“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”
Douglas Adams, science fiction novelist (1952-2001).
Most writing is done under pressure. That’s because people generally write only because there is a strong and compelling force driving them to write, and often those forces dictate that they must write within time constraints. Many people enjoy writing under pressure in much the same way as they enjoy going to the dentist or listening to fingernails scraping on a chalkboard.
Some people find they write best under time pressure. Trust me, I know. Once, I sat in my car in the parking lot of the conference centre in which I imminently had to give a speech, and watched my audience of 600 streaming into the entranceway as I scribbled down my thoughts on a cue card. Five minutes later, I was giving a speech. Although I don’t recommend this strategy, the speech went very well since it was largely extemporaneous.
Life doesn’t have to be that high-stress, though.
Do you rise to the challenge, or do you find yourself miserably staring at a blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike? If you are in the latter category, read on. Here is a ten-step method to use when writing to convey information under pressure. Note that many elements of this method apply to writing that is not done under pressure as well.
- First and foremost, know your objective for writing before you start to write. Understand your audience and its reading level. Give a thought to what you want your writing to accomplish, and what kind of writing (genre) you need to do to accomplish your goals. Keep all of these in mind throughout the process.
- Prepare yourself in advance by simply thinking a bit about the topic and how you want to organize your document. Familiarize yourself with your subject matter and with the style and form that you will need to use when writing. The best time to form a plan is before you start to write. It can save you time by preventing the need to reorganize after the first draft is done. At the same time, don’t over-plan to the point that you run out of time for writing. You also want to stay flexible with your ideas at this early stage. Creativity and lateral thinking are key elements of good writing.
- Plan your time lines. If you can, build enough time into your schedule to do at least one fast revision before you hit your deadline wall. Writing is an iterative process and most polished written work needs to be revised at least once. Be realistic. Don’t expect your written product to spring fully formed from your keystrokes. Start early enough that you have buffer time for drafts.
- Organize yourself. Have all the tools you need at hand before you start to write. Computer, batteries, printer, paper, ink cartridges, instructions, references...have your toolbox in good order. This sounds elementary but it’s amazing how many people frantically scramble around for basic supplies as their time for writing dwindles down and finally vanishes.
- Minimize distractions. Let others around you know that you need to concentrate and not be interrupted. Turn off the internet, phone, and email. Shut the door. Turn your face from the window towards a blank wall.
- Use your mental plan to sketch a point form outline that will structure your material. This is the skeleton of your writing, on which you will lay flesh in later drafts. If you are writing to pass on information, set out the main points and key take-away messages. If you are writing to persuade your audience, lay out your premise or thesis and supporting arguments. The main thing is to get your ideas down and set out your train of thought. Relax and be creative.
- After the point form outline, do a first draft. This is the point at which you write sentences and paragraphs. Have you done a piece similar to the one at hand in the past? Use it as a template, if appropriate, to give guidance on structure. If you are writing for academic purposes and citing references, do your references as you go along, preferably using RefWorks or a similar program.
- If you get stuck, go sideways. A fun way to get out of writer’s block is to use Oblique cards. This is a set of one hundred cards developed in 1975 by musician/producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. Each card contains a quotation or statement designed to help you out when your brain grinds to a halt. You see some of the strategies on one of the Twitter accounts that it inspired, such as http://twitter.com/oblique_chirps. (Example: Is something missing?) If you need to take a break but are in the middle of some concentrated effort, stop partway through a sentence and jot down where you want the next sentence to go. It will be easy to pick up and finish the thought once you return, and it reduces the time you need to gather your thoughts while being away.
- Once you’ve finished your draft, quickly revise it to produce at least one more draft. Check it against your objectives, goals, or directions. This is the stage at which you reduce sentence length, eliminate redundancies, and make sure your spelling and grammar are perfect. If it’s too long, cut it down. If you have room, add supporting material to strengthen the overall argument and increase the level of depth in the final product.
- Add the finishing touches and make sure the formatting is clean and attractive.