How to Write Faster with Successive Drafts

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Today we’ll be discussing how to write faster by streamlining your writing process.

When people say they’re going to write a book, I cringe. Not because I doubt them—exactly the opposite. I cringe because I know how much thankless work is required to write a book. From a business perspective, there’s almost no direct financial return, and only rarely does it have indirect financial return. For every billionaire J.K. Rowling, there are 10,916,371 writers who lose money creating their masterpiece. If you write efficiently, at least you can minimize the damage.

(Note to listeners: If I’ve completely discouraged you from writing a book, great! You’re free! If you’re now more determined than even, that’s also great! Because it means you have the grit to see it through.)

Start at a very high level

Any long piece of writing has a high-level flow. It takes you through the big-chunk concepts in a specific order. Write down that flow in a few sentences. Write one sentence for every major concept for an essay. For a book, write one sentence for each chapter. Just get the thoughts down. Don’t worry about the order, yet.

If you’re writing about the dangers of keeping woodchucks as pets, your big chunks might be:

  1. There was a tragic woodchuck incident in Topeka, Kansas, in 1986.
  2. Woodchucks can, indeed, chuck wood.
  3. Lack of numeracy plagues attempts to quantify woodchuck output.
  4. Woodchucks shouldn’t be kept as pets.

That’s just four sentences long. Congratulations! You’ve written your first draft.

Review your masterpiece

Now that you’ve written your first draft, review it. Does the order make sense? Do the pieces flow logically? If not, change the order, add or remove points, and edit your draft until it’s tight. Have someone else read it and give feedback. It’s just a few sentences, so editing will be quick.

Reviewing your woodchuck article reveals that the logic isn’t quite there. Nothing in your outline actually suggests woodchucks shouldn’t be kept as pets.

You think. You revise. You change the order. You tweak and deepen the points to make the logic explicit:

  1. Woodchucks can indeed chuck wood, thanks to their amazing teeth.
  2. In Topeka, Kansas, the local lumber authority did not know how much wood the Magilicuddy’s pet woodchuck could chuck. The city council sent a representative to measure the woodchuck’s output.
  3. The sun, glinting off the woodchuck’s teeth, blinded the representative and caused them to fall, tragically, into a nearby wood-chipping machine.
  4. Given the history of woodchuck-teeth-inspired accidents, woodchucks shouldn’t be kept as pets.

Now your points are more fleshed out. Congratulations! You’ve edited your first draft into a second draft. You’re getting very good at this.

Iterate over and over, deepening and expanding

Now, revise your way through the manuscript over and over. Each time, try to get each part about 50% better. You want to expand all parts at the same time, so the piece develops gradually, with the same amount of detail in all the sections.

Past a certain length, you can’t revise the entire manuscript on each pass. In that case, take it section by section. Iterate each section for the detail and length you need.

Long writing presents challenges

When you’re writing a book, you can’t keep everything in your head at once. You know your topic well. So well that the basic concepts may come to mind many times throughout the book. 

When you’re working on chapter 1, you’re establishing the tradition of woodchucks chucking wood. You mention that in ancient times, woodchuck teeth were rumored to be made of diamond (I’m making that up to illustrate my point.) In chapter 5, when the sun glints off the woodchuck’s teeth, you also mention the ancient diamond woodchuck tooth rumor. 

You don’t want to explain a concept or use an example twice.

In a book, that’s a no-no. You don’t want to explain a concept or use an example twice. If you do, an observant reader will notice and write a superior-sounding letter explaining how much better than you they are. If only you were as good as them, you would not have made such an obvious, amateurish mistake. Though they have never written anything longer than a critical letter, they are sure they could write your book better than you.

They are wrong, but telling them so will just make them more insistent. So it’s best to avoid duplication in the first place.

Use early drafts to avoid duplicates

Your earlier drafts are essentially outlines of your book, at different levels of detail. Choose a draft detailed enough to give you a roadmap of the book, and short enough to scan quickly. Save that as your Example and Concept Reference Draft.

When you use an example or a concept, note it in the reference draft. Under your skeletal chapter 1, for example, you would note: Used diamond woodchuck example.

When searching for an example for the sun-glinting-off-teeth chapter, you’ll scan your Reference Draft for the bold items. The diamond woodchuck teeth example will pop right out, so you’ll know not to re-use it. Instead, you’ll use a cute little 14th century anecdote about woodchucks going mad and becoming rabid during a total eclipse. 

Using repeated passes, you can write an essay. You can keep going and write a book. Just use cycles. Write it super-briefly, edit, then rewrite it 50% better, deeper, and stronger. Repeat the cycle until you’ve reached the length you want for the whole piece. If your piece is too long to keep in your head at once, use an earlier draft as a roadmap. Note examples and concepts, and you’ll produce a finished masterpiece that’s a singular work of art. As for the rough drafts, you can chuck those.

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I’m Stever Robbins. Follow Get-It-Done Guy on Twitter and Facebook. I help overwhelmed executives get everything under control. Their control. If you lead an organization or a large movement, think big, and plan to change the world, hire me. Learn more at SteverRobbins.com. Listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don't forget to subscribe to the Get-It-Done Guy newsletter to get productivity tips in your inbox every month.

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