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How do I speed up my writing?

Advice from a productivity expert for an academic who wants to pick up the pace and finish a manuscript.

Note: In the “Are You Working?” series, a Ph.D. and academic-writing coach answers questions from faculty members and graduate students about scholarly motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via X and Facebook. Read her previous columns here.

Question: I am working at a sloth’s pace right now. Every writing session I have feels like walking through quickening cement. It feels like I’m never going to finish this. How can I speed up my process?

Tortoise in a Hare’s World

Dear Tortoise,

I get a version of this question from clients all the time. It’s usually when they’ve finally started to maintain a consistent writing practice — which I define as writing for 30 minutes or more, three times a week or more — after months of feeling blocked. So the first thing I’ve noticed in your articulation of this “problem,” my friendly Tortuga, is an unmitigated victory. You emphasize “sloth’s pace,” but what I see is someone working. First and most important: I hope that you are exceedingly proud of yourself for continuing to plug away on your writing while navigating any number of mostly unseen challenges. (Do you deserve a little treat? Obviously, you do.)

So you’re finally working, and instead of delighting in your victory, you’ve unsurprisingly fallen prey to that great academic Catch-22, which is: Oh, you’re working? Well, you’re not working enough. Stop right there: Your reward for work is not more work, or to feel bad about the work you are doing.

I want you to commit this to memory: Sloths are only “slow” relative to other animals. Your work is only “slow” relative to your perception of other people’s work speeds (which, truth be told, are probably a lot slower than they’re letting on). In the sloths’ world, they are going exactly the speed their metabolism and needs allow. If your work is a slog, that is probably because you’ve chosen something difficult to write about, and it just takes time to come out with coherent thoughts about it.

The first thing to do here is accept that your magical thinking about wanting to be done with a project does not equate to actually speeding up. All of those sped-up montage scenes of people building or renovating something on Instagram are sped up for a reason: Most of the work is way closer to the paint-drying end of the speed spectrum. You’re in more of a sloth’s world than you realize.

Still, it still might be worth spot-checking your process to see if you’re unintentionally slowing yourself down. Are you, by any chance, writing and then deleting the same sentence 20 times? It’s all right; don’t feel called out; everyone does it. But I’d like you to, for at least one day each week, stop doing that. Make yourself a deal that in one of your weekly writing sessions, you are not allowed to delete anything that day. (You may cut-paste into a “detritus” document at a later date, but you may not actually delete anything.) This may get you moving a little faster.

Another spot-check worth noting (one I’ve said over and over to clients and on these pages) is that getting your thoughts down on a draft and making them sound eloquent are actually two distinct activities. You may be borrowing trouble by attempting to conflate them into one. You’ll end up spending way more time on each sentence than you would if you knew, from the beginning, that you were going to write two distinct versions: the “ugly” draft and the “real” one.

Also, when you sit down to write, are you really focusing on the topic you’re supposed to be writing about? Or is the running monologue at the front of your mind some version of this needs to be getting done faster? Quiet that deeply unhelpful part of your brain by promising to revisit the mechanics of your writing process a month from now, after some consistent work.

Finally, and I know this is a bit counterintuitive, but if, like me, you are a caffeine person, you may want to consider timing your work so that you are not over-caffeinated when you write. It might seem like caffeine makes you work faster, but usually it just makes that pesky inner (or outer) monologue faster. I find that when I’ve had a strong cup of coffee, the result is not my writing faster so much as it is my heart beating faster while I watch the world slip away before my eyes. (That can’t be just me …, right?)

The most important thing here, however, is to concentrate on the first few words of your question: I am working. Your pace isn’t as important as that.

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