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How to Write Fast (and Well)
I write a lot, usually pretty quickly. A writer asked me how I do it, so I typed up a quick explainer.
Earlier this year when I launched Wise & Well, a health and wellness publication on Medium, I vowed to edit and mentor other writers, leveraging my 30-plus years in journalism to help those with clear talent, expertise and potential grow beyond wherever they are now, honing their craft to cultivate a larger audience. When one of my writers asked how to write fast and produce more stories, I initially bristled at the notion.
Write fast? How about write well?
But this young and emerging writer deserved an answer. So I let my mind run and soon my fingers were doing the thinking, as often happens, and the following response emerged all in one long paragraph because I was typing so fast I didn’t have time to mess around with rough-draft trivialities like spelling or punctuation or formatting.
I’ve added some much-needed paragraph returns and a few edits for clarity, but otherwise what follows is my verbatim response. (Note: This article first published on Medium. I sometimes put things in two places.)
Speed. Hmm. I’ve always been told by colleagues that I’m an unusually fast and prolific writer (meaning I write a lot, not necessarily well—readers will be the judge of that). In 4–1/2 years writing on Medium, I’ve averaged 2.8 stories per week, modest compared to earlier in my journalism career. I honestly don’t know all the reasons why, but it’s definitely not due to any single trick or tactic, though there are some important traits and skills that contribute:
Curiosity above all else, dogged effort, pretty strong typing skills (thanks to Mr. Richmond’s 11th-grade typing class), intense focus, learning how to start and finish a story in a set time period thanks to my early years in newspapers where deadlines were firm and word limits dictated, and … outlines. Always an outline.
But it’s also the sum result of many other little things, like learning and knowing the rules and guidelines of the genre and the publications I write for (I have actually read the entire AP Style Guide, and every few years I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style — highly recommended), gaining confidence in my ability, and not trying to write in genres or formats or approaches that I’m not comfortable with.
I stay in my lane most of the time.
I tried writing about business for a while, and it didn’t go well. I could probably write about sports — a lot of sports writers aren’t great writers, just great enthusiasts with lots of experience — but imagine how much I’d have to learn before being able to pen anything worth publishing. Like, years.
So instead, I tend to get stuck on certain topics and beat them to death, rather than trying to become learned in too many areas. From 1999 to 2004, I wrote exclusively for Space.com (as an employee) and so everything was about astronomy and cosmology. I purposely avoided articles about missions and launches (which I found boring) and wrote only about the missions’ discoveries and the many mysteries of the cosmos.
During that time, I can confidently say that nobody on the planet wrote more stories about asteroids or black holes.
I devoured every new discovery, chewed on it, spoke with the experts who gave me their cell phone numbers (a big deal way back then!), spat out news stories daily (often two or three a day) and periodically wrote the overview explainers and other unexpected feature stories that nobody else could have written (like a sports reporter who knows the players personally and has the coaches on speed dial). I could literally dream up a story out of thin air, because I was so embedded and engrossed.
Fast forward to 2019, when I started writing on Medium, I decided to focus on health. I dabbled in general science but found it to be a distraction, taking time away from my main purpose. After three-plus years I realized I’d written so much about sleep and the related topics that go into good sleep or result from good/bad sleep that I almost had a book on my hands. So I spent several weeks organizing existing articles into chapters, rewriting, researching further and adding new chapters and boom, I had the very rough first draft of a book ready. [I described the process in a Medium article.]
I write a lot because I love doing it, because I get sucked in, and I guess at some point I know enough to write about certain topics without starting from scratch each time. Most stories become incremental evolutions tracing back to multiple other pieces.
When that happens, my fingers do the thinking and I just let it flow.
A few months back, I realized I’d written a ton about aging and longevity but had never really done a respectable, in-depth feature about it, so I gathered up what I knew (including some stuff about Aubrey de Grey, which I’d known from assigning a story about aging way back in 2004 when I was the founding editor of Live Science), did some additional research on the controversies floating around, interviewed a few experts, and put together my longest Medium story in a matter of maybe 10 hours spread over a few days. That was only possible because I’d spent four years dabbling in the topic (19 years, really), writing short pieces (500 to 1,500 words) on every interesting and meaningful discovery I ran across.
For all my talk about focus, however, if I didn’t bounce around so much (space, then general science, then health, with a few years spent in a media company C-suite not writing at all, and now throwing myself back into editing, which I love) I would write a lot more.
When I saw your question about how to write fast, my first inclination was to say “I don’t know!” and apologize for not having an answer. But it was a good question, and good questions are great starting points for any bit of writing, so I gave it some thought and realized, yes, I guess I do know something about how to write fast, and then my fingers took over and around 20 minutes later, I think I have an answer: The only way to write fast is to take your time.