Three Secrets to Writing Fast

I was once sitting at a meeting where an interesting question came up, so when I got back to my office, I wrote a blog post about it, and it was up an hour later.

“How did you get that up there so fast?” someone else from the meeting asked.

“Well, I had to drive back to the office first,” I said.

typingMy friend thought I was being a smartass, but that’s actually how and why I was able to write that blog post.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can write most things very fast. It always seems to surprise people, but it’s actually not that hard. Here are my three secrets (plus one bonus) to writing fast:

1. Write when you’re not in front of the computer

Remember, writing is not an activity you must perform with a laptop computer. That’s typing. Writing is the act of putting the right words into the right order.

That means you can write anywhere, at any time. I write when I’m in the car. I think of the basic ideas of my piece, how I want to lay it out, and any points I want to make. The blog post I mentioned earlier was one I was actually able to write in 30 minutes, because I thought about it for the entire 15 minute trip in my car.

You can write in the car, in the shower, going for a walk, or any other time you don’t have to engage the language portion of your brain somewhere else. That means you shouldn’t do it when you’re having a conversation, watching TV, or listening to talk radio.

I wrote this blog post in my car on a recent road trip.

2. Sketch out basic notes

Whenever I have a cool idea, it will often get stuck in my brain, and won’t let me work on anything else. So I write it down in my notebook, which frees it from my head, letting me work on something else. Once I do this, it also reboots my brain so I can start sketching out that idea a little better.

If I want to work on an idea for an article or post, I write down the three main points I want to make, and then think about it in the car. With that tiny bit of pen-and-paper work, I open up any logjams in my head, and I can think about the piece a lot more effectively.

3. Write like you talk

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

Do you talk to yourself in your mind? Do you have an inner monologue going in your head? (Don’t lie, I know you do.)

What tone does it take? If you’re like most people, it’s conversational. You talk like you, well, talk.

And yet, most people try to write very formally, using big words and lo-o-o-ong sentences. They ignore their inner monologue, and channel their Inner Professor. As a result, it takes three times longer than it should to write something. They think of the word they would have used, and then think of the bigger, “smarter” word instead. Since they’re not used to writing that way, or even speaking that way, it slows them down.

If you want to write fast, write like you talk. Get your inner monologue to sound more like your public speaking voice, using the language you use in real life (assuming you’re not a chronic cusser). Imagine speaking your words out loud, as if you were giving a speech to a room full of your friends and colleagues.

After a while, you’ll be able to sync your speaking voice and your writing voice, and you’ll write down what your inner monologue is saying, exactly as it’s being said. This will save you all kinds of time from trying to use your formal writing voice when that’s something you should have left behind when you graduated from college.

BONUS: Learn how to type fast

This may seem hardly worth mentioning, but once you start doing these other things, you’ll find that you may not be able to type fast enough to keep up with your brain. If you’re still typing with two or three fingers, and cannot touch type, learn it.

(Note: If you’re still battling with the traditional QWERTY keyboard and are clocking in at 50 words per minute, consider switching to a Dvorak keyboard. I still use the QWERTY, because I can type 90 wpm; Randy Cassingham says that if you can type that fast, you won’t be any faster on the Dvorak. But if you’re running at half that speed, take a few weeks to learn the new keyboard, and you’ll find you’re blazing fast.)

Otherwise, what will happen is that you’ll find your fingers are moving slower than your brain, which means your brain will not only outrun your words, but you’ll find that you’re forgetting what you were going to say. You’ll have to stop and try to remember what it was, which is a big drag on productivity.

While there are plenty of writers who still prefer to write with a pen on a notebook or note pad, because they like to “be in the moment,” I have retrained my brain over the years to function better in front of a keyboard. This is where I do my best work. And it saves me plenty of time to be in the moment for other things later on.

Typing is an Important Writing Skill

I learned something interesting from a musician friend of mine last night. According to Rodney Thomas, a professional musician and my good friend from high school, when he plays piano, for the most part, his left hand runs on auto pilot. He can’t think about his left hand while he concentrates on his right hand. And at times, he has to switch his right hand to auto pilot so he can focus on his left for a few minutes.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. When we’re doing something multi-handed like playing piano or typing, our hands operate differently from each other. Our left hand truly does not know what our right hand is doing. We run on auto pilot for certain things.

Typewriter keys

I learned to type on one of these. Now I want another one.

As a writer, my auto pilot activity is typing.

It sounds weird, but I think good writers are also good typists. We should be writing so much that we don’t think about our typing, we think about the words that are coming out of our brains. The people who can’t type are struggling to write well, because their focus is on their hands and not their words.

For other good writers, they refuse to type anything because they don’t know how, so they write things long hand on legal tablets. They recognize that their typing is going to get in the way of their writing.

I’ve been typing for so long — since Mr. Carey’s Typing 1 class in 1983 — that I am a touch typist. I can turn my head and pay attention to a conversation. I can close my eyes and lean my head back. I can type right-handed while I hold a coffee cup in my left hand. And I have, on more than one occasion, started to fall asleep and continue typing for three or four sentences. It freaks my family out when I do that.

What’s weird is that I have such strong muscle memory for the way certain words are typed that if I misspell something or I transpose two letters, I can tell. My fingers move out of order and I can tell it as soon as I happen. That’s when I turn away from the conversation, or lift my head and open my eyes to fix the error.

As odd as it sounds, a good writing skill to practice is typing. The better you type, the less you have to concentrate on typing. The less you have to concentrate in typing, the more you can concentrate on the words.

So if you can’t type, start focusing on whatever you need to do to be a better typist. As you master that important-but-mindless skill, you’ll be able to focus on your writing.

Photo credit: sasa.mutic (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Why You Should Put One Space After a Period, not Two

I raised a bit of a Twitter ruckus this morning, when I posted the following tweet:

# Attention Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: Here in the 21st century, we put one space after a period, not 2. That’s a typewriter thing.

It was just a random thought. Nothing sparked it, nothing set it off. I just like to post little pithy commenth every tho often.

I started getting replies from people I had never met, so I ran over to Twitterfallto see what was going on. Apparently, my little off-the-cuff random comment was sparking some serious conversation in Oregon, Texas, Massachusetts, and even England and Australia.

Typewriter keyboard

If you're not using one of these, you only need one space after a period.

Oopsie. People really like their two spaces after a period. That’s fine. It’s not wrong to do it, it’s just not necessary.

The rule came from our old typing classes, where we were told to use two spaces after a period. Younger people (i.e. punks and whippersnappers who never had to use a real typewriter) learned the two space rule from people who. . . learned to type on typewriters. (I learned from Mr. Carey, Typing 1 teacher, Muncie Central H.S., in 1983.)

According to Wikipedia, this double-spacing is sometimes called English spacing, although since the mid-1990s, it’s been called French spacing. (Insert your own joke about the French, cheese, and surrendering here.)

The reason for the two spaces is because typewriters use a fixed width font. That is, all letters were the same fixed width. The letters ‘i’ and ‘l’ take up the same space as the letter ‘m.’ To set the sentences apart from each other and make them easier to read, we used two spaces. This practice actually hearkens back to the typesetting days, when typesetters had to hand place each character and punctuation mark. They just stuck in a double space and the habit carried forward.

But unless you use Courier on your computer, today’s software programs use a variable width font like Arial and Times New Roman, which means the letter ‘i’ and ‘l’ take up a minimum amount of space, while the ‘m’ uses more. In fact, an ‘l’ is almost one-third the size of an ‘m.’ Take a look:


In addition to this, the computer jams the period in tight against the last letter in a sentence, which creates a little extra space on the other side. If you could measure it, it would be microns of a difference, but the space looks bigger because of how the period is placed against that last letter.

The world is ignoring that second space

If you create websites, you’ll find that html will ignore any space after the first space. (And I know, I know, there’s a whole other controversy about whether it’s website, web site, or even Web site. That’s for a different post.)

Plus, there are some cases, like using Twitter or other micro-blogging services, when every character counts, you don’t want to waste a character on an extra space.

The net result of this variable width is that sentences are easier to read, which means the extra space is not necessary. Again, not wrong, just not necessary. (Okay, maybe a little wrong.)

This issue is not without its passionate controversy.

There were plenty of Twitterers who said I could have their extra space when I pried it from their cold, dead fingers. They learned to type on a typewriter, and are trying to break 30 – 40+ years of habit (it took me two weeks to quit doing it, and I had only been typing for 15 years at the time).

On the other hand, Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent said clients would count spaces in Word documents and send them back for revision if he didn’t use two spaces. Needless to say, he hated these clients.

So who’s wrong, and who’s right? Nobody, although I’m claiming moral superiority in this matter. I salute the traditionalists who want to stick with two spaces after a period. I love tradition and doing things old school (I still listen to radio theater). But I also see the need for ease of use, and eliminating extra keystrokes. And really, that’s what it’s all about.

(I’d be interested to see if someone has ever figure out what the saved spaces translates into for saved disk space.)

So what about you? Are you a single spacer or a double spacer? Why? If you’re a double, would you ever consider switching to single? Why not?

A little more about it from the Chicago Manual of Style:

The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was). But introducing two spaces after the period causes problems: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation); (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences); and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.