My writing practice plan

To meet my ambitious publishing goals for the year, I'm going to have to step up my game. By this time next year, I plan to publish four non-fiction books in the 20,000- to 30,000-word range. Last year I spent about six months working on a book to get to around 15,000 to 18,000 words, so I'm going to have to learn to work much faster.

I'm tackling this challenge from multiple angles. First of all, as with any big project, it's important to just keep plugging away consistently. I block off time each morning to work on my current book, and I make sure that I focus and put in serious effort during that time. Right now, I'm allocating three 25-minute pomodoros to book work each morning, which comes out to an hour and 15 minutes per day. I'm 100 percent focused during those blocks, and I get in some quality work.

Even at my current writing speed of around 230 words per hour, putting in more than an hour a day, seven days a week will allow me to produce about 2,000 words a week, allowing me to hit my goal with room to spare.

In addition to just putting my head down and working, I'm also taking some time to focus on my writing process and the set of skills that it requires.

I used to think of writing as a single skill, but I've come to see that it really involves several skills, and while I'm decent at a few parts of the process, I am really really bad at others.

I'm pretty good at wordcraft, editing and polishing. But I'm dismal at outlining and drafting, so I'm applying focused effort to get better at both.

In the past, if I bothered to do an outline at all, it was just a couple of sketchy bullet points—I didn't put much thought into how they would connect, as I figured I'd just work it out as I wrote. And generally I did, but I paid a steep price. I wasted a lot of time trying to work in points that were at best tangentially related to my main point. I did a lot of thrashing just to figure out what I was really trying to say. It's hard to delete a paragraph you just spent 30 minutes laboring over, so I tended to try to weave together all the thrashing into something cohesive. Ugh, it's a lousy way to work.

I still have a long way to go when it comes to outlining, but I recognize it now for the huge problem that it is. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of helpful information available for non-fiction writers; most outlining books target fiction writers and spend a lot of time talking about things like character profiles and story timelines that aren't helpful when you're working on a non-fiction project.

But I'm taking steps to improve my outlining. I bought and read several short books to get some ideas about how to approach the outlining process. I've pulled together a collection of several outlines from other technical books, an “outline swipe file,” if you will, that I turn to when I get stuck. I put together a fairly detailed outline for my book, and I'm adding to it as I dive into each new section.

Continuing to develop the outline as I progress through the book has proven to be a useful exercise. I'm starting to think of it as “reverse outlining.” While it doesn't necessary help me know what to say next, it does help me keep my writing organized, and it helps me see when I'm getting off track. And if I'm diligent on this project, I'll finish with a detailed outline that I can use as a guide for future projects.

Bottom line: Outlining is a skill, and it's one that's worth practicing.

Another area that I struggle with is working in several drafts. Left to my own devices, I'll generally struggle through my first draft of a blog post for several hours, but when I'm done with that first draft, I'm pretty much done with the post. I'm not sure how I developed the habit of working like this, but the concept of quickly writing a first draft and then polishing in subsequent drafts is completely foreign to me.

However, working in multiple drafts is much, much more efficient. Every piece of writing advice I've ever read about how to write quickly advocates this approach.

To break myself of the habit of agonizing over the first draft, I'm spending some time each morning writing a “first draft,” a blog post that I plow through as quickly as possible with no intention of ever editing or rewriting.

I'm using a site called 750words.com to do my writing. Every morning I pick something I want to write about, jot down a short bullet point outline, and just go, go, go. I write until I hit at least 750 words, and maybe keep going if I want to finish a thought. When I'm done, I copy and paste the result into this blog and hit Publish. (My apologies for the inevitable typos and half-baked thoughts.)

The goal here is to learn to just let go when I'm writing and see where I end up. I try hard to minimize the amount of editing I do as I go—ideally I don't do any, but sometimes I'll back up a sentence or two if I get off track. It's also helping me get over my tendency to obsess over posts to the point where I dread working on them because it's just so stinking painful.

I write much faster during this time. 750words.com tracks my writing speed, and I'm currently averaging 15 words a minute, which comes to around 900 words an hour. My long term goal is to get that number closer to 1500 words an hour, but for the next few weeks, I'm aiming to bump up my words-per-minute average to 17. This modest improvement would put me over 1000 words per hour.

Bottom line: Writing a fast first draft is a skill, and I'm dedicating some time to practice it in isolation.

There are other parts of my writing process that need some improvement as well, but these seem likely to give me the biggest bang for my buck right now.

anonymous guy - September 28, 2013

word count guidelines are a good idea; have you also considered word removal guidelines? in your second draft do you try to make your statements more concise? how do you find a balance between depth and brevity?

    josh - September 29, 2013

    Not yet, but that’s something I definitely need to incorporate. I tend to treat the words I’ve written as if they’re written in stone, and I’d get a lot of benefit out of an “easy come, easy go” philosophy. Right now I’m focused on the early stages of my process, but this is going on my list of things to try later.

Comments are closed