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.

Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 3

This part of the series describes a way of setting up your new Moleskine for writing, keeping it organized as you write, and preparing it for future reference after it’s been filled.

There’s not much to setting up your Moleskine. Read more of this post

Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 2

In the previous entry, I introduced the Moleskine, describing its features and plugging it to writers who are on the go or need help with organization. In this entry I explain why I think writers should get comfortable with writing in longhand—a skill that’s required if you’re to make use of what I will now call “The Moleskine method.” Read more of this post

Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 1

I always have an unwieldy number of writing projects doubtfully spinning into existence at the same time. One tool that has proven its value is the Moleskine. Read more of this post

What Good Writers Do—Best Book in This Category

To be a good writer, you must be able to select the best words, craft sentences, and build paragraphs. This is more than a matter of knowing the rules of punctuation and having a strong vocabulary. Read more of this post

If You Love Writing, Take Care of Your Better Half

I came across a bit of uncommon wisdom embedded in a list of common sense guidelines for making headway in your writing.

(4) If you have a better half living with you, make sure your better half is appeased and happy before starting.

Literature and Latte • “How to Finish Your Book on Time”

Good idea. You may not finish your book on time, but you’ll be a better writer.

So, if you love writing, take care of your better half.

If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It

You want to write but you can get going? Do the next best thing—read about writing. But make sure what you’re reading is written well. This is my list of recommendations for reading that leads to improved writing. This is kind of an annotated bibliography. I include a favorite quote from each item. Read more of this post

Acronym Crazy

There’s an acronym for everything. Well, almost everything. Acronym Finder has a database of over 200,000 acronyms, many of which serve multiple purposes. And the list is growing—TLIG. (Yes, I made that up . . . IMTU.)

The funny thing about acronyms is that they attract logophobes (people who dread words) and logophiles (people who love words). GF. (That’s “go figure.”) And since logophobes and logophiles are very different creatures, it would be unwise to adopt the acronym “LP” for both. Besides, LP is already taken.

Acronyms do come in handy. Often they are easier to say or remember than the phrases they abbreviate. Those that have a standard use are considered words in their own right, with their own entries in the main catalog of any good dictionary. The ideal acronym is pronounceable: NATO, AIDS, UNESCO. But a host of second-class acronyms aren’t pronounceable, even though we forget that they aren’t—for example, BBC, KGB, and DVD. An unpronounceable acronym achieves a kind of elite status when its written form is no longer accompanied by periods after each letter. So U.S.A. has by now been elevated to USA. Acronyms that are both pronounceable and normally written in lower case letters are truly special; they look like they’ve always been words: laser, radar, and snafu come readily to mind (if you happen to be consulting the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., for its entry on “acronym”).

Some of the most familiar acronyms stand for phrases that many people can’t recollect, or never even knew, as suggested by the following hypothetical, but easily imagined, conversation.

Ed: I work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Fred: Never heard of it.

Ed: Have you heard of NASA?

Fred: Of course. Why do you ask?

By now you’re probably wondering, “Is the word ‘acronym’ an acronym for anything?” The answer is yes, sort of. There are two reasons for the qualification. First, “acronym” is a word in its own right, and was before it was “acronymized” (which, I stipulate, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable). This is a case of reverse acronymization, you might say. Second, there isn’t much demand for the acronym “acronym.” But there are some smarty-pants uses of “acronym” as an acronym. For these, check out Acronym Finder.

Acronym Finder isn’t just fun and games. If you ever forget what “ATM” stands for, and you have an urge to close that memory loop, AF is the tool to turn to. Be careful what you ask for, though. I blithely entered my name: D-O-U-G. Turns out this is an acronym with a single definition: “Dumb Old Utility Guy.” Maybe this blog post proves the point.

[Footnote: “Acronym” is not to be confused with “anacronym.” “Anacronym” isn’t a word, but it should be. In my own private lexicon it means “a word or phrase that has become obsolete.” Some acronyms are so popular that the words or phrases they represent are, in precisely this sense, anacronyms.]

%d bloggers like this: