Get Off the Computer and Write Faster

Those of you who are familiar with my work know that I advocate knowing where you are in the writing cycle, focusing on one stage at a time, and working there until all possibilities are exhausted before moving forward.

Each stage of the writing cycle requires its own unique set of skills and strategies. I even schedule these tasks at different times of the day since they require different energy levels and they engage different cognitive processes.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I also work in different media, depending on where I am in the writing cycle. And I almost never write on the computer.

I believe that this ultimately makes me a faster, more efficient writer. And recent research by scientists and cognitive theorists supports my own experience.

Perhaps I should clarify—I’m talking about big documents: reports, white papers, and briefings. Yes, I compose shorter things like blog posts, email messages, and letters inside of Word. (But even then I usually sketch out an outline by hand and work on the document over more than one sitting so that I can edit it with fresh eyes.)

With larger documents, my brainstorming consists first and foremost of research. Most of that is conducted through online databases, in journals, and in books.

I do use a computer to maintain a working bibliography and detailed notes that include quotes, cross-references, paraphrases, and summaries. But in my word processing program, I use a different font to set off my own analysis of the sources I have found. And throughout this process I use a separate computer file to record ideas that have been generated for new research I need to conduct, different directions to take the argument, or ways to organize the document.

This way, my brainstorming becomes productive writing time, generating lots of language that can be used in the final draft. And I’ve kept my thoughts separate from my sources, so I don’t have any citation problems later.

When I’m ready to select and arrange my ideas, I print all of my brainstorming notes. Then I set aside an entire day with a big, blank sheet of paper and lots of highlighters and colored pens. On the blank paper, I write down single word topics with the colored pens and draw diagrams to create an outline. Meanwhile, I use the highlighters to color code my notes so they correspond to the topics.

Anything that isn’t color coded isn’t needed. After I’m done writing the document, I’ll come back to it just to make sure. And along the way, I’ve made a list of unanswered questions. So if I need to fill in any research gaps, now’s the time to do it.

This process usually leaves me completely brain dead. Which is good, because the next step is a simple process of cutting and pasting. On the computer, I take all of my research notes and put them in the order that I’ve just outlined. Then, each day, as I engage in the process of writing, I print out just a few pages of notes relevant to the section I’m writing. And I get to work with a spiral notebook and a pen.

At the end of each day, I type what I’ve done and print it out, file it, and move on. When I’m ready to revise, I’ve never seen the typewritten version, so it’s fresh on the page. I can read it with a highly critical eye. And I do so on paper, not on the computer, again with a spiral notebook and a pen so I can make extensive revisions to content, organization, tone, and style.

The final editorial polish is the only piece that I do on the computer, because I’m checking the manuscript for formatting as much as for spelling and punctuation. It’s at this point that I make sure all my section breaks are in place, my table of contents is numbered correctly, tables and figures are cross-referenced correctly, etc., etc., etc.,

I find that the biggest advantage to working this way is focus. When I have a blank sheet of paper, the only task I’m performing is outlining. I’m not drafting, or revising, or editing. There’s no judgment, and I’m free to be inside my sandbox, as it were.

Likewise, when I’m holding my blue and gold Parker pen over a college ruled spiral notebook, I’m in writing mode. Words matter, as do their placement inside the sentence. So while it may sound counterintuitive, working in different media helps me to remember where I am in the writing cycle and ultimately allows me to be a more efficient, more streamlined writer.

Try it out, and see if helps you. And be sure to let me know what you think!

Comments

  1. What a well-thought-out blog. Thank you. I talked about the brainstorming process in a book I have written but have not published. Really liked your color coding concept. One of my blogs earlier this year was “Step Away fro the Computer” with respect to job hunting.

    Best wishes from a fellow blogger,

    John

  2. And I thought I was organized — pffft! 🙄 … GRRReat approach at getting your arms around research for a project. I’m going to bookmark this post for future reference. Thank you for sharing how you tackle a big writing job. 😆

  3. Impressive.

    I find it fascinating–and admirable–that you hand write your drafts. Considering new scientific research linking neurological development to handwriting, it’s likely your process provides definite cognitive advantages.

    It strikes me that your methodology involves very careful thinking and planning, i.e., you have to know exactly what you want to say, before you commit it to paper.

    This is the how writers of the past worked. Without PCs, printers and endless reams of paper, how else did Dickens and Shakespeare turn out their intricate and perfectly plotted narratives?

    Personal computers dramatically changed the writing process. Today most of us cut, paste, shuffle and massage text around until we finally squeeze out phraseology that rings true.

    PCs make it extremely hard to avoid constant self-editing. Yet writing coaches tell us that the most efficient writing involves writing first–getting out a dirty draft–and editing second. In two distinct phases.

    Ironically, PC-supported writing may be costing, not saving, us time.

    • Lorraine–What a beautiful comment! I believe you’ve precisely hit upon the problem. We’re moving more quickly on the front end by typing, cutting, and pasting; but we’re becoming less efficient in terms of revision, and more importantly, miscommunication from not having clearly articulated ourselves at the outset. Best–Michelle

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