Easier Academic Writing: How To Write Faster

Woman writing fast in a notebook.

Want to Learn How to Write Faster?

Journal manuscripts, 20-page academic papers, a 60-page thesis, a 120-page dissertation…there are a lot of papers in most graduate school programs. Some students love them, some students loathe them, but all students dread the amount of time they take and wish they knew how to write faster.

I’m going to be frank with you, academic writing takes time. There’s no getting around that. However, there are things you can do to learn to write faster. In this installment of my Easier Academic Writing series, you’ll find tips and tricks for easier essays and academic papers.

Writing Faster

1. Gather all your materials in one place

It seems straightforward forward but many students don’t think about the preparation needed to help them write faster, they just sit down and figure they will get what they need as they go. One of the first steps in learning how to write faster is to learn to show up prepared. This includes setting up your workstation in a way that facilitates not having to pause to find things, both physical and digital. Make a pot of coffee or tea, run to the bathroom, get the back support pillow you like, grab any books or papers you need, and pile them nearby, whatever you need for writing and comfort. You want to minimize the number of times you have to interrupt your work. Digitally, open up your reference manager (you are using one, right?!?) and create a folder for just that paper, with the assignment requirements, your outline/paper, and anything else you’re going to want. Again, you want to minimize the amount of time you are hunting for digital documents. Every time you need to find something, you have to redirect your attention from the writing process, to finding the item, to using the item, and then back to writing. These little delays add up to large amounts of time and energy lost, so you want to avoid them as much as possible.

2. Create an outline

I’m planning an entire article about creating and using an outline because there’s a lot to say about it. It’s a step that many graduate students skip, but writing an outline can make things faster, easier, and reduce tangents that need to be deleted later. That’s wasted time and effort better spent elsewhere.

Outlines also allow you to set concrete goals for writing. Instead of thinking “ok, I’m going to spend two hours writing my paper” you can take sections of your outline and make them into writing goals, like: “I’m going to write the data description section of my methods section.” This makes you more focused and gives you the motivation to be efficient. If you know you are going to spend two hours working on your paper no matter what, then your brain has no incentive to be efficient. However, if you know that as soon as you finish your writing goals you can stop and do something fun, then your brain has the motivation to be done faster.

3. Use placeholders liberally

My third tip for learning how to write faster is to use placeholders liberally. One of the greatest inefficiencies is shifting focus and effort. This is something that Ford was aware of when he developed the assembly line. If you focus on a single task, instead of shifting attention back and forth, you became more efficient.

You can use this principle to write faster. Writing is writing, it’s not reading a table, looking up a synonym, searching for a citation, or editing a paragraph, and yet students often think of these things as writing. I want to scream “Don’t do it, it’s a trap!” Every time you stop creating new words and shift your attention to something else, you waste time finding the thing, doing the thing, turning back to the writing, then getting back into writing mode. These small diversions add up to wasted hours quickly.

The way to minimize these diversions is to use placeholders. Need to add a statistic? Just add a placeholder and then come back and add all statistics at the end. I like to use a string of three of the same letters, lower case (e.g., zzz) because it will always be flagged by spell check, making it easier to find again (no word in English has three of the same letters in a row and Microsoft® Word treats capital letters as acronyms unless you tell it otherwise so use lower case).

I do the same when I’m struggling to write a sentence. I’ll put in a placeholder like “ADD TRANSITION SENTENCE ABOUT HOW WE EXCLUDED PARTICIPANTS HERE” and keep writing. Often, the sentence I may have struggled with for 5 to 10 minutes in the moment, comes to me in only seconds when I reread that section later.

4. Don’t write in order (unless you want to)

Another tip is to write in any order that you want to. Many students feel like they need to go in order from start to finish, even if they feel more inspired to write a different section. I hate introductions, it’s easier for me to write the methods section so a lot of times I start with the methods, then go back to the introduction when I have some momentum behind me. Sometimes, I’ve just worked on something (like running an analysis), so I’ll write the corresponding part of the paper that’s fresh in my mind.

If you are having trouble writing one section but another section would be easier, then start with the easier section first. You will gain momentum and give yourself time to mull over your approach to the harder section in your subconscious. A lot of times the harder section becomes easier after we’ve worked on something else.

5. Stop editing while you write

The final, most important lesson on how to write faster is to stop editing at the same time. While you are writing, you are focused on the small pieces of an essay, words and sentences. However, efficient editing takes whole sections, chapters, and the entire academic piece into account. Mixing the two takes far longer than doing each separately.

If you are sitting at the computer struggling to come up with the next perfectly worded sentence you are wasting time. If you sit there and wonder if you should use “main” vs. “primary,” you are wasting time. If you are writing a sentence and then rereading it to tweak it, you are wasting time. You cannot do a good job editing until you have written the whole section, chapter, or paper, and doing it while you write is an inefficient habit. Great writing doesn’t come from writing, it comes from good editing. You need to create the shitty first draft, quality comes after.

Want to stop editing while you write? Next time you are working on a paper, get your starting word count, set a timer for 30 minutes, and write as quickly as you can. At 30 minutes, see how many words you’ve added. Set another timer and do it again, try to beat your record. This will help you break the habit of agonizing over every word. You’ll clean it up in editing later. You’ll be amazed at how much faster it goes without increasing your editing time.

Go Forth and Create

Those are my five best tips for learning how to write faster, now it’s time to go apply them. With a bit of practice, you will become more efficient and faster than ever before.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!