According to legend, in April 1951, Jack Kerouac sat down with purpose in front of his old beat-up Underwood typewriter.
There followed an intense creative splurge, in which, fuelled by coffee and benzedrine, his thundering fingers racked up close to 110 words per minute. Three weeks later he emerged with the complete text of On the Road inscribed on an 120-foot-long scroll.
Now that’s fast writing.
It would be incredibly fast, if the story were strictly true. But once you start looking at the evidence, and adding back in the details of the thinking he’d done, the notes he’d made, and the drafts he’d written – all through a period of years – the creation of On the Road suddenly seems a lot less of a miracle. As Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas once remarked, the novel wasn’t written, but ‘typed up’, in 3 weeks.
Of course, three weeks to type up a book is still enviably quick. There’s little doubt that Kerouac was a fast writer. But was he a good one?
I’m going to leave you to decide that for yourself. (Opinions vary: on the one hand you have legions of Kerouac fans, and on the other, accusations of ropey sentences, chauvinism and a lack of depth.)
The point is that if you want to write fast and well (which you’ll need to do to produce regular, high-quality content), you’ve got to develop ways of becoming more efficient. That means getting organised, focussing your mind and letting go of inhibiting perfectionism and doubt. And Kerouac has a thing or two to teach us about that.
Once you’ve got a handle on all this, you’ll probably find yourself not only writing faster, but with more confidence and creativity. And you might just see the quality of your writing improve as a result.
Sound good? Right, then here’s a step-by-step plan for making it happen.
Step one: prepare
On the Road didn’t come to Kerouac in a bolt of inspiration. His journal entries show that he’d been incubating the idea of a road-trip novel for at least two and a half years. As a content writer, you’re unlikely to have the luxury of such a massive stretch of time. However, if you’re in the routine of creating regular output, you don’t have to leave your information gathering until the point you sit down to write.
As you go about your daily life, keep your eyes and mind open for topics, anecdotes, and interesting stories you can use to frame your content.
Take a leaf out of Kerouac’s (note)book and carry one with you. Get something mini and light that you can slip into your pocket – this one works a treat. Then, whenever ideas come to you (in waiting rooms, on bus journeys, while walking the dog) you can capture them.
Step two: plan
Construct a skeleton
At this point you need to be a little more rigorous and organised than I suspect Kerouac was, and get the organisational structure of your piece down.
Focus on your audience (what do they want to know?) and your aim (what do you want your audience to feel and do as a result of reading?) With this in mind, write out your main headline, subheadings and all the points you want each section to include. This will give you a skeleton text, which you can then simply flesh out without having to worry about where you’re going.
Step three: write first, then edit
Write without judgement
Kerouac was an advocate of spontaneous prose, a style of writing in which:
- Language flows freely from the mind
- There’s no pausing to think of the proper word, no improving expressions and no afterthoughts
This writing style is uninhibited, fearless – and swift. Although I don’t subscribe to the ‘first thought, best thought’ notion held by Kerouac and his cronies, I do think spontaneous prose is a brilliant method for getting your first draft down. Not only does it make you more productive, it also frees up your brain to make the creative connections that a judgemental mind might suppress.
When you write your first draft, don’t spend time looking for the right words – use the first phrases that come to mind, no matter how clumsy and inelegant. Relax, don’t judge yourself – just allow the words to flow.
This is the quality control stage. The truth is it does take time (you can’t expect to write high-quality content in a flash). But to avoid letting your inner perfectionist get carried away, allot a time for the editing stage that’s in line with your deadline, other priorities and how important you consider the piece to be.
While you’re reviewing what you’ve written, put yourself in the position of the reader. Is anything else needed to make your text clear, cohesive or compelling? Do the ideas follow logically from one another? Can anything be omitted (repetition, unnecessary words, etc.)? The more you practice doing this, the better and more efficient at it you’ll become.
Step four: optimise your performance
You’re not a machine. To keep working effectively, your brain needs regular breaks, so make sure you take them. Of course, the myth of On the Road would have us believe that Kerouac eschewed breaks in favour of coffee and amphetamine, but by all accounts he was not a happy man. If you want to keep your sanity, this approach is best avoided!
There doesn’t seem to be any true consensus on how often you should take breaks or how long for, so you’ll need to experiment. I’ve found 50-minute writing sprints with a 10-minute break in between to be pretty effective, but you may want to vary this depending on how fresh or brain-weary you’re feeling.
Alter your mind
Not with amphetamines! I’m talking about the skill of mindfulness, which helps you develop an engrossing focus on the present moment.
Formal mindfulness is done through meditation, but it can also be practised informally, by simply concentrating fully on the task at hand.
The idea is that when you notice your mind has wandered from your writing – to working out what to buy for dinner, getting caught up in distracting sounds, or worrying about how you’re going to pay your bills – you gently bring your attention back to refocus on what you’re doing.
Mindfulness combines concentration with acceptance – a bonus in helping you to write without inhibition or judgement.
You can learn more about mindfulness here.
Write from your life
It’s well known that On the Road is an autobiographical account of Kerouac’s travels, thinly veiled in fiction.
Whenever possible, write from your experience and what you know. This will speed up the writing process, reducing the research and thinking time you have to put in. It will also give you a more vivid and authentic voice with which to compel your readers.
What techniques have you used to become a more efficient writer? Please share your experiences with us in the comments.
I can’t remember where I first read the phrase ‘drowning in information; thirsting for knowledge’. But it has stuck with me ever since.
It sums up a predicament that just about anyone with a device hooked up to the Internet will relate to. Those of you with memories stretching back to the late 80s will remember Johnny Five and his incessant cry for ‘input!’ We’re all a bit like that. Each of us is on a never-ending quest for knowledge, ranging from mundane, nuts-and-bolts information (how do I set up a Facebook business page?) to guidance on reaching fulfilment (how do I attract my ideal partner? How can I carve out a meaningful career?) Life can be tricky, perplexing, exhausting, and yet – apparently – there are people out there with the wisdom to improve it.
Unfortunately, ‘out there’ on the Web these days is bedlam. Twitter alone sees about 500 million posts every day, which translates into a average of 5,700 tweets every second. With so much ‘information’ being broadcast, how do you decide what you’re going to focus on – whether a piece of content might actually be worth clicking through to read? And on the flip side, how do you make sure that other people click through to read the messages you put out?
What is it that makes you, me, or anyone choose to read a particular piece of content?
One thing’s for sure: even 24-carat-gold wisdom won’t get much attention these days if it doesn’t have an irresistible headline.
The one simple principle all headline-writers must grasp
In your bid to get your content read, the headline is your greatest ally. It’s bigger, bolder and punchier than the rest of your text, and (when it’s in a tweet that links through to your blog, for example) it often stands alone. It’s the first sentence of your text to get read, and you need to make sure that it isn’t the last. And that means making it as enticing as possible.
There’s a lot of headline-writing advice on the Web, and much of it revolves around tried-and-tested formulas where you fill in the blanks to suit your purposes. (So you might have, for example, ‘The secret of X in [small number] easy steps’.) These can be a great resource, but they’ll only get you so far if you don’t take the time to grasp how and why they work.
To be a really effective headline-writer, you first need to take this key principle on board:
A great headline always makes a promise – the promise of making us better off than we were before we read the article.
When you’re writing headlines, you must make sure your headline contains a juicy and obvious benefit for the reader. Ask yourself what compelling pay-off your article offers them, and make sure it’s showcased in your title. (This process becomes much easier and more effective if you write your headline first – more on this in the next post.)
To illustrate the point, here’s a quick run down of four potent (and mostly invented*) headlines.
4 model headlines with benefits
1. ‘Why some people almost always achieve their New Year’s resolutions’
New year’s resolutions are bound up with our ‘dream selves’: the people we aspire to be and would be, if only it were easier. Yet most resolutions fall by the wayside within a few months. This headline promises to be a game changer – to reveal the secret of motivation and willpower that could enable you to become that person.
2. ‘3 surprising reasons why vitamin tablets could be harming your health’
You can almost guarantee that people who take extra vitamins will be interested in enhancing their health – it stands to reason. But this headline suggests that in trying to give their bodies a boost, they might unwittingly be doing themselves some damage.
The promise of this headline is to give the reader some new information (as indicated by the word ‘surprising’) that will help them make an informed choice about whether to carry on taking vitamin pills.
3. ‘6 easy ways to organise your workspace and get more done’
Everyone and their dog wants to get more done, but organising takes time, and it can be a drag. But what if it were easy? This headline promises a shortcut to increased productivity – a tempting offer if ever there was one.
4. ‘Is your CV selling you short?’
It’s hard to answer this question with a decisive ‘no’. How can you be sure how your CV is going to come across to others? The writer here might have some insight that just hasn’t occurred to you.
Questions like this, which can’t be answered definitively, can work brilliantly as headlines. If you’re applying for jobs, you won’t want to run the risk that your CV isn’t doing you justice, and this headline promises to reveal ways of improving it that you might have overlooked.
Beware of asking a question that people can confidently answer no to, however. An example could be, ‘Is your CV poorly written?’ Because most people take CV writing very seriously (putting a lot of effort into making sure theirs is up to scratch, and perhaps even enlisting help if they’re not a ‘natural’ writer), they’ll probably be more inclined to answer ‘no’ to this question than to ‘Is your CV selling you short?’ And a ‘no’ answer assumes the article isn’t relevant, and is therefore not worth reading.
(*Although I ‘invented’ these headlines, I later discovered that numbers 1 and 4 are already in use on the Web. Given how effective these techniques and structures are – and the popularity of the topics – it’s not all that surprising.)
The mystery of mysterious headlines, solved
Some headlines work by planting a mystery in the reader’s mind, which can be solved by reading the article. In this case, the headline itself sets up the reader’s ‘problem’, and unearthing the solution becomes the benefit. Consider these headlines:
- ‘I fell 4,000 feet… and survived!’
- ‘How I got my six pack in two months’
- ‘How I cured my asthma with one simple lifestyle change’
All these headlines peak our curiosity, and also hold the promise of satisfying it. The solutions to the mysteries held within these titles could be useful to us (especially if we’re asthmatic or an abs enthusiast), or at least give us a crowd-pleasing anecdote for our next social gathering. If yours is a stand-out story which grew out of unlikely circumstances, then this sort of headline could work wonders for you.
Getting your head around the key principle of writing headlines will give you a solid foundation on which to build your technique. From here, your journey towards headline mastery is a case of taking on a couple more straightforward rules and a smattering of tips, then putting them into practice – over and over!
The practice is down to you, but I’ll be helping you out with the two important guidelines and top tips in my next post.
Catch every lesson on copywriting essentials – sign up for blog alerts by scrolling down and entering your email address below. I’ll drop you a line every time I post.