Breakthrough: Writing 2,000 words in less than two hours

Yesterday something inside me clicked, and I just wrote.

The last couple of weeks have been a mental struggle. I'm ripping out long-time habits and replacing them with better ones. My old writing process was broken and slow—but it was comfortable. And overcoming lifelong habits is never easy.

But I'm determined to make it work, because I want to become a high-achieving, high-producing writing machine. My old habits were holding me back.

The changes I'm making include:

  • Writing every day. I start every morning by writing 750 words on whatever I'm thinking about at the time, then dedicating three pomodoros to working on my current book project.
  • Outlining before I write. For my free writing, the outline is just a few lines, but it does have to follow a logical progression and show me how I'm going to finish. I'm more rigorous with my book, aiming to keep the outline and the text in sync as I work.
  • Writing a crappy first draft. This means little to no editing as I write.

Implementing these changes has been a major struggle, particularly the outlining and drafting disciplines. I'm treating them like disciplines to master, and every morning is my practice time. Right now I'm putting my focus on practicing skills rather than producing high volume or high quality work.

My writing time is a kata. I'm practicing the routine faithfully, pushing forward even though I don't feel like I fully “get it.” It's extremely uncomfortable—it feels foreign and forced. I'm not used to working this way.

But I recognize that these disciplines are those practiced by the masters, and achieving a level of mastery of these basics will enable me to branch out and develop my own writing process.

So for the last few weeks, I've pushed myself to keep going, even though this process is strange and probably less productive at the moment than my old way of just fumbling through my daily writing session, wondering where I was going and researching as I went.

There were a few days where I barely managed to grind out a couple of hundred words in my book, and they were truly awful. But I kept going.

Then, yesterday, something clicked. Things felt pretty normal during my 750 words. The writing I do during this time is relatively easy and fun, so that wasn't a surprise. In this time, the writing I do is is based on my experience and thoughts, and I don't have any shortage of thoughts. The words usually come easily, and I'm averaging nearly 25 words a minute, or 1,500 words an hour. This exercise has been great, as it's helped me see just how quickly I will be able to write when I learn to get out of my own way. I could see myself getting to the point where I'm able to draft a 500-word blog post in 15 minutes while maintaining a good level of quality.

But when I started working on my book, that's where the shock came. I started by picking half a dozen points from my outline to tackle, thinking even that might be a stretch but figuring it would be good to push myself. I figured I'd knock out two per pomodoro.

Instead, when I started writing, the words just came. I had a lot to say about those points in my outline, as it turns out. I knew more than I thought I did, and I just kept putting it down as it came to me. I blew through the six points I'd selected in my first pomodoro, and I kept going.

I was cooking, and I didn't want to stop to research, so I frequently fell back on a technique I've been trying to cultivate as a habit, which is inserting a Scrivener comment inline whenever I get to a missing piece of information. I've done this in the past, but not consistently. Yesterday I was pounding that keyboard shortcut over and over, and it let me keep going.

I was writing a crappy first draft, and it was going great! I was having fun, and it was really crappy writing, full of holes. But I couldn't believe how fast I was going.

By the end of my writing session, I'd written nearly 2,000 words in an hour and 45 minutes. And my pace on my book was nearly 900 words an hour, which is fast enough to let me breeze through a first draft in three weeks or so.

One thing that's helping me embrace the crappy first draft concept is the knowledge that I'm going to come back through and rewrite the entire book as a unit. In the past, I've worked on my book piecemeal. I'd write a small section and polish it, then move on to another section. Once I was “done” with a portion, I didn't plan to rework it. So I was afraid to leave holes or use clumsy, unpolished language, because I worried that I'd forget to revisit it. Now I know I'm going to rework the book as a whole, so that fear is starting to fade away.

As a result, I flew through my outline and made a mess. But I did it quickly.

It'll be interesting to see just how bad that mess is when I swing back through on my rewrite. But that's still a few weeks away.

For now, onward!