The simple dream of most writers is being able to write more. And it’s not only writing more, it’s writing effortlessly.
But it's not just authors or professional writers who dream of this. These days, a lot of marketing roles will require you to dust off your writing skills at one point or another. And there’s nothing worse than simply not being able to write -- especially when the pressure of a deadline is looming over your head.
Yes, we’ve all been there.
That's why this past January I decided that I was done with crawling over the finish line with my work in hand. I was done with the pressure. I knew there was a better way to write.
So I set out to find some answers. Here's what I learned in the process ...
How to Become a More Productive Writer: 7 Helpful Tips
1) Find the right tools.
My immediate goal was to help shape my productivity and measure my writing. To do so, I started to treat my computer like a toolbox. Every application that I called on had the ability to influence my performance -- both for better and for worse.
To measure my productivity, I started using a time management tool called RescueTime.
I do all of my writing in Google Docs and RescueTime gives me a weekly report of the amount of hours I’ve spent using Google Docs. Simply put, the more time spent in Google Docs, the more words I am likely to write.
The tool also makes it easy to set goals, track your progress, and understand your productivity patterns -- which proved helpful during this process.
Similar to RescueTime, Grammarly-- a writing-enhancement platform -- will give you a report detailing the number of words you've written in a given week. For this reason, I started using the tool to measure my progress.
Here’s a sample of the data I collected on my journey to improve my writing:
When I was feeling like I couldn't write another word, I pulled up this data to remind myself of how far I'd come. I could write another word. In fact, I could probably write a couple thousand more words if I pushed myself.
2) Find your biological prime time.
Brainpicking’s "writer’s timetable" clearly illustrates the correlation between writers' wake-up times and their level of productivity. After checking this out, I decided that I wanted to capture something similar: a set time of the day to focus on writing.
To do this, I knew that I needed to first figure out when my optimum output would be -- in terms of both quality and quantity. For instance, it’s no good waking up early to write something if your best work comes out a night -- or vice versa.
So how do you figure out where you stand? Quite simply, you just run some productivity tests on yourself. To do so, I picked up some tips from productivity expert Chris Bailey. In this blog post, Bailey outlines a process for finding your "biological prime time" -- a term coined by Sam Carpenter in his book Work the System.
He explains how he kept track of his energy, focus, and motivation levels for 21 days straight. Here's a look at what he saw:
Image Credit: A Life of Productivity
After about a month of duplicating this type of testing on myself, I found that my productivity arch would run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and my best work would normally come out between 10:00 a.m. - 12:00. p.m.
Now that I had this information, I could use this daily window to focus on my writing when it mattered most. Additionally, knowing this helped me stop feeling so guilty when I found myself unable to produce anything meaningful after 3 p.m. because I knew it just wasn't the right time for me to get work done.
3) Experiment with journaling.
Tim Ferriss has an insightful post on his morning journal that got me thinking. Almost every morning Ferriss sits down with a cup of tea and takes time to write in The Artist’s Way: Morning Pages Journal, a book by Julia Cameron. He uses this as a daily practice of production.
Here's an excerpt from one of his entries:
Image Credit: Tim Ferriss
This was the exact remedy I was looking for. I realized that writing perfectly wasn’t the goal ... it was to just get writing.
So I began my way to a better morning routine.
This was an easy prescription: I bought a cheap notebook and I kept it in my bag. I'd write in it every weekday while on the train heading into the office.
When I was writing, I'd focus on two areas:
- What’s worrying me in my personal life.
- What’s worrying me in my working life.
To round off the journaling and get myself in a positive frame of mind, I'd write three things that I was grateful for that day -- a trick stolen from The Five-Minute Journal.
4) Work offline to avoid problems.
We’re in a world dominated by notifications, and that little red dot can be seductive to us at our weakest moments.
Avoiding the temptation to browse around online -- whether it’s Slack channels, social media sites, or your inbox -- can be really tough. For me, it was especially hard to avoid Slack, as the company I work for, Kayako, is spread across the globe with remote workers and two main offices in England and India.
So while I had to use Slack for internal communication purposes, it was serving as a big distraction. With people pulling me in numerous directions all day long, there was a lot of task switching going on. And all that task switching has a dramatic impact on the quality and quantity of work you produce.
In fact, research shows that multitaskers:
- Experience a 40% drop in productivity
- Take 50% longer to accomplish a single task
- Make up to 50% more errors
Not to mention, task switching reduces our chances of finding our flow. And as writers, finding your flow is necessary: Did you know it takes around 23 minutes to return to a task after you're interrupted?
So while you don’t have to go as far as Samuel Huelick -- who wrote this “break up letter" to Slack -- clearly stating to your team you’re going offline for a couple of hours can help you regain control and focus. Give it a try.
5) Set deadlines.
Almost everyone procrastinates -- especially when it comes to things that have no deadline. You know, things you've always wanted to do, but never had to do -- like traveling, or starting a business, or getting in shape, or writing a book.
Don't believe in the power of deadlines? I'd encourage you to allow Tim Urban’s comical (yet drilling) TED Talk about procrastination sink in before you make that call ...
During my journey to become a better writer, the importance of deadlines became even clearer to me. And while there is research out there that suggests self-imposed deadlines don't cut it, this practice has helped me push through work and hit goals time and time again. After all, Parkinson's Law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for it's completion."
I put my deadline rule to the rest when I found out my company was hiring a content marketing manager -- a role I knew I was interested in. To declare my interest in the job, I set up a couple of meetings and worked directly with our director of marketing to come up with a goal-oriented checklist of things to achieve to secure the role.
One task on that list? Producing an ebook on customer service team hiring ... which I gave myself one week to draft.
And guess what? I got it done.
Would I have been able to write the ebook if I hadn't publicly held myself accountable? Probably not -- in fact, it could have easily taken me a month.
Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, explains that publicly committing to a time frame for completion can be an incredibly powerful motivator. When you tell others that you're going to do X by Y time, your reputation is on the line.
"It's a good way to keep score," he told The New York Times.
6) Structure your work accordingly.
One habit I’ve managed to overcome when writing blog posts is omitting structure. Before I used to wait for inspiration to kick in on a subject and charge full speed ahead into my writing until I’d hit the inevitable roadblock and couldn’t write any more.
Now I commit to creating a blog post structure before I even write my first word. I designate 20-30 minutes to plan, and focus my structure on capturing three essential parts:
- The audience and their view/perspective.
- Best practices powered by research and supporting material.
- The actionable takeaway.
Of course, there are different ways to approach this type of structural outline -- for example, Copyblogger recommends the MAP technique or the S.P.E.E.D. approach -- but I'll leave that up to you. The important thing is that you're putting a plan in place before you get started, as this extra step can do wonders for your productivity.
7) Get feedback throughout the process.
As a writer, having someone else look over your blog can be one of the most helpful things when you're starting to feel stuck. A fresh set of eyes can help you identify gaps in your post that you'd likely overlook, and getting this type of feedback early on could mean the difference between putting out something impressive and having to trash your post entirely.
At Kayako, we use a three-step editing process that works particularly well for putting out high quality content:
- First round of edits: Structural.
- Second round of edits: Core content and insight.
- Third round of edits: Spelling and grammar.
But before we dive into that process, we review articles as a team in a weekly editor's meeting to screen for quality, identify opportunities for improvement, and so on.
If it sounds like a lot ... that's because it is. But it's that level of detail that makes it easier for our writer's to complete a piece that they're proud of -- without spending a lifetime on it.
Remember: It's easy to get lost in a post that you've been working on for a while. Rather than wasting time trying to determine what's missing on your own, ask for that feedback upfront. Trust me, it's worth it.
Ready to Get More Writing Done?
Getting better at writing doesn’t have to happen right at once. I’ve been optimizing my writing by experimenting with an array of different techniques over the past six months -- it’s only now that I feel like I am near my best.
You can start with any of these techniques listed above and incorporate them into your day to make you more efficient as a writer. There is no set methodology. Just try a few strategies out until you find what works best for you.
Originally published Jul 27, 2016 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017