by Danielle Styles

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

Think ahead

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.

Scrutinise

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

Take breaks

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.



My thanks go to Carole Holden, whose October 2012 post from the British Library’s ‘Americas Studies blog’ provided some useful background on Kerouac’s creative process. Also to Andrea Shea, whose July 2007 article on Kerouac’s scroll also came in handy.

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