Write Faster (1/30)

I'm writing 30 essays in 30 days. This is number one.

If you write quickly, and don’t worry much about writing well, the quality of your writing will improve. That’s probably the best general writing advice I can give you: write as fast as possible. Go for at least 500 words per hour. Just hit the fucking keyboard.

About half of my job is giving this advice, over and over again. Often, my clients don’t initially believe me. But they don’t want to disappoint me, so they increase their writing speed anyway, and then magic happens. It's a consistent pleasure; I generally enjoy being right about things, and this is no exception.

For example, this week, after much cajoling, a client of mine produced 1200 words in an hour or so, about a personal topic she thought was insignificant. This was different from her usual procedure. Usually, she would worry a lot about whether her writing was literary, whether it was significant, and so on. But this time she just hit the keyboard as fast as possible, staying close to the truth of her experience. In the moment, she thought it was terrible, but she soldiered on. The next day, she examined it, and was shocked by its quality—the thing she wrote was genuine, poetic, funny, vulgar, and legitimately beautiful. She showed it to friends, and they begged her to write more.

Humans are naturally sense-making, story-telling creatures. We’re wired to explain ourselves and the universe, to ourselves and to each other. We’re naturally ingenious fabulists, shrewd reporters, idiosyncratic word-painters. Basically all of us have this facility.

But this ability disappears when it's subjected to excessive scrutiny. When we start reflecting at length on what kind of story we should tell, or what kind of writer we should be, we become lost in the sea of data our senses provide us, and lose the brio of playfulness. It's like how when you think about how you're walking, you start walking stupid. You've just got to trust that you know what you're doing: that, as a sense-making creature, you will largely make sense.

We can all infer this from experience. We all know that we're most charming when we’re least inhibited—usually when we have a trusted audience, a friend or lover who we’re not worried about impressing with our wisdom. In this kind of context, you're not thinking about a finished product. Thus, you’re effortlessly genuine. All your mental twists and turns and convolutions can be exposed, in all their charm and strangeness.

Unfortunately, replicating this state can be hard. When you’re talking to a trusted lover or friend, you're receiving constant signals that you are an acceptable human doing an acceptable thing—comforting facial expressions, and so on. By contrast, your laptop is inhospitable environment. There’s no evidence that your laptop loves and trusts you, and your new MacBook keyboard was designed by a lunatic who should be punished, or at least re-educated.

However, there's one way of defeating the inner censor that’s reliable. Just outrun it. If you’re writing 500 words in an hour, there’s just no time for paralyzing cogitation. I wrote this in about 25 minutes, and then I revised it in another 5 minutes. If I’d done it a little faster it probably would’ve been a little better. I’m sorry. It’s just that I don’t know you. You make me afraid. But I drowned out the sound of my fear with the sound of my keyboard, and that got me, at the very least, to this last sentence.