How/can I learn to write and think faster?
December 10, 2008 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Can I learn how to write and think faster? Any tips you'd suggest?

My job entails a lot of technical writing, memos, emails, and published writing about technical subjects. I enjoy it, and (ironically) I have been told I'm a good writer, but I am very, very slow at it. It's like my head feels cloudy, and I don't come up with the words fast enough, either in my head, or on the paper/screen. One possible complicating factor is that I've had and been treated for clinical depression for about 10 years now, and recent past ADHD testing led to a major depression diagnosis as well. (as in the depression is interfering with my working memory, rather than ADD) Getting un-depressed would be a good start, but in case it's not just that, I'd like to work on improving my work and writing speed.

Has anyone had any luck in improving their speed and efficiency in a similar situation, particularly in jobs involving writing? Can I practice and get faster?

Honestly, this isn't likely just a work only thing. I feel like I take long to write internet comments, personal emails, and such, too. As a data point, I checked the time in my browser history to see when when I visited this page, and it was 15 mins after the hour. I'm hitting Preview at: 37 mins after the hour.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I think you can practice and get faster. I'm guessing there are programs that offer exercises to help with this kind of problem.

But here's a suggestion to try something on your own: 22 minutes to write that question is a long time, obviously. If you and I were having a beer, and you asked me that question, I assume you could express yourself perfectly, in pretty much the same words, in about one minute. So try this, first on non-work related stuff: Pick a topic to write about, for example, "Instructions for brushing your teeth." Now imagine you're telling this to your buddy over a beer, and just explain verbally how to brush your teeth, step by step. Don't write anything. Pick another topic, do this a couple times a day. Repeat some of the topics if you feel like you're stumbling. You can do it while you're doing something else, like driving, brushing your teeth, or whatever. Get so you can do these simple statements quickly, smoothly, and confidently. After a week or 10 days, after the imaginary conversational statement, immediately sit down and start typing. Try to capture exactly the same words you spoke to yourself, and practice until you can basically do this as fast as you can type. Don't worry about the results or the time it takes, just do this for another 10 days. By this time, you really should be able to type up instructions for brushing your teeth, or whatever, in a couple of minutes. Finally, start applying this process to your writing at work--think about what you need to write, do an in-your-head verbal exercise to get the flow of it, type it up quickly, and then go back and edit, improve wording, whatever.
posted by beagle at 7:21 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have four suggestions:

1. For longer things, I find that I'll write faster if I outline what I'm going to write first. Even if it's not super-detailed, the outline helps because I only have to think about putting words down that follow the roadmap, not writing AND creating a structure.

2. For shorter things like emails, I just don't really care if they're perfect little pieces of writing, I just care if they get the job done. That'll free you to just pound them out.

3. For more informal things, I like to use lists (like this one) and bullet points and stuff like that. I find it's better for the reader and easier for me to pound out writing without worrying about structure as much.

4. Have you tried writing under a time limit? Get a kitchen timer and give yourself some amount of time to write something. Pretend it's an exam. If I have three hours to write something, I will just fly and be amazed at how much gets on paper.

At a higher level of generality, the thing that's helped me the most is separating writing and editing. Sometimes I'll get so worried about, eh, this writing sounds lame, I can't make this sentence look good, blah blah blah, that I spend forever sitting there thinking about the littlest things. If you separate out writing and editing, then you're free to write whatever, no matter how bad, because you'll be fixing it later during editing.

Hope this helps!
posted by lockestockbarrel at 7:23 AM on December 10, 2008

If you have more work to do and tight deadlines, you will write faster.
If you take a "D is for Done" attitude towards writing (that is, if getting it done is more important than the level of quality, so long as you meet a pretty low minimum bar), you will write faster.
If you learn to start writing at any point in the narrative and fill in blanks later, as opposed to writing linearly from beginning to end, you will write faster.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:26 AM on December 10, 2008

I would give you tips to write faster...but I think one of the reasons why you've been called a "good" writer is because you take your time writing....yes you can write faster....but why take the hit in quality?
posted by The1andonly at 8:01 AM on December 10, 2008

I have this issue. A la crazycanuck, I used this timer with the time countdown in the title that a mefite was nice enough to create, to impose artificial deadlines and churn out work. When I use it, I run it in its own window behind my other windows.
posted by cashman at 8:29 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think anti-depressants will probably help. They've made me feel a lot sharper.
posted by desjardins at 8:37 AM on December 10, 2008

I write a lot. On an average day, I'd bang out 1500 words in a couple of hours every afternoon. I'd say I'm a pretty fast writer. But I definitely haven't always been. There are a stack of things I've done (and do) to write faster. Maybe some of them will work for you, maybe not.

Caveat: the thing that helps me write fast, most, is that I have short, inflexible deadlines and a serious incentive to meet my deadlines. That is, if I do not meet the deadlines I will not have a job. It's like writing with a rifle to your head. You just. Do. It. Unless you're under similar pressure, I'm not sure how useful these tips will be.

Having said that...
1. You mention feeling fuzzy. I know if I am tired, if I eat badly, if I drink too much, or not enough coffee, if I pig out on pastry and get a sugar crash, if I have a headache and take coedine based pills - I am on the slow track for writing. So, as much as I possibly can, I avoid those things when I have to write. Having a load of healthy snacks (nuts, fruit, loads of water to drink) and taking a vitamin B pill with breakfast have really helped me concentrate and therefore, write faster.

2. Plan what you write. Sometimes I write without thinking, or plan as I write, but if it's anything substantial, I'll scribble down (or type at the top of what I'm writing) three dot points that I want to get a across. And then I write to that. Saves time stuffing about wondering ''What am I saaaaying here?'.

3. Separate writing and editing. After I scribble out my points I just launch into whatever I'm writing and write it. If I can't think of exactly the right word for something, I'll put **** in its place and finish the sentence. Keep on keeping on until the end. Then go back and fix it up.

4. Chill out. It doesn't have to be perfect. If I'm wasting time trying to create the most beautiful piece of writing in the world, ever, and my deadline is looming I'll stop myself and tell myself: ''Hey. It doesn't have to be art, it just has to be done, readable and competent.'' And that takes some of the pressure off, which sort of removes a block, and then I can keep going - faster.

5. Recognise that good writing takes time. Or at least time editing and polishing and rewriting. That is not time wasted. Seriously, there is a trade off between speed and awesomeness. You want a balance. I mean, I can write 250 words in about 15 minutes. They are not the same 250 words I would write in 45 minutes. The first 250 are clear and readable and will get across whatever information I'm trying to convy. But the second 250 would be (I'd like to think, anyway) a much better read.

6. I think the best advice I ever got about writing fast was something along the lines of writing being a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger and faster you get. So, write a lot, in testing conditions, to deadline, and you will eventually be a better, faster writer.
posted by t0astie at 3:50 PM on December 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh and re point 5. I wrote that post in about 15 minutes and reading it back, just found a typo. No doubt there are more. See?!
posted by t0astie at 3:51 PM on December 10, 2008

Just some random ideas about this: 1) I often ask myself, during writing and other activities, "is this important?" --lest I have the tendency to slip off into a daydream. 2) If I'm writing something formal and can't think of how to say it, I just go with how I'd say it on the street. 3) When stuck I'll often jump out of my chair and circle the room --this is so much better than mousing away over to the news 4) Not everything must be done right now. One thing and one thing only at a time. The smaller stuff gets time limits. If I don't finish in that time then alt-f - save as... and come back to it. 5) I think of my audience but try not to fear my audience.

There is nothing wrong with you (us).
posted by ezekieldas at 7:01 AM on December 12, 2008

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