Then and Now — Writing Fast


Today’s Then and Now grows out of a question from last week, where someone wanted to know how I write quickly.  My current writing strategy grows out of my old writing habits, so it’s perfect for a Then and Now.


When I started writing for professional publication, I worked a full-time job that required a minimum of 60 hours a week in an office and often expected 80 hours a week or more.  I usually worked through weekends, at least all of one day and half of another, and I often left the office for a class or cultural event, only to return at 10:00 at night, for another few hours of fun.  In some months, I *billed* up to 3000 hours of time (and that time didn’t include things like meal breaks, mandatory non-client activities, etc.)  So, yeah, I had a lot of demands on my time.

During those years, I wrote five novels, three of which were ultimately published (The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, The Glasswrights’ Progress, and Season of Sacrifice).  The unpublished novels were a romance and a mystery; neither is good enough to publish today.

I met my writing goals by being efficient with my time.  I started by creating an outline for my novel. (I know, I know, outlines versus organic writing is a matter of religious debate.  I’m an outliner.  But if you’re not, then you can skip this step.)  My “outlines” weren’t really.  They were approximately one page long for every 100,000 words of text — a full novel would be a one-page outline.  I wanted to have a vague idea of where my characters came from and where they were going.  Then, I jumped, and started writing.

I wrote for an hour each morning before I started my work-day.  At first, that hour was completed at the office, because I didn’t own a personal computer; I wrote and saved my work on floppy disks (which weren’t floppy, but…)  Later, after I bought my first computer, I wrote at home.  In either case, I knew I had precisely one hour to write.  I didn’t spend time on warm-up exercises or on experiments outside of the novel I was working on.  I didn’t answer the phone during that hour.  I didn’t permit any distractions.  (Admittedly, the distractions were substantially fewer; there was no Internet and little email to speak of.)

I also indulged in Writing Marathons, taking one week of vacation and writing for nine straight days (the week, including both weekends.)  For Marathon, I’d stock up on easy-to-prepare or no-preparation-needed food, tea, and soft drinks, and I’d write.  I’d shower when I began to disgust myself, and I’d walk around the block when my body started aching from sitting too long, but otherwise, I, um, wrote.

For regular writing or for Marathon, I’d finish each writing session by preparing for the next one.  I’d leave myself short notes in my working file, about what came next — just the barest hint of an outline of the scene to follow.

I did virtually no editing while I was writing.  Editing was a separate function, which I undertook after I’d completed a manuscript.  Even then, I did very little editing, correcting grammar and typos before saying, “Done!”


At an intermediate stage in my career, I invested a lot more energy into editing.  I would edit each chapter after I finished drafting it, reading through three or four or five times, until it had the polished feel I’d come to recognize as “done”.  My production rate slowed substantially, as I was spending about four fifths of my time editing, and only one fifth writing new words.


I invest more heavily in my outlining.  I now create a one-paragraph (approximately 150-word) outline for every chapter (between 2500 and 5000 words of text, depending on the type of novel, with romances being on the shorter end and fantasy on the longer end.)  I structure my outline using strategies from screenwriting, to emphasize the middle of the plot (where I’m weakest as a writer.)

As a full-time writer, I spend Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday writing.  I begin my writing day around 10:00, after taking care of email and other Internet-pressing matters), and I end around 6:00, taking around an hour for lunch.  On writing days, I try to avoid all promotional and marketing activities; I steer clear of social media, and I try to limit Internet breaks.) 

In short, I write.

I keep my outline open, and I type words that flesh out the story defined in the outline.  I try not to be overly critical of what I’ve written.  (Years of experience have taught me that my writing is *much* better in reality than I think it is as I’m producing it.  I just have to have faith in that experience.)  I read back over paragraphs in the natural process of writing, and I tweak occasional words or phrases, but I focus exclusively on writing, not on editing.  I save all editing for when I have completed the manuscript.  If I make a major change or realize I need to add a scene or discover that my character is doing X instead of Y, I leave myself a note in BOLD ALL CAPS at the top of the relevant file.  But I don’t go back.  I write.

At the end of each day, when I’m pulled away from whatever I’m writing, I leave myself the same sort of notes I used to do, back in my one-hour crammed-in writing sessions.  More often than not, I dash down lines of dialog, without any attribution, or I write a few directional notes in abbreviations that mean something only to me.  Also, at the end of each day, I build a to-do list for the next day, including all the major tasks I intend to accomplish.  (Even though that to-do list involves a lot of non-writing things, I include it here, because it’s one of my major tools — I *love* crossing things off my to-do list, and I’m likely to do tasks I hate, if I can cross them off when I’m done.)

I no longer do Writing Marathons, but I do occasionally go on writing retreats.  Those retreats last from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, and I follow the same basic strategy as I do for my writing days.  (Outline, write, repeat.)

On a normal work day, I draft around 5000 words.  On a writing retreat day, I usually double that.  (The hours are a bit longer, plus there’s an air of healthy competition.  Also, I’ve left my family behind when I’m on retreat, and I feel that I have to be extra productive, to warrant that separation.)

So, for a short category romance novel?  I can draft it in 10 working days.  (That’s a month, with my current schedule.)

Then, I need to revise.  I’ve found that my work is ***much*** better when I write without interruption for editing.  I often need to correct homonyms (my fast-writing brain can’t distinguish between here and hear, and I wreak havoc with they’re, there, and their…)  I usually need to tweak word echoes (using the same word in nearby sentences), and I always have to eliminate my crutch words (that, just, and though.)  But the major reworkings for tone and flow almost never happen, if I’ve been fast-writing.  (Slow writing is another story — if I’ve been interrupted or had outside obligations or whatever, I can have a much heavier editorial burden.)

My biggest challenge for fast-writing is discipline.  I find it nearly impossible to start writing each morning — there are email accounts to check, and articles to read, and a million other distractions.  Once I start writing, I long to stop — I have errands to run, chores to complete, food that calls from the kitchen.  Every time I do stop, I lose a minimum of 15 minutes; it’s very hard for me to start writing again.

I try to increase my discipline by limiting the distractions.  I make my lunch in the morning, before I start writing, so I can’t get distracted by a thousand food options.  I close my email (or try to — this is a hard one for me).  I completely forbid myself from playing some games (Tetris, Weboggle — I’m looking at you!) because I know I can’t stop.  I treat myself like the addict I am, eliminating my triggers.

My second biggest challenge is incorporating exercise into my routine.  I *try* to take a number of 10-minute walking breaks during the day.  I’m not nearly as good at this as I’d like to be — I constantly feel that I’ll lose too much time if I take that break.  Nevertheless, a short walk almost always gives me the inspiration I need to untangle a writing knot (motivation, plot points, etc.)  It’s just hard for me to remember that while I work.

So:  How do I write fast?  I outline (still relatively minimally, compared to many).  I set aside dedicated time to write.  I limit distractions while I’m writing.  I write.  And I save editing (my greatly preferred writer function!) until after the writing is done.

Questions?  Debates?  Techniques that work best for you for writing fast?




16 comments to Then and Now — Writing Fast

  • sagablessed

    Writing fast? What is this paradise you speak of? It cannot be!
    If I am focused and not distracted, I might, might I tell you, be able to type out 1,500-2,000 words a day. Of course my puppy begs to differ -the rotten twerp.
    My second biggest challenge is Facey-paste (FaceBook).
    *hangs head in shame* Hi. I’m Saga, and I am a facebook addict. But at least I don’t candycrush.

    To help me speed up, I do a timeline. I tried to pants it, and I get sidetracked when trying to figure out what happens next.
    This make your lunch ahead thing….giving that one a try. Another thing I do is select music for the scene. I don’t know why, but writing to music that reflects the general mood of the current section seems to give me focus.

    Now, I move on to pain killers, as I have a sprain in my mid-thorasic/posterior. *ow*

  • Mindy, I am in awe.
    And I had a giggle about midway reading. My “end of writing day note” added to my outline and draft one day last week was BOMB. That took about 4K words to incorporate the next day. I do a lot of the cryptic “notes to self” too.

  • Ken

    Right now, my writing “Day” is an hour, maybe an hour and a half long. It’s all “Real-Life” stuff: Family, housework, pets (more family :)), food, the dreaded day job, etc. There’s no facebook or games and there’s barely any TV or reading (I read on my lunch hour at work so that takes some of the sting out of it…). In that time, I can generate somewhere between 500-700 words. What I like-and can identify with-is the discipline that Mindy describes. You set down times to write and then you write.

    Editing while I write? That used to be a real problem for me. I don’t do it as much as I used to, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to slide past a “Hear” when I intended a “Here”.

    I don’t tend to leave notes for myself, unless it’s something *really* pivotal that I don’t think I’ll be able to keep in my head. If I do leave a note, I’ll just drop down a couple of lines and type it out. I usually read the last paragraph or so where I stopped the night before to get the rythym back so there’s no chance I’ll miss the note.

  • I agree, Mindy. So much. 😀

    I’m heavily involved in NaNo, so one of the biggest wordcount producers for me is the Word Wars we have, either in the chat room or when we gather in person. We’re all pushing each other to produce more.

    I hit 50K on Tuesday, but I’m not letting myself stop. And I’ve discovered that the best rough writing to come out of that happens when I have a basic idea of what I was planning to write. Since I hit the basic goal so early on, I’m not pushing myself to go *as* fast, and I’m taking the time to recognize what worked best so that I can use those skills outside of November. For me, having a mini-outline for each scene really helps. And leaving myself a few words for the next session definitely makes it easier.

    My challenge is the editing. Mostly because I need a lot more distraction-less time, too, which can be harder to come by sometimes. For that, the Word Wars don’t work at all.

    I may be going on a writing retreat or two next year. I’m looking forward to them. Do you find those easier to use for fresh writing, or for editing?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Here here! (?sp?) for mini-chapter outlines! I’m a slow writer (largely due to the limited-time issue, but also just slow in general), but it’s *much* easier to stay in the zone and moving forward if I’ve got my brain-storming notes right there in front of me to give me a map of what I’m doing. I also let myself count those mini-outlines and notes as part of my word-count (while they’re still sitting on the page) so that if I spend a good chunk of time brainstorming and outlining I still feel like I’ve been productive (since I have been).

  • I write about half the number of words per day that you do, but I polish as I go, which leaves me less revision to do down the road. I’m not sure that accounts for (nearly) all the difference in our outputs, but it make me feel better . . . I don’t — can’t — write with the same focus you describe here. I need to distract myself periodically with email or a few moments to surf around on the web or to play my guitar. But, and I’m sure you would agree with this, the important thing is that I have found a pace and approach that works for me, that allows me to be productive, to get done all the work I need to get done, to hit my deadlines with work in which I can take great pride. So I like where I am with my process. Very interesting to read about your approach and compare notes.

  • I love hearing how everyone writes–nice to see our differences and similarities. When I write, I am actually a fast writer, and I generally do okay with turning off my inner critic. “When I write” is the problem for me. Right now my schedule is different from day to day, and I *always* have a backlog of grading hanging over my head, so time to sit and write is hard to come by.

    As I mentioned last week, though, I could do better. I waste a lot of time. I’ve also had some real “duh” moments in the last year as I realized the goals and structure I tried to set up for my writing didn’t match my regular working style. Though I am a “young” writer, I am definitely not a young person, and over the years I’ve learned the best ways for me to be productive. Why it took me so long to apply that self-knowledge to my writing, I don’t know.

  • Thanks for this wonderful detailed account of your writing process – it’s always good for writing n00bs like myself to see examples of what others are doing. I think over time everyone will eventually discover what works best for them.

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, and the key for me has really be turning off my inner-editor. I can spend an hour trying to perfect a single paragraph if I’m not careful, and that just isn’t useful or productive. I’ve written more words in the last three weeks than I have in the previous ten years all because of that one thing: stop editing, just write. It’s unfortunate that it has taken me so long to learn that lesson, but it’s never to late to apply it.

    Are the words great? Not even close. They’re full of cliche and telling and awkward sentences and so many other awful things. But I don’t care because I’m writing.

    But I ramble. My process is fairly simple at the point because of my one goal to just write the 50,000 words. I started out with an idea for a single short scene, wrote the first day’s 1600+ words with no idea where it was going to go, then spent the evening coming up with ideas of where to go next. I repeated that for the first few days until my mind finally wrapped around an overall plot.

    At that point I wrote down some notes. I suppose that could be considered an outline, but it was just a list of things I thought needed to happen, not even in any particular order. With my background in programming I guess I would consider this my “feature list” – kind of what I need to happen but with no information as to how I’m going to get there. At the end of each writing session I’ve now been leaving a note – usually a single sentence or two – about where the next writing session needs to go, and if I don’t know I’ll just spend some time thinking about it before next time.

    I’m sure this process will be refined over time, but for now it’s working for me and my goals. At this point a huge amount of editing would be needed before I would ever let anyone look at the story. It is truly awful writing. But as I build my skills there I think that will become less of an issue.

    Sorry, guess this is turning into its own novella. 418+ words – I wonder if I can fit this into my Nano novel somehow.

  • quillet

    Thank you so much for this! There’s a lot in your process that I think I can apply to myself, including crossing things off a list. I *love* crossing things off lists. Shameful confession: I often put “no games” on my to-do list because it’s the only way I can resist my addiction to solitaire — by fighting it with my addiction to crossing things off lists!

    I also really like your pre-writing outlines. It sounds similar to what Rachel Aaron does, and it makes a lot of sense. A lot a lot!

    The biggest challenge for me, though, is resisting the urge to edit as I go. If I’d achieved the healthy balance that David seems to have, it’d be fine — but I haven’t. It slows me to a snail’s pace, so I’m going to try it your way, as outlined in your second-last paragraph (because it really appeals to me) for a while and see how it goes. Wish me luck!

  • Marlie Harris

    This comes at just the right time for me. I’m in “the middle” of my novel. It’s not a strong place to be. I love the idea of mini-outlines for each chapter because I’m finding myself getting stuck partway through a scene. I will try this option. The end notes for the next day help too! I was a pantser, I am leaning more toward outlining (ducking as things are thrown). Thanks for the candid look into your writing routine, Mindy.

  • This is a great post but I’m extremely jealous. When I can actually get out of my own way and write quickly, without editing, it comes out great and I might be able to get 1000+ words done in a day. Unfortunately, more often then not I trip myself up and end up only getting a few hundred words added. I’ll have to try adding notes at the end of each session and see if it helps jump start my writing.

  • Vyton

    Thank you, Mindy, for this detailed look at your process, and how it has evolved from then to now. Incredible discipline and production. Awesome. I am going to try outlining for my next effort, and your insights encourage me to do that. I haven’t done much editing during first drafts, but loads of it afterward. Thank you again.

  • I wrote more when I had a full-time job not only because my time was more structured but also because the time I had remaining to me was more precious.

  • Saga – Yep, it’s that addiction-type thing that’s the word-killer. It’s amazing how much time it takes to read the same messages we’ve already read a thousand times. Good luck with the timeline — and getting past the need for painkillers!

    Faith – BOMB — I love it! (And yes, that’s exactly the sort of note I leave. I’m grateful no government agents have come knocking on my door. Yet.)

    Ken – Oh, I do correct typos, as I make them. I use my backspace key a lot 🙂 I just don’t edit sentences (much) or structure (much), so that I can keep my rhythm… As for the notes on something *really* pivotal — I find that I don’t trust my memory as much as I used to. There are too many great ideas that I knew I couldn’t forget that I … forgot…

    Laura – Congrats on winning NaNo! I tend to use my retreats as new-word time, because I love having those huge blocks of hours open to me. I can edit more effectively in a one-hour block, crammed between other things. That said, I *have* used retreats for the final read-through, where I’m trying to get through all X000 words in one sitting (more or less…)

    Hepseba – ::grin:: Interesting “self-fooling” technique, about counting the planning notes! I can see how that would work!

    David – Ah, but if you’re writing half the number of words and writing twice as many days (because of my crazy every-other-day schedule), we end up at the same endpoint! And I almost didn’t type that last sentence, because it makes it sound too much like a competition. I really, truly believe that every author writes as his/her own pace. (But I also believe that for my career to go where I want it to go, I need to up that pace from where it was a few years ago!) It’s the end product that matters. And since I love reading yours, that’s all that needs to be said!

    SiSi – I, too, have always enjoyed hearing about how different writers write. I became very aware of time I wasted when I billed time as an attorney. Recording your activities in six-minute increments has that effect! (“Wow, did I really just spent .8 hours reading email? And none of it was actually work-related. Yikes!”)

    Dave – Congrats on building a process that is working for you! I love the analogy to Feature Lists. And it’s intriguing to me to read about how a “pantser” (a person who writes by the seat of his pants, without an outline) works — it runs so contrary to the way *I* work!

    Quillet – I *love* the idea of putting “No [Bad Thing]” on a list. I very well may start doing that myself! As for editing while you go – there are lots of authors who do! I’ve just found that for *my* brain it’s not the most efficient way to write!

    Marlie – Ah, the sagging middle… There are lots of posts here on Magical Words about how to shore up middles of novels. I’m glad my process post is helpful for you!

    Kevin – Really, seriously, no need for jealousy. We each work at our own pace. There are ***tons*** of famous writers who work at very deliberate paces. The reality is, if you write 250 words a day, you have a 365-page book done at the end of the year. So, really. It’s what works best for you!

    Vyton – Outlining certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found it to be increasingly important for my writing. I suspect that’s related to my increasing age and my decreasing memory 🙂

  • Wolf – That’s true for a lot of us. All of a sudden having an “empty” plate feels like an invitation to do a million other things. You’ll have to let us know if it becomes easier to settle back into writing, as you become more accustomed to the lack of day-job structure!

  • Razziecat

    Mindy, I’m jealous because you’re so organized…and because you can write full time! I can’t give up the day job, so my writing time is limited to evenings and weekends, which makes discipline even more important. I like the “road map” quality of outlines, but having too much outline spoils the “discovery” aspect of writing for me. Instead, I have notes…almost like stream-of-consciousness stuff that I refer to from time to time to remind me of my MC’s goals, obstacles, etc., as well as any new plot twists I’ve thought of that need to be worked in as I write. I’ve learned that I can’t plan things in too much detail; I need to leave room for the characters to surprise me. 😉