Note: This one's for the writers out there, but even if the longest thing you'll draft today is an email I bet you'll get through it more quickly if you follow this one simple tip...
I've been thinking a lot about writing lately. That's because I've been doing a lot of writing lately. By a very rough, back of the envelope count, I've written somewhere around 150,000 words since I joined the freelance ranks about six months ago. That's between one and two full-length novels depending on whether you're a Proust or a Vonnegut fan. As someone who loves writing and who formerly spent much of his days surviving meetings and diddling spreadsheets, it's been pretty refreshing.
Of course, it's not the quantity that counts. It's the quality. I may get paid by the word on some assignments, but if the words I deliver aren't very good then I'll never get another assignment. And if that happens I might have to get a real job.
In this time I've become extremely focused on craft and efficiency. Since I love giving guidance and helping others I thought I'd share one incredibly simple tip that I guarantee will improve your writing. Seriously. If you don't agree, I will give you 100% of your money back.
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Are you ready? Here it is: Turn off your spell checker! Okay, okay, I know you already knew that because you surely saw the hed floating up there in big type, or maybe your screen reader read it for you, but regardless here's why you should do that thing that I am recommending in this article.
It all comes down to flow. If I'm writing a piece, I try to get from top to bottom in one shot. Intro to outro. Pyramid to pyramid. I want to get the bones of the thing laid out in some semblance of a shape that looks a little like a skeleton, weaving in as much connective tissue as I can along the way. I want that one-way trip through to be completely unbroken. I want my fingers to never leave the keys and, if possible, to not even touch Backspace.
Writing like this builds flow, and while every good writer has their own good techniques, for me flow is paramount. I need to get into the piece like a racing driver gets into a racing seat or a professional gamer gets into a computer chair (which probably also looks like a racing seat for some reason).
Getting into the flow is all about minimizing distractions. In your average modern writing tool, spell checking is very definitely a distraction. You can also add grammar checking to the list of shame and, once Microsoft starts shoving a ChatGPT-powered Son Of Clippy in my face, I'm putting him on there, too.
Turn all that off. All of it. While you're at it, take off your Apple Watch and put it in a drawer. Flip your smartphone over. Disable any pop-up notifications. Then, watch the words flow. If you really want to get into the zone, find the stupidest, most basic text editor that you can, something that literally only processes text. For years I wrote in the same editor that I coded in, a program called Edit+ that didn't know a complete, crafted sentence from a cat's keyboard meanderings. These days I've moved on to Simplenote, because it auto-syncs to the cloud and each of the eleventy devices that I travel with.
But you know what it doesn't do? Put a squiggly red line on the screen every time I write teh instead of the.
Those lines are like little annoying threads tugging at your soul. They must be fixed. They must be eradicated. And of course they do, but here's the secret: They don't have to be eradicated right now.
Ignore your typos, go full-speed ahead. You know what else you should ignore? Facts. If you aren't 100% positive of the horsepower of a car you're reviewing or the screen size of a laptop or the number of levels in a video game or whatever metric about whatever thing you're writing about, put in TKTKTKTKTK. Fill it in later. Don't waste the seconds it'll take you to look it up because by the time you come back there's a good chance whatever flow was carrying you along has left you behind.
My first drafts are ugly. They're full of typos, riddled with TKTKTKs, and are quite often missing entire sections that I can't draft without rummaging through my reams of research. Those drafts are also written in a text editor with all the visual panache of a DOS terminal. But that's okay, because I can fix the typos, I can find the facts, and I can paste those unformatted words into some prettier, more modern interface that can throw all the red and green squiggly lines at me that it wants.
At that point, you can stop and start all that you want to, because you, Prometheus, have shaped something crude but wonderful, and no number of misplaced vowels or dangling participles can take that away from you.
You, Prometheus, have shaped something crude but wonderful, and no number of misplaced vowels or dangling participles can take that away from you.
Here's my process in a little more detail:
1 - I understand the subject as well as I possibly can in my head. Even if I can't remember all the numbers, I remember the relative points. (More power than X, smaller keyboard than Y, etc.)
2 - I write out a first draft as smoothly as possible, not rushing, not trying to channel James Joyce, but only stopping to fix the most glaringly obvious and annoying of typos. I put a TKTKTK in for every number or fact that I'm not positive is correct.
3 - I go back, fill in the facts, and give a thorough first edit.
4 - I copy and paste all that into a fresh Google Doc and try not to wince at the Technicolor spaghetti dancing beneath the products of my labor. (I'm literally adding color here. It's usually not that bad, but if it is, who cares?)
5 - I edit, edit, and edit some more until either pressing deadlines or common decency demand I stop. The art is only done when you ship it, folks.
By the way, using this method, I wrote the first draft of the above piece, 772 words now and counting, in 18 minutes. I'll surely spend another hour or more fixing typos, rearranging sentences and doing all the other necessary zhushing up that my standards demand before I do the Athena part and give it life. But still, I can do those tasks with all the distractions in the world and it won't impact my earlier flow.
But I'm not going to fix this post now. I'm going to move on and write something else first, because if you really want to edit well you'll put as much daylight as you can between your first draft and your second. That, though, is a tip for another day -- assuming anyone finds this tip useful enough to desire more. If you do, I'd love it if you let me know.
p.s. For the record, it took a little over an hour of further editing to get this published, and I very much look forward to everyone pointing out my typos in the comments. I do so miss having a copy editor.
Good advice Tim! Thanks for sharing it. My OCD makes me want to fix all the color and squiggly lines when I seen them, so I am going to give this a try.
Couldn't agree more. I somehow figured this out in college, flow is too important. Great to have a reminder though, funny how many distractions snuck in since I figured this out.