Ever been in a situation where you have a metric shittonne of writing to do in a really short time?
Maybe you’ve got an overdue assignment. Maybe you have a deadline in two days. Or maybe you’ve signed up for the Rabbit Hole event at the Emerging Writers Festival, with the aim of producing 30 000 words in less than three days, possibly even as part of the online team which is hosted and directed by yours truly.
Yeah. Maybe that last one in particular.
Anyway, whatever the reason, there comes in a time in a writer’s life when you have to write a lot in a short time. There’s no real short-cut to this; you can’t just stare really hard at the monitor and make words appear through sheer force of will. Believe me, I’ve tried. But there are tools that can make the process that bit easier – they won’t make the words appear faster, but they can make the task feel less daunting and keep you focused on laying down the wordcount.
Here are some things that have worked for me – I think they can work for you too. They’re weighted a little bit towards creative writing, but most are just as applicable to writing non-fiction, theses, essays or schizophrenic manifestos.
Start from zero
Whether it’s a blank page or a new Word file, the best way to begin a bulk writing exercise is to start from scratch, whether than means beginning a new project or creating a separate document that can later be added to an existing one. Part of this is practical – the work you create when writing for volume is not going to be polished, and it’s better to partition it from the rest of your efforts until it’s been overhauled. More important is the psychological boost you get from a fresh start. If you have 10 000 words and add 5000, that’s a 50% improvement; if you have zero words and add 5000, that’s an infinity percent improvement.
Perfect is the enemy of finished
I get the urge to fine-tune a sentence or paragraph until you’re happy with it, but there is a time to do that and that time is not now. All that matters is getting words down on the page, one after the other, and there is no going back to make it beautiful or lyrical or remotely coherent. The work you produce when bulk writing is not a first draft, it is a zero draft; it’s a roadmap and a set of tools to help make a first draft later on. Quantity over quality is your mantra right now, and your inner editor needs to be gagged, blindfolded and dropped down a well for a while. Lassie can rescue them later. That dog can do anything.
Don’t touch that backspace key!
And when I say don’t edit, I goddamn mean it – that means no going back. Did you make a speeling mustake? Fix it later. Did you decide to make the hero’s cat a robot dog? Just change it and move on, remembering to find-and-replace ‘hairball’ with ‘USB bone’ tomorrow. Every second you spend deleting the last word you wrote just because it doesn’t make sense in any known language is a second you’re not spending writing another word. Suck it and and keep going; you are a word shark that must keep moving, and if you stop to fix the tense in your last sentence YOUR WORDGILLS WILL STOP WORKING AND YOU WILL DROWN.
Structure is your friend
Writing 30 000 words is terrifying. Writing 1000 words? That seems pretty easy by comparison. Now just do that 30 times! Breaking up your work into shorter chunks allows you to monitor your progress and feel good about reaching milestones. If your project allows it, spend some time before you start writing doing a rough plan of the structure, working how many thousands of words go into each stage/chapter/subdivision and how many of those there should be. A large number of small parts is better than a small number of large parts – if possible, have 30 1000-word chapters rather than 10 3000-word chapters. If that can’t be done, try to break down those big chapters into smaller subparts so you still have fast, regular goals to work towards.
Plan ahead – or fuck it, just make shit up
If you have an outline and a clear direction in mind for your work, then you can use that as a roadmap to get to where you want to go. Alternatively you can wander around at random, going down interesting side streets and mugging new ideas in alleyways, and still end up at your destination. As long as the words keep coming there is NO WRONG WAY to go about getting them. At the same time, it’s worth having a think about how you go about things and possibly whether it would help to borrow a bit from the other approach – to have a loose plan that you can then improvise within, or to allow yourself a little room to change direction when working to your outline. Pick the approach that works for you, because the process is less important than the goal.
Research before or after but not now
Is there a vital piece of information that informs your text? Cool. Did you research it already so that it’s fresh in your mind or printed out next to your computer? Great, put it in there. Haven’t done it yet? Then leave Wikipedia unopened in your browser window and keep writing, damnit. Time spent researching is time not spent writing and we have no patience for that right now. If you know you need to insert some data and you don’t have it, just write ***ADD 500 WORDS ON DOLPHIN PORN*** and keep going; you can come back later and flesh it out. Alternatively, if you want to keep the wordcount up, make up whatever facts you need to – it’s called fiction for a reason, people – and then fix the egregious falsehoods when you revise the text to make it readable by humans.
Don’t stop, change direction
Sometimes you’re going to get stuck on a scene or a section and not be able to move forward; you need time to think it over and work through things. Don’t do that. Instead, put that part of the project to one side and start on something else. Shift to a new scene, a new location, a new character; skip to a different subheading of the essay and write on that topic for a while. Or just change it up where you are right now to shake you out of the rut – as Chandler famously said, ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand’. Always keep moving; don’t let anything stop you!
Distractions are inevitable
Eventually something’s going to stop you. You’ll get a leg cramp, your pets will catch fire, your wife will demand something selfish like you driving her to the hospital. Hell, at some point you’re probably going to want to attend to those base human needs like eating, sleeping or checking Twitter. And you know what? That’s fine. Don’t try to remove all distractions before you start, because it won’t happen, and instead you’ll just end up procrastinating as you keep looking for more things to close down. Let it be. The key thing is not to avoid all distractions, it’s to minimise the attention and time you give them and to quickly regain your focus and momentum when you get back to work.
And sometimes it’s just time to take a break because you’ve earned it. Did you hit a milestone and finish a chapter? Well done! Go have a beer or a make-out session or play Angry Birds for five minutes. You’re not a machine or a million monkeys with typewriters – well, probably not – and you deserve to treat yourself for working hard. Regular high-five-me-bro breaks are an important way to keep your focus and positivity up and to prevent burnout. The key thing is to step back, feel good about how things are going, finish the beer and then get back to work. And if you hit a point where you finish a section and decide to maintain the momentum and keep writing rather than flex off, then good on you – keep it going and make the next break even better.
Is time growing short and the target too far away to reach? Want to just copy a chunk of text from another source or just write COCKDANCE COCKDANCE 500 times? Dude, I can’t stop you and I won’t know you’ve done it, but you know it’s bullshit. The only person you’re cheating is you because you’re giving up; the only person who can award you for reaching the finishing line is you, and you’ll know you don’t deserve any kind of medal. There are no short-cuts, there are no cheat codes. Better to make a genuine attempt then blow smoke up people’s arse. Because the only person breathing the arse-smoke is you.
There’s always another day
And if you can’t hit the target in the time frame, so what? This isn’t heart surgery, and no-one’s going to die if you don’t write 30 000 words in a weekend, not unless you’re in some weird and poorly-paced Saw sequel. No matter how far you get, what matters is that you made the attempt and laid some words down, be it 20 000 or 2000. Coming out the other side of a writing boot camp gives you a better appreciation of what you can achieve when you go all in, and leaves you with a mess o’ words that you can now tweak and revise and sculpt at your relative leisure.
Everyone’s a winner, baby. That’s the truth.
Are you inspired? Are you fired up? Are you still reading? For those who are, thanks for sticking around – I hope it was worth your while!
If you’ve got any other tips for pushing word weight, please leave a comment. Share what you know, if only to save me from writing another 1500+ words on the topic later.