks on word counts– stick to a number. Writing more doesn’t mean writing MORE. When working with clients, we always make sure that we are clear on the expected word count– and I try to write within 100-200 words of that limit. Writing to a limit ensures that we do not eat up precious real estate in a column, or end up with a runaway Indiana-Jones-rolling-ball of text that keeps picking up speed and gets longer and longer. Writing without limits in mind can be good for certain pieces– like e-books that have more leeway on word count. But as a rule, and if you are juggling other projects– keeping yourself corralled by a number helps focus your thinking on paper.
The result: you end up writing tight, mindful copy, and stay conscientious about the details and presentation. A piece jammed with every fact under the sun can be tedious, boring. Keep your writing lean and clean with word counts.
3. Don’t write a house of cards– structure well. Seasoned writers can always spot the logical and predictable structural patterns required in certain pieces. For example, I know that when I write a policy report with an advocacy message that there will be certain sections, organized to an outline with key action words and a particular style of ‘wordslinging’ that will have the most impact on readers. An example outline of this for a typical nonprofit report would be something like: ‘Challenges (discuss the pressing problems that need to be addressed), Causes (give the underlying causes), Impact (describe effect on populations), Solutions (offer strategies for dealing with these problems), Practice (instruct on how to put it all to work)– sandwiched between a compelling introduction and conclusion’.
4. Don’t spend too long on a first draft; circulate and revise many times. A lot of people get hung up on their first drafts, drafting too long and trying to perfect text on the first go. The first draft should be the most creative: use the ‘rabbit-out-of-hat trick’ and ‘moshpit’ prewriting techniques to get started. In the drafting stage, I often write in stream-of-consciousness, which gets the ideas down on paper where I can review them later and move them around like chess pieces on a board in the revision stage. Think of yourself as a movie director trying to record all the footage you can in a single take. The real writing comes later– in the revision process where you polish text and ideas on the page, focusing less on the words and more on the content and structure and how to make each idea move seamlessly from one to the next. Over-drafting is inefficient and drags out a writing project longer than necessary.
5. Know the difference between revising and editing. It’s every writer’s ‘a-ha!’ moment when they realize that revising a piece is a completely different animal from editing. Knowing the difference between the two can help you move though the writing process faster. Revisions are changes to the meat and bones of a piece– fine-tuning the ideas and arguments or making the storyline more compelling and logical for readers. When revising, anything goes: the sequence of sections may be changed, ideas may be dropped or merged together, an introduction may be scrapped for another. In contrast, editing is more cosmetic: grammar, punctuation, syntax– any type of text-o-plasty to polish the text.