Getting Up to Speed (Speed Drafting Tips and Resources)
November has raced by, and so has Nanowrimo! Naturally, we’re all still obsessed with the idea of drafting speed. Whether you were happy with your November outcomes, fell short of your goals, or decided to sit this Nanowrimo out, there’s still plenty you can learn about optimizing your process for speedy drafts.
Why bother? Well, aside from the obvious benefits of being able to type “The End” that much sooner, getting the most out of your writing time can boost your mood and reduce that drained feeling we get when we shut our word processor for the day. Churning out words quickly also improves the balance of your time - cutting back on the hours required to turn out that ugly first draft, and leaving more scheduled time for revisions and re-drafting!
Of course, Nanowrimo is a yearly occasion for a reason. Most people can’t keep up that breakneck writing speed every day. Burnout is a real possibility, but even if you’re a writing machine, most of us have other responsibilities that don’t thrive on the back burner. While much of this advice will help boost your speed at any time, some of it will be most useful for Nanowrimo, or when working under a deadline.
Writing advice isn’t one size fits all. Not all of these tools and tricks will be for you - but it’s always worth trying something new! You may find it surprising which tactics get you closest to your goals.
The Daily Grind and the Sanctuary
The Crit & Pen team are well aware that we’re something of a broken record on the topic of daily word counts. The intellectual tools we use to write are like muscles, and regular workout builds strength and tone. To truly optimize your writing time, you may want to step up from a daily word count to a daily routine. This can feel restrictive, but the first advice insomniacs get from sleep specialists is that they need a regular schedule, and a bedroom where nothing happens but sleep. Similarly, you may find a dedicated space and time train your brain to expect writing. That can give you a real boost, especially when getting started!
This may be especially helpful for parents, building clear boundaries both for the little ones (when Parent A’s sitting at the big desk, Parent B’s always in charge, for example), and for you (nap time is writing time, every day).
It’s an imperfect world: If having a dedicated space just for writing isn’t possible or practical, having a simple ritual through which you transform an ordinary space into your workspace can be very centering. Clear everything that isn’t writing related away, maybe set out some inspiring pictures or knickknacks, set up your workstation and voila! you’ve transformed your kitchen table into your writing desk.
Variations for the Super Speedy: If you need to be churning out the words extra-fast, it might be time to flirt once more with that fickle friend, inspiration. Whether you use your phone’s word processor or carry a notebook at all times, practice setting the other things you’re doing down (safely!) and picking up your work at a moment’s notice. Don’t neglect your regular writing sessions, but get used to cramming in extra words at any time of day.
The Internet is Your Enemy
Hey! We all love well-researched and realized novels. Unfortunately, being writers, we also love spending eight to twelve hours a day reading about cloth production in sixteenth century Germany (is that just us? Well, you take our broader point). Other things we love include ogling our favorite writers’ #booklife on Instagram, Youtube makeup tutorials, building the perfect fifty-song playlist for writing our next scene, and Googling where we can still play Minesweeper if we don’t have Windows.
None of which is writing.
No, not even the research. A healthy pre-writing process should leave you with enough information to write your way through the first draft, and anything you don’t know can be fixed in revision. If you literally can’t churn out the next sentence without a research break, trust us, the correct move is to drop [look up common sources of red dye] in brackets and move on without the sentence.
Unfortunately, since the demise of the typewriter and the rise of the home computer, the temptation to open up your preferred browser is strong. The steps you take to counter this can be equally strong: if you live alone, or with very forgiving folks, you could just unplug your router. You can shove your phone and tablet in a locked drawer. You could try turning on child protections for your writing time - yes, you’re capable of turning them off, but all the extra steps required can be daunting. You could also try an app like Freedom which will turn off digital distractions for set amount of times, but we haven’t found a free one we love (yet! Drop us a line if you’ve got one!).
Another challenge of digital drafting is the increasingly complex nature of the word processor. A workhorse like Scrivener can organize metadata, keep track of your outline, book map, scene plan, and formatting preferences. It’s a brilliant multitool for a writer, but for a speed-drafter it’s a built-in source of excuses not to churn out words. An app like Calmly Writer can provide a simple, distraction-free tool for putting one word after the next, without recourse to a card index that maps every interaction any combination of two characters has anywhere in your novel. (For that matter, Scrivener has a Composition mode that removes visual distractions either from the app’s own structures or from your task bar. It can even black out your messy desktop.)
It’s an imperfect world: We can’t all afford to unplug when we write. Whether you need your phone to keep in touch with your co-parent, monitor freelance websites for time sensitive job opportunities, or have any other necessary digital distraction to consider, there are some less extreme methods for adapting your digital writing habits. Setting up child protections to only allow the acceptable distractions is one option. Turning your computer to no-distraction mode but setting a regular timer to remind you to check your phone periodically is another option. If you have multiple browsers on your computer, dedicating each of them to specific jobs, topics, and sites can help cut down on distractions while still letting life go on.
Friends in the Field
Outside accountability is a great motivator. Whether it’s your partner, your mother, or your writing circle, having someone who’ll ask you how it went at the end of every writing session is sobering. Of course, since most of us have a few bad memories of disapproving teachers and grueling homework schedules, this tactic can backfire. The goal is realism, not guilt. This is one of the reasons that we specifically recommend a circle of writing friends and acquaintances you turn to in hours of need. This way, accountability check-ins can be moments of mutual support. Knowing you’re helping someone else get their words churned out can even make you feel less guilty about your own unimpressive showing, which will make it easier to face the next writing session
You don’t have to check in at the end! You could start your session with an “am writing!” text to your buddy, or make a schedule of shared writing time so you can check in through out. If you’re real extroverts, you could even have a Zoom or Skype window open while you go, to feel the sense of camaraderie you may be missing from your local student coffee shop or library.
If you and your buddy share a competitive spirit, regular check-ins could spur you to greater heights as you try to outdo each other’s word counts. Just make sure it’s fun for everyone involved, or things could take a dark turn.
It’s an imperfect world: If you don’t have writing friends, there are plenty of digital spaces where writers support, encourage, and coordinate with each other. Check the #writingsprints hashtag on your favorite social media platform for starters.
We all know the feeling of working against the clock, trying to get through our checklist for a day, or trying to make the most of our time off. But time restrictions aren’t always your enemy. The whole point of Nanowrimo is that writing against the clock gives you focus, inspiration, and extra energy. Writing sprints take this to the extreme. You set a narrow window of time - anywhere between ten minutes and an hour, say. Then you shut out all distractions and write as much as you can. If your timer is noisy or annoying, all the better. The sense of racing against the clock gets your heart rate up and your fingers dancing!
Even if sprints aren’t your thing, a fifteen minute timer can transform your writing time. Humans aren’t designed to focus on the same thing for hours at a time. Evolutionarily, we have to be always on the lookout for changes in the light, the weather, and our environment. After a certain amount of time (the average is 10-15 minutes) you will naturally find you lose focus. Productivity experts recommend setting yourself to a task for no more than fifteen minutes, interspersed with breaks of five to fifteen minutes. Those breaks don’t have to be down time - you could fold laundry, do some yoga, clean your room. As long as you walk away from your computer for at least five minutes, when you return you’ll find yourself reinvigorated and capable of focusing on the task at hand. Paradoxically, spending less time actually writing might increase your writing speed. (Neurodivergent friends, your mileage may vary, but it might be worth experimenting with your own intervals and scheduled breaks!)
Variations for the Super Speedy: If you thrive on the high-octane thrill of a sprint, nothing’s stopping you from cutting up your whole project into sprints. It’s not the best tactic for revisions, but for dashing out that first draft, it might be just what you need.
If you can’t afford to walk away from your manuscript every fifteen minutes, then you could use your breaks to check your outline, polish up your research, reorganize your draft, or do any other writing-oriented task that involves turning away from the actual page.
Last but Not Least: Dopamine Distributors!
Rewards systems work. They help you train your pets, they help you train your parents, and they can help you train your writing brain. Habit builders like Habitica or the writing focused 4thewords give you a fun digital way to reward yourself for having good habits. If being congratulated by a pixelated friend or defeating a colorful foe don’t bring a burst of chemical joy directly to your brain, you could set up your own system.
You could reward speed drafting with:
the expensive version of a kitchen staple you love (better baking chocolate, nicer balsamic vinegar, or the expensive butter, for example)
a set amount of time spent on the crafting hobby you’re starting to worry is self-indulgent (though, as an aside: It’s okay to be self-indulgent, your hobby is great, and we at Crit & Pen love your exactly 3/5s of a lace doily so much)
Stickers! You could make yourself a sticker chart! Being an adult means you get to give out your own gold stars!
Early bedtime! (Because we all want an extra half hour in bed, if we’re being honest.)
Or anything else that gives you that little boost of joy.
The important part is training your brain to associate writing speed with simple joy, instead of with all the complicated feelings of hard work and artistic or professional achievement that gum up the works so much.