How to write faster.

Culture and technology.
Aug. 10 2011 11:45 AM

Slowpoke

How to be a faster writer.

(Continued from Page 1)

Kellogg is always careful to emphasize the extreme cognitive demands of writing, which is very flattering. "Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task," he declares. It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance. We are all aspiring Mozarts indeed. So what's holding us back? How does one write faster? Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as "knowledge-crafting." In that state, the writer's brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what's being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

Since writing is such a cognitively intense task, the key to becoming faster is to develop strategies to make writing literally less mind-blowing. Growing up, we all become speedier writers when our penmanship becomes automatic and we no longer have to think consciously about subject-verb agreement. It's obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well. In that case, the writer doesn't have to keep all of the facts in her working memory, freeing up more attention for planning and composing.

Advertisement

The modern multitasking style of composing next to an open Internet browser is one solution to limiting writing's cognitive burden. There are experimental programs that will analyze what you are writing and attempt to retrieve relevant definitions, facts, and documents from the Web in case you need them. Like many writers, I take a lot of notes before I compose a first draft. The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don't look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

Alas, the cognitive literature offers no easy solutions. The same formula appears: "Self-regulation through daily writing, brief work sessions, realistic deadlines, and maintaining low emotional arousal." My old enemy, self-regulation. We meet again.

Kellogg does offer a few takeaway hints for would-be writers. First, if you haven't been writing stories since you were a little kid, give yourself a break since you are actually a "late bloomer." Second, read everything, all the time. That's the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you're searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.

Most writers spend their entire careers happily avoiding such an emotional root canal. But not me! I'll read each and every one of your comments. After I go get coffee and a muffin. "Maybe banana nut. That's a good muffin."

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.