The Quick Write for the Uptight—Speed-Drafting with a Purpose

IMG_4356This morning I wrote a 700-page document that will be part of a book I’m working on. I wrote quick, as the ideas kept flowing, one point leading to another. When this happens, digression inevitably happens. During a quick-write, I manage that by putting the detour in brackets and pressing on. I stop when the flow dries up, or something more urgent claims my time. How this works depends on the tool I’m using. Sometimes it’s a basic analog option: a page of paper. This may be a loose page of typing paper or a page in a Moleskine notebook. Sometimes I use an iOS app, like Notability. There are times when I write directly into an email message from my iPhone and then send it to myself. On my laptop, I’m most likely to use Scrivener. I almost never use a conventional word processor, especially Microsoft Word. If my scribblings are in notes to myself sent to my email box, I’ll try to grab a few minutes as soon as possible to copy and paste them into something more permanent and better organized among my other work on the project. I may paste them into MS Word, or Apple Pages (which I like better), or Scrivener (which is where I want them to end up anyway). If my quick-write is on paper, I can scan it and copy the PDF file over into Scrivener. What I use for speed-drafting depends on two things. First, and most basically, convenience. What do I have to work with in the moment? What I’m addressing in this post is, after all, in-the-moment writing. I’m not talking about rough drafts that fit into scheduled writing time. I’m talking about spontaneous writing. I’m talking about writing that happens in your head when you aren’t expecting it. I’m talking about ready-made writing that presses you with urgency at the most inconvenient times. Second, my ever-present intention to be prepared for making the most of these speed-write occasions with the greatest convenience. That means having a plan. Not a detailed plan. Just something as simple as keeping the tools I use close to hand. I almost always have my iPad handy. And I do always have my iPhone with me. But in my truck I have 3 x 5 index cards, spiral-bound so they don’t take flight when I swerve to avoid a driver texting her boyfriend. If I’m carrying a daypack or messenger bag, I have a few other conveniences ready: pens and mechanical pencils, a book I’m reading, and a sheef of blank typing paper. Or maybe a Moleskine notebook. I’m partial to the Moleskine tradition. So I’m pretty much ready for anything anytime, even if it’s just reaching for my smart phone. So far, what I’ve said only speaks to the need for readiness and the most basic things to keep in mind. But now comes the trickier question: How do I do it? That is, how does the writing itself actually proceed and get processed? On this I follow two guiding principles. I’m including them here for two reasons. The first is that they may be helpful to someone else. But there’s also my desire to improve my writing workflow, and someone reading this may have a tweak to suggest in the comments section of this post. Your suggestions are welcome! Principle #1: Write quickly first, as thoughts and provisional words and word order come to mind. This principle is not ground-breaking news that I’ve received from some Oracle. It’s common sense and it’s been said before. But keep in mind, you’re not practicing your writing using someone else’s prompt. In this scenario, the prompt comes from your own mind. Usually it’s related to a project you’re working on, something you’ve been thinking and writing about already. Maybe you haven’t gotten out of bed yet. At this moment, something has happened to set off a chain reaction of thoughts ready for the page. The time is now and you won’t get them back. Not in this form, anyway, and maybe not ever with as much ease and clarity. Principle #2: Later, but not too much later—maybe that day or the next—re-read what you’ve written and make simple improvements. The point is not to wait for some kind of breathing spell to transpire so that things percolate and you can write to perfection. The point is that it usually won’t be convenient to do a major re-write. The aim is to re-read immediately following your spontaneous speed-writing session. You really do want to get to this as soon as you can. But at this stage you still must be careful not to labor over what you’ve written. That will come later. The goal for the time being is to clean up what you were in a rush to write when the words were coming at you fast and furious. This is an initial straightening up, akin to the sort of thing you might do when you’re expecting company in the next few minutes. It’s the second principle that isn’t as well-understood or routinely practiced. So why is Principle #2 so important? It comes down to this: Since you want to follow up your quick-write using Principle #2 as soon as possible, the timing still might not be all that convenient, even for this. You may only have a few moments available. But in the typical case, where you’ve written only a few hundred words, a few moments is all you’ll need for this intermediate step in your writing workflow. But you make those moments count. You press out the most obvious wrinkles, you unkink the knotted branches, you replace a word or phrase with a better one, but only if it immediately comes to mind. While you’re busy ironing out the most conspicuous bits, there may be some actual clothes ironing waiting to be done—before that company arrives in the next quarter hour! Principle #2 is counsel for when the earliest opportunity to edit or re-write presents itself. Some clarifying points about Principle #2:

  • This is not a leisurely activity. You don’t have to carve out large chunks of time for it. You’re getting to it as soon as possible, and this may mean that you don’t have the time just then to massage the piece into perfection.
  • This is not a burdensome activity. It won’t take long. All you need is a few minutes to re-read and make the most obvious changes. What we’re talking about goes quickly and can fit into a relentlessly fast-paced schedule.
  • This is not a substitute for conventional re-writing and editing. Think of it as fast editing. Real re-writing comes later, when you can put it all into proper context alongside other writing you’ve done on the same project.
  • This is not more writing. You’re sticking strictly to what you already have on the page. You’re not making the piece longer or shorter, unless an addition or subtraction strikes you immediately and with irresistible force.

There are two residual benefits:

  • It’s easy and natural, almost effortless.
  • It prepares the way for the work of re-writing and editing, and makes that work easier to get to and easier to do.

So it keeps the writing momentum going. You’re a writer. You’re a writer who writes. You’re a writer who writes when it doesn’t feel like writing. You’re a writer who writes when it doesn’t feel like writing because it happens when you aren’t even trying.

* * *

So what about that 700-page thing I wrote this morning? Well, it happened because of something I was thinking and reading about last night. It led to other things, this post, for example, which itself exceeds 1300 words. And in between the two, because of a text message I received from a friend, I wrote another 500-word post that I’ll publish later. So that makes 2500 words of scratch in various degrees of publicly consumable material. Even I’m surprised by this.

But there’s one last point I want to stress—the simple touching up recommended in Principle #2 sometimes does result in a ready-for publication piece, especially if it’s relatively brief and self-contained. Like this post.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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