I’ve spent most of my last two years writing educational content.
And there were times where I would reach 10,000+ words/day of extremely clear, precise technical content (covering economics, maths and cognitive science).
I was under pressure to meet some very tight deadlines but the content I was writing still had to be engaging and clear enough for any 16-year-old student to stay interested till the end and understand every single sentence.
I had to learn how to write FAST. Like really, really fast. Like 10,000+ words/day fast.
I couldn’t risk losing a single afternoon to writer’s block or procrastination. And in this article, I’ll be sharing the writing process and techniques I used to make sure that didn’t happen – the same writing process that got me to 10,000+ words/day.
My writing process
There are just 4 over-arching steps:
- Get it out!
- Flesh it out
- Make it better
First, research the topic you plan to write about. Then, once you’ve got enough good ideas swirling around to form a skeletal plan of your article, get it out! Get your plan out onto a piece of paper. Then start fleshing it out…and finally, make it better.
Now, let’s get to the details.
There are a few different ways I like to research a topic, that range in thoroughness:
1. Youtube videos & articles
If you already know a lot about your subject or it’s a subject that doesn’t require that much research (e.g. your own personal experience getting a job), watching a few youtube videos and skim-reading the most popular articles that pop up on Google will be enough.
Because I already know the subject, I don’t need to pay super-close attention to the content, I’m just listening out for any unique or clever approaches/phrases/angles others have used, so I can copy/be inspired by them, or get a feel for what works/what doesn’t – reading a bad article still provides useful information: i.e. this format/structure sucks, avoid.
2. In-depth articles, podcasts & books
If I need to carry out more thorough research, I’ll move up along the thoroughness scale to more in-depth articles, podcasts and even full books.
Books can be tricky because of all the filler content authors have to cook up to pad out a 200-page book, covering one topic. My article on how to read effectively (coming soon) deals with this issue.
3. MOOCs & Academic papers
If I still need to learn more about the subject, I’ll sign up to a MOOC, like Barbara Oakleys’ Learning How To Learn course on Coursera, which is where I got a bunch of ideas for this article.
I’ll also start digging around academic papers on Pub Med or Google Scholar, scanning the abstracts for anything that might be useful before skimming through the paper for its conclusions (and experimental design to check it’s legit or the research is dodgy – this article explains what to look for).
I’ll pool all the notes I make from the above resources into one big document which I can sort through and structure in step 2.
2. Get it out!
I’ve now got enough interesting ideas to start writing, but it’s a mess.
And this is where a lot of writers get sucked into paralysis by analysis: thinking and overthinking the right structure, the best way to start, what to cut and what to keep. Thoughts swirl and emulsify inside the brain but no progress actually gets made.
I used to get sucked into this wormhole, too – and often I didn’t know if I’d make it out alive.
I’d doubt myself, habitually edit and re-edit every sentence after writing, and 8 hours later I’d have a few paragraphs written at best.
Turns out I was trying to multi-task: I was trying to write and edit at the same time.
But writing and editing are completely different jobs and require completely different parts of the brain.
Writing is creative and expressive. Editing is ruthless and analytical.
By trying to do both writing and editing at the same time I was constantly switching tasks and hence getting nothing done. I’d write a few words, then edit the grammar and vocabulary, then write a few more, then edit again, then stamp down a full stop…then re-edit the entire sentence.
It was an extremely slow process.
So now I keep the two jobs separate: write everything first, then edit everything later.
But resisting the temptation to edit-as-you-write is not easy. Even writing this sentence, I’m desperately fighting the urge to go back and edit what I’ve just written till it’s perfect.
To get round this nasty edit-as-you-write proclivity, I came up with the 60-second test.
I give myself 60 seconds on a timer to write out my entire article (in its essence). I have to abbreviate, bullet point, use slang etc. to get it out but after 60 seconds I have my first draft.
(60 seconds is an arbitrary length of time that fits the length of content I’m writing, but more/less time might be more suitable for you.)
Here’s the 60 second test I wrote for this article (woah, meta):
- days where i wrote 10,000 words in a day extremely clear technical content
- Ironically: faster you write > clearer your writing
- 60 second test (some time constraint )
- Get out of your ducking head
- Analysis paralysis
- Say fuck a lot
- now go back and flesh out your plan
- Add paragraphs and shit
- Can turn your screen off / editor and writer problem
The above is not publishable, but I now have a very rough first draft and the essence of the article out on a page.
3. Flesh it out
Next I need to flesh out my bullet point plan into something closer to a full article.
I start by going back through my plan, and converting each bullet point into a more detailed sentence; then go back again, and convert each sentence into a fuller, more enriched paragraph.
The temptation to edit-as-I-write can get very difficult to ignore here.
So I often turn my screen off while writing.
This makes it impossible to edit, all I can do was keep on typing, getting out all the ideas (the good, the bad and the ugly) onto a page for step 4.
It sounds crazy, but writing with the screen off can be extremely liberating. It shuts up your brain’s internal editor and leaves you free to write and write and write.
4. Make it better
Finally, with my article fully fleshed out, I turn my screen back on, and start editing (making it better!)
I go back to the start, read it back to myself, cut out clunky language, remove clunky paragraphs, tweak the language…and voila, I have a fully-fledged article ready to go!
So, stop wasting time trying to get every sentence syllable-perfect the first time you write something out.
It’s not going to happen.
Instead of getting sucked into analysis paralysis and spending days stuck inside your own head, editing and re-editing every paragraph, word and letter…just get it out!
Take the ideas from your research, and use time pressure (like the 60 seconds test) to force them out onto a page in a quick bullet-point plan!
After that, take each bullet point and flesh it out (with your screen off to prevent editing-as-you-write) into a more detailed sentence or paragraph.
Once your article’s all fleshed out, only then should you move onto editing (making it better).
PS: this article cook me 29 minutes and 43 seconds to write.