At the beginning of May 2021, I maxed out my schedule.
That may sound stressful, but it was actually a happy occasion. I began a new job I felt good about.
The sad part? I lost writing time.
Thankfully, I prepared for the shift in my routine months beforehand. If I could only work on projects during the evenings and Saturdays, I knew I’d slip into a pattern of releasing books three or more years apart—especially considering the complexity and monstrous size of my epic fantasy novels. I didn’t want to make readers (or myself!) wait that long.
So I decided that I’d compensate by cranking up my writing speed, which proved easier (and less risky) than you might expect. If you wish you could achieve the same results in your own hectic life, you can. All you need is an attitude adjustment and a few simple strategies.
1. Embrace New Possibilities
The biggest roadblock to any challenge you’re facing is your mindset. “You gotta be kidding. I could never write blazingly fast,” you tell yourself, so you don’t.
You do have limits. I can’t predict the number of words per hour you’re capable of racking up, but I am going to dare you to find out how much you’re underestimating yourself.
In The Power of Habits, author Charles Duhigg corelates belief with the ability to break old habits and form new, stronger ones. Belief is hope, and hope is strength, and strength is the willpower to accomplish goals. If you’re still in doubt, pick up a copy of Chris Fox’s book 5,000 Words an Hour for more inspiration.
Start with a five-minute sprint and don’t stop until your timer beeps. You can handle that. Then, when you see your total, you’ll realize you can whip out even more words. Keep increasing the duration until you run out of mental energy.
2. Use Dictation
If you drop into your desk chair at eight o’clock sharp as you’ve always done and attempt rapid-fire typing (making frustrated grunting noises when you slack off), you may not gain anything except a headache.
When you can’t beat the game, change the rules.
My new best friend is Dragon Anywhere, the most professional dictation app available. The price of $15 per month may seem expensive, and you can scrounge up free alternatives, but I gravitate to Dragon Anywhere for two reasons:
- The custom vocabulary. Say your heroine is a squirrel called Min-teek. You can teach Dragon Anywhere to recognize her name and spell it correctly. Some free alternatives include this feature, but the autocorrect isn’t as reliable.
- The verbal commands. If you start a sentence and then realize you need to phrase it differently, recasting it is a breeze. With other apps, the process is clunkier.
Another benefit is that the app ignores my voice after thirty seconds of silence, which gives me extra pressure to keep talking! Even though I can restart dictation with the tap of a finger, it’s a powerful psychological motivator.
Of course, dictation also has downsides that may be annoying to beginners and writers who are fussy about their prose:
- It mishears words you’ll have to backtrack to fix. Because of this, I’d recommend dictating only as much as you can clearly remember—so paragraphs, not entire chapters. Otherwise you’ll end up as confused as if you’re reading a foreign language. Since I root out mistakes and revise subpar sentences immediately after my dictation session, I don’t mind the inaccuracies.
- It offers you less time to evaluate your writing, especially if you avoid glancing at the screen. While dictating, I glide through the techniques I’ve mastered, but when I’m dealing with ones I’m not as skilled at, I struggle to concentrate and move forward. Therefore, your experience level may affect how fluidly you can express your ideas.
Dictation is intuitive to learn and boosts productivity. You can download Dragon Anywhere for desktop, but I prefer it on my phone because it lets me walk while I write. Bye-bye, sedentary days!
3. Whitewash Your Text
Is dictation awkward for you? Are you worried about waking up your napping kids or people overhearing you? Turn your text white instead. Assuming that your word processor has a white background, everything you type will become invisible. No abracadabra needed!
White text is like a huge “You shall not pass!” sign that orders your editor brain to shut up for a designated time period. You can’t fiddle with sentences you can’t see (and no peeking is allowed).
While I tried dictation, two of my friends tested out white text. Both of them exceeded my pace as well as their own. But that doesn’t mean white text is more effective than dictation. It just means different methods suit different people. Dictation is my favorite, but white text is a close second.
White text is kind on the bank account, but harder on your back and overall health (no exercising while writing).
4. Get in the Zone
Why do dictation and white text increase turnover? Sure, you can speak quicker than you can peck out a sentence on your keyboard, no question about that. But how many of you can spew out forty or fifty words a minute as you’re developing a novel? Probably none.
That’s because your fingers don’t slow you down. The flow of your thoughts does.
Your brain can enter a state where it becomes fully focused on one task. Inside that zone, you’re Superman. Outside of it, you’re more like Dug from Up. Anything will distract you: someone playing the piano in the next room, the ding of an email, a family member asking for your opinion. Oh, and wondering if you should edit instead of write. Yeah, that one’s a doozy.
Dictation and white text supercharge your brain because they build barriers between your creative corner and potential attention stealers. With white text, you can’t edit because you’re blind. With dictation (especially on a phone), you’re unlikely to stare at and reread the text every few seconds while the app is impatiently waiting for you to say the next word.
Dictation and white text technically don’t help you write faster. They help you ideate faster.
“The zone” isn’t a magical portal you can leap through at whim, though. You have to make the effort to travel there and settle in.
- If you don’t have a quiet space, use earplugs or music to drown out noise.
- Only write as long as you can comfortably manage. If you get restless after half an hour, take a break and come back.
- Develop a consistent, “sacred” writing time that everyone in your household knows to respect.
- No social media, email, or web browsing! None. Dictating on my phone reduces this temptation, but the opposite may be true for you. Apps and software like Freedom can also silence your notifications and block access to the internet.
5. Set a Timer
Now that you’re familiar with dictation and white text, add in a healthy dose of competition: race against the clock.
Whenever I get stuck and pause as I’m dictating, I love how conscious I become of the timer. I can’t stand disappointing it, so I haltingly blabber a few words. Usually my intuition guides me. The sentence is just unpolished, and I’m scared. But when I’m done, smoothing out those rough areas isn’t difficult. Without motivation from the ticking timer, I might have stalled for five minutes instead of spending a minute total pushing the words out and then editing them afterward!
Beware that you can carry this tip too far, however. I do not recommend stream-of-conscious writing. You should craft every sentence with care. But insecurity may be holding you back, and a timer can snip those restraints.
If you’re interested in customizing your race against the clock, check out the website Write or Die. Adjust the sliders to your word count goal and time limit, choose a grace period (the number of seconds you can fall behind before you’re penalized), and then click the “Ready?” button. If your keyboard stays untouched for too long, the page flashes red like a siren and makes agitating sounds that frighten you into typing faster. I’ve used Write or Die on occasion to overcome writer’s block. It can also serve as a substitute for dictation or white text.
6. Sketch Out a Basic Outline
Whether you opt for dictation, white text, or Write or Die, without a clear vision for the events that come next, you’ll hit a road block. And if you’re a pantser, you’re in danger of wandering down endless rabbit trails. The more spontaneous of a writer you are, the more time you may need to assess your decisions so that you don’t accidentally deviate from solid story structure. Yet all of these tactics discourage heavy thinking. So how do you offset that?
The solution for both plotters and pantsers is to plan ahead at least as far as the number of words they aim to write. So you need to figure out the general setting, action sequences, the slant of the dialogue, upcoming twists, your character’s obsession, and the entangled emotions. Feel free to go off script whenever inspiration strikes, but know that precious few writers manage to triple their speed and maintain quality without a barebones outline.
But If You Write Faster, Won’t You Sacrifice Quality?
Yes… Kind of.
As I mentioned above, my dictation is inferior to my normal writing. However, I can elevate it to an equivalent level with editing. Even accounting for that cleanup step, I still write at least three times faster than I did previously.
Search for the golden ratio where maximum speed and near-maximum quality meet (which, by the way, will vary widely from writer to writer). Never write so fast that you leave skill in the dust.
Although I’ve never read any fiction by Chris Fox, the author of 5,000 Words an Hour, I did skim through the opening pages of one of his books. The writing quality? Average, if you ask me. Basically professional, but not a masterpiece. However, for someone who consistently produces five thousand words an hour? Wow! I’m impressed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he could make more headway than me per hour and raise his style to something more profound.
No matter how successful your high-speed writing sessions are, don’t entirely ditch old-fashioned black text in a standard word processor. Do a mixture of both to maximize your time without becoming sloppy. Newer writers may need the slower pace to mull over their wording, story structure, and rules like “show, don’t tell.” Experienced writers may use dictation or white text for breakneck first drafts but slow down during revisions.
However, you’re unique. Experiment, experiment, experiment to discover your sweet spot.
So far, my record is 1,884 words per hour (though it was only a short sprint, not a whole hour).
Who’s going to beat me? Come on! Tap those keys and then report how you did.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. To read his books, including one free one, follow him at daeuslamb.com
Thank you for the article, Daeus! I recently discovered dictation myself (though I use Google Docs, which is astoundingly robust for a free solution and even remembers my characters’ weird names most of the time). And very cool mention of Write or Die. I rarely see people talk about it, but it’s helped me a ton.
I’m surprised to hear you say dictation doesn’t actually make you write faster. I think a lot faster than I can type and I’m pretty sure that goes for most people. Dictation lets me write just about as fast as I can think, and my average words per hour is 5200, and can do it with only brief water breaks in between fifteen-minute sprints, while when I type by hand, my average is around 2400, and I need to take much longer hand-stretching breaks.
Well…I do write a little faster with dictation. However, my thoughts themselves are protracted and so often slow. I do hold out hope I could even speed that up too with practice though. Maybe sometime I’ll have to use writer or die and slowly bump up the words count speed till I break past my barriers.
Great ideas! I’ve really been considering dictation more and more. My issues are not having practiced dictation enough and my being able to sneak drafting in on my phone via the Scrivener app.
Do you have ideas for speeding up the revision process? I’ve been revising on paper, but I’m wondering if I should just dive into the scenes on the screen. My editing brain just gravitates toward paper.
Nothing wrong with liking paper! It’s definitely refreshing.
I find screens way, way faster though. If I was that attached to paper, I would probably read through the draft on paper, take notes, then make the edits on my screen. It would only work for larger scale edits. Fixing lots of little tiny thing would take too much effort on the note taking department.
You can use any of these techniques to speed up rewrites or heavy revisions. They don’t particularly help with fine-tuned surgery however.
Another way to speed up revisions is to send your story to beta readers in chunks. Once you get feedback back on chunk one, fix it up, then send it off to another beta reader or several. That way you can go through a couple drafts faster.
Also, if your beta readers or editors leave tracked changes (suggestions in google docs,) Microsoft word is by far the fastest way to process them. You can select a whole page of suggested edits and accept them all at once. It’s saved me loads of time.
Wow, Daeus! Great advice.
Nano is going to be a breeze this year! LOL! 😉
Oh my goodness, I freeze up and go blank just imagining adding MORE stress, pressure, limits, and distraction through timer, dictation, or Write or Die (the very notion of that last makes me shudder). That would be the exact opposite of helpful for me, and white text would keep me from maintaining a stream of thought through the inevitable side-tracks my mind takes for a few seconds here and there. The most productive I’ve ever been in writing was the years when I had all day by myself, alone in my own quiet environment without external distraction or imposition–that allowed me to fully sink into my imagination and completely disconnect from the outside world. The more pressure/distraction there is from outside–no matter who imposes it or how–the worse I do. A matter of personality type, I figure, and the different ways brains work (you really sound ENTJ 😉 ). Some people work even better when under pressure, and the suggestions in this article would be awesome for them. I’m the opposite, unfortunately, and the times I’ve tried a timer have only pushed a small amount of junk onto the page, all of which got scrapped because it really was just garbage that I squeezed out because I “had to.” The best I can do nowadays, with young kids, is stay up stupid late at night after everyone else is in bed, when it’s finally SILENT and no one is needing anything, and try to sink into my mind and get something out before I’m exhausted. Some days I focus in and whip out an entire chapter and love it, and might even get an edit in on it before bed, all within 2-3 hours. Most days nothing happens because I’m still too scattered and entangled in the pressures of the real world, unable to zone in and visualize.
Isolation/lack of distraction is at least as powerful as anything I mentioned!
Definitely play around to see what works for you. No one system works for everybody. Still though, I think you might give dictation a try at some point. Not only does it help you type faster, but the point of it is to help you release the distractions in your mind and get in the zone.
I used to be /highly/ skeptical of writing faster myself, because I wanted quality over quantity. I still do, but I realized that mindset has its own pitfall. You too easily wander in your daydreams. I often would be 90% certain I knew what to write, but I would just dally, thinking it through way too much to make sure. I don’t use any of these strategies to write faster than I can process. I use them to force myself to write fast enough I have no time to process /useless/ thoughts/distractions.
Just some thoughts.
I’m an ENFJ by the way. 😉
After reading this article I decided to test my writing speed. I sat down and typed for 15 minutes straight and got 624 words, which is the equivalent of 2,496 per hour or 40 per minute. I don’t know if that can be improved, but I’ll try. 😁 thanks for the tips!