It is my job to write. This has been the case for my entire career, even if the core responsibilities tied to my titles often haven’t included the word ‘writing.’
On average, I write 10,000 words a week. Some weeks, those 10,000 words come in one day, and on others, they are spread across seven. And on some weeks, I write much, much more.
Because I write so much — professionally, through news articles, blogs, research reports, social media posts, newsletters, and internal communications; and personally, through all of that plus poetry, creative nonfiction, and live and online classes — people in my life assume writing is a natural talent. Specifically, they think it’s a natural talent I have that they don’t.
While I love writing and have loved writing since I learned how, I would never argue that I write a lot because I’m good. It’s more likely that I’m good because I write a lot.
And through that experience, I’ve learned an important lesson.
Writing is the act of structuring thought.
Once you understand how to create structures to contain and shape your writing, it comes much more quickly and easily.
That’s why I think the secret to better, faster, more efficient writing is developing a repeatable process that combats blocks, interruptions, and uncertainty but still leaves room for creativity.
For me, that process breaks down into seven parts: reading, notetaking, setting intentions, organizing information, revision, turning to designated readers for feedback, and practice.
1) Great Writing Starts with Active Reading
In Thinking with Type, Ellen Lupton aptly writes,
“Reading is a performance of the written word.”
Reading adds dimension and activity to words, reframing and reshaping the writing experience.
Good actors don’t simply memorize words; they attentively study them to construct meaningful performances. The same is true of the best musicians, teachers, and interpreters.
As a writer, reading is the foundation of your craft. Reading won’t make your ideas less original, though it might expose that your ideas were never that original. After all, writing is about cultivating your unique voice and perspective, not about being the first to do something.
Reading will give you material to examine, dissect, question, and mine for structures, frameworks, and even words and phrases that will help you write more effectively.
When you read, you should be studying not just plot and purpose, but construction, pacing, flow, clarity, and context. Ask:
· How is the information organized?
· Can I find and understand the main ideas?
· What is working?
· What isn’t working?
· What do I like?
· What don’t I like?
As an undergraduate, I enrolled in a Creative Nonfiction Thesis Seminar to improve my thesis. Almost half of my coursework was self-directed reading. It was just as important to read similar and dissimilar works in my discipline as it was to write new pages and edit them diligently.
The process of breaking down a book a week for that seminar helped combat writer’s block, fatigue, and crushing self-doubt because I constantly had ideas to respond to and models to apply.
Now, I’ve set a personal rule for myself to read two books a week, and I find writing much easier than when I was a full-time student.
2) Never Start with a Blank Page
Reading plays an enormous role in writing because it eliminates the possibility of the blank page, the most daunting and difficult obstacle to writing for most people. Starting is the hardest part because “from scratch” forces you to make something out of nothing.
But if you take avid notes on everything you read, when it’s time to start writing, you should never have to start from scratch.
After every book I read, I faithfully record interesting quotes, challenging or confusing ideas, my personal impressions and preferences, and what triggered my biggest responses.
When it’s time to write, I go through my notes until I find enough quotes, reflections, and ideas to fill a word document.
Best-selling author Gretchen Rubin, best known for The Happiness Project, writes entire books with just her notes as the foundation. In an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, she explains that her writing process is made up of reading.
Rubin reads hardcopy books each day and takes notes on them in two separate word documents, one on interesting quotes she tags with different words, and one broken into subject areas. When she logs enough notes for a given subject area or enough quotes tagged around a central idea, she is ready to write her next book.
The advantage of using this system is that research is built into your writing from the very start, often creating more nuanced, complex work. When I don’t incorporate research and reading, my work is usually flat and filled with truisms.
If you’re not an avid reader, you can achieve similar results with videos, podcasts, audiobooks, or even first-person interviews. However, you must be disciplined in taking detailed notes and paying attention to how the stories they tell are crafted.
3) Set Your Intention
In The War of Art, legendary novelist and screenwriter Steven Pressfield emphasizes:
“The professional keeps his eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”
In other words, good writers set intentions to write. They focus on doing the work for its own sake and remember that no matter how hard it is, it’s worth doing.
When you set your intentions around a piece, choose an active verb plus a central question on the topic or idea of interest.
Intention = Active Verb + Question
The active verb should relate to the act of writing itself, not its aftereffects.
For example, set intentions to:
Don’t focus on reaching 10,000 new followers or landing a feature in a prestigious publication. Putting pressure on outcomes you can’t control before you’ve even started writing at best will result in more stilted, “watched” writing and at worst cause a block.
My most successful pieces of writing in terms of reception and readership were ones where I didn’t plan for performance in the outside world until long after they were written. The stories I wrote specifically to gain positive attention were the ones that got ignored to the point of invisibility.
4) Organize Your Information
Once you know why you’re writing, take your central motivating question and identify unifying ideas around it. If you started with the question, “How do you write better, faster?” then begin grouping ideas related to the question together.
The best way to group ideas is to organize your notes by theme, underlying question, or interconnection. Create titles and subtitles for them, even if you plan to eliminate them later. This forces to you to consider what belongs and what doesn’t.
Once your notes are organized and central ideas have come to light, focus on creating a skeleton structure. In my case, this story’s skeleton took the form of chronological steps.
In stories where chronology didn’t provide the structure, I’ve used related ideas, characters, contrasting themes, geography, and scope (big to small versus small to big).
Organizing information also consists of incorporating transitions, formatting, and stylistic additions that add connective tissue and impose visual structure.
5) Revise as Thoroughly as You Write
Revision is an essential element of the writing process, one that allows you to refine and polish your writing into something greater.
The best writers I know are in fact superb editors. They are varied and open-minded in the techniques they apply and cutthroat in their approach to highlighting central questions, ideas, and arguments.
Poet Rachel Richardson’s framework for editing poetry is my favorite for any type of writing, and I use it as much on job descriptions as I do on villanelles.
In “The Warmth of the Messy Page,” she lays out four types of first drafts and revision strategies for improving them:
· The Overstuffed Couch: Dense writing that buries the best ideas under the weight of too much content.
Solution: Look for and eliminate repetition. Challenge yourself to cut 30% of it, and then ask if you could cut more.
· The Skeleton: The seed of an idea is there, but it remains hollow and in need of fleshing out.
Solution: Do more research to build out more ideas. You may also write “sequels” or additional scenes to add more meat.
· The Pancake: Technically perfect but lackluster, two-dimensional, and stuck in one place with no forward momentum.
Solution: Replace static verbs with active verbs, change your sentence structures to be more varied from one another, change the position you take (in person or tense), and consider rewriting it without having an answer in mind.
· The Lively Mess: So much brilliant energy, but no direction or structure at all.
Solution: Find a piece of writing you really like, deconstruct its structure, and impose it on what you’ve written. You may also try to take multiple formal structures and apply them onto the writing to see what happens.
Apart from Richardson’s technique, I find printing out my writing and line-editing the work with a red pen does wonders.
6) Find a Strong Designated Reader
I have never published anything — anything — without at least a second pair of trusted eyes to identify strengths and weaknesses first.
Part of this is an obsession with proofreading and an intrinsic understanding that I will always miss grammatical errors because I am too close to the work.
The other is that while I write in a vacuum, the writing won’t ultimately stay there. My audience during the writing process is me, but afterwards, it’s everyone and anyone since most of my work goes online. That means it’s extremely important that I understand outside perspectives.
For this article, my husband is my reader, and it’s his job (like any reader’s) to ask himself these questions:
· What is happening?
· What is this trying to say? Does it come across?
· Is anything vague or unclear?
· What is working?
· What isn’t working?
It is not his job to like this story. I will publish a mediocre story of he takes that tack.
Good readers don’t have to be good writers, and in fact, many of my best readers are not writers at all. They are focused on helping you say what you want to say as effectively as possible, and letting you know where you do and where you don’t.
Find someone who will do this for you, and designate them as your reader. Have them thoughtfully confront these questions and come back to you with answers.
The best reader I’ve ever had was writer and University of Chicago Creative Writing Professor Dan Raeburn. It’s not an exaggeration to say he cut half the words from anything I showed him. He took line-editing very seriously, and he always went down to the sentence level to help me highlight my most striking images and salient ideas.
I would not have described him as excited about my writing. However, he never made value judgements or reshaped the work to read like his own. Instead, he focused on pointing out what worked best and encouraged me to privilege the strongest parts, which made cutting other parts way easier.
When it comes to readers, the most effective ones lead with the good news so you don’t become too defensive to revise.
Think about it. Would you rather make changes to bring your best parts into sharp relief? Or because the writing sucks and everyone will hate it? I choose the former.
Talent is practice. The more you write and revise, the better your writing will be. The more you read with discipline, organize information, and set the right intentions, the faster you will write.
Don’t worry about being good. Worry about whether you’re learning.
If the answer is “yes,” then you are succeeding every time, and you will progress as a writer quickly and naturally.
This is the process that works for me. I developed it painstakingly over the course of years and years of writing. I obsessively refine it every time I open a notebook or a word document, and would replace any and all of it if I found a better way.