Freelance Writing Improvement Lab: 7 Productivity Hacks to Write Faster

Freelance Writing Improvement Lab: Productivity Hacks. Makealivingwriting.comDo you get jealous when other freelance writers talk about how they knock out a simple blog post in under an hour — because it takes you half a day? If so, it’s time to attack this problem and get it solved. To earn a good hourly rate from freelance writing (and end up with a decent income), you’ve got to be able to write assignments in a time-efficient way.

This is especially true if you’re looking to get into content marketing, where you might develop a dozen blog posts or other pieces of content a month for each of multiple different clients. I speak as someone who at one point was writing 72 posts a month, between client blogs and my own blog.

Your success in blogging for clients is highly dependent on your speed. If you’re slow, you won’t be able to juggle multiple content marketing clients and book enough revenue — and you may even be in trouble in terms of meeting your deadlines.

Fortunately, learning to get the writing done faster has been a longtime hobby of mine. My drive to speed up was forged during 12 years as a staff writer, the last five of which required filing a story for our online edition, five days a week by 10 am (in addition to the 3-4 articles a week we had to write).

How did I learn to cut my writing time down? Here are my seven top tips:

1. Stop over-researching

Do you drum up a book’s worth of research for every 750-word article you write? I feel ya — I was super-guilty of this when I first started out. But this turns the writing process into a time-sucking nightmare, as you have way too much material to juggle and have to make painful decisions to leave out interesting stuff.

If you want to earn real money in writing, you’ve got to cut this out. Look at your past pieces and figure out how many research stats or citations fit into a story of that length. When you’ve got that many, stop. If you have interesting side points, save them for another article!

The other way to cut research time is to stop randomly Googling around (and around and around) for information, and learn to be a more effective researcher.

Instead of open Google searches, try Google Scholar to find academic research papers, or the Google News tab for press releases, or Blog Search Engine to find related blog posts. Better yet, hit your local research librarian and ask them about databases they subscribe to that might help you cut to the chase.

2. Stop recording interviews

Recorded interviews require transcribing. This either kills a bunch of your time or costs you money. Either way, you’ve then got to read through the transcript.

Improving your typing speed and learning to take shorthand are both extremely valuable time-saving tools for the busy freelance writer. I learned to do both, and haven’t recorded an interview in years. The result is untold hours of time saved in creating each blog post and article that involves interviews.

The only time it really pays to record is if you’re interviewing a celebrity who’d be impossible to circle back with if you have unclear notes or additional questions.

3. Stop over-interviewing

Do you do 10 interviews for a 500-word article, or interview each source for an hour and a half? That’s not all going to fit into the story.

Don’t abuse your experts’ time or waste time yourself, and limit most interviews to 20-30 minutes tops. The only time you should really need to take much more of an interview subject’s time is if it’s a profile of them.

4. Stop writing overlong first drafts

Do you write a first draft that’s two or even three times the length of your intended wordcount? This is an epic way to create a ton of extra work for yourself. (I still remember the agony of cutting down the 6,000-word first draft of my first 3,000-word cover feature for a newspaper. Ugh!)

One big way to get faster is to discipline yourself to write to length. The easy way to do this is to write subheads for your blog post or story first. Then, take the total length and divide it up by the number of subheads.

For instance, if you have a 1,000-word article with 4 subheads, each section is going to average 250 words. As you write each section, be aware of the space limit for that section. Strive to write short, so that you need little time for editing it down. It’s easier to go back to your notes and find one more interesting point to pop in than it is to find dozens of paragraphs to cut that you worked hard to write.

5. Stop editing as you go and over-editing

We all know that it bogs down the creative writing process if you stop after you write each sentence or paragraph and start fiddling with the editing.

If at all possible, try to spit out a first draft without engaging the editing side of your brain. Don’t stop to look up quotes or research either, or trivia like name spellings. If need be, leave blanks or notes to yourself on facts you need to look up and plug in later. Just spit it out. Doing your editing in a single swoop after your draft is complete will save a block of time.

Next, challenge yourself to edit just once. Maybe read it through once again the next day, and then send it out. Don’t keep picking at it — it’s just wasted time. Remember, your editor is probably going to edit it again, too!

6. Shorten your available time

Do you have 3 weeks to write an assigned article? Give yourself 2.5. If an assignment is due at the end of the day, challenge yourself to get it done by noon.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but nothing concentrates the mind like a truly pressing deadline. It’ll also help you with many of the points above — over-researching and reporting, and writing overlong will all be curtailed if you simply don’t have the time left for it.

Bonus payoff: Aiming early gives you wiggle room if things really go wrong, and you’re more likely to still make your deadline.

7. Organize your time more efficiently

There are a few ways you can gain more productive freelance writing time. One I love is to stop jumping from project to project all day, and to block out a whole day or half-day for a single project. Clear the decks, and your mind will naturally focus better on getting the writing done.

If you have four blog posts to do this month for a client, sit down and write them all back-to-back. Staying in your client’s voice, instead of hopping in and out of it on different days, will save you a bunch of time.

Finally, if you can, do your freelance writing at the time of day where you know you’re most naturally creative. Whether you’re an early riser or a night owl, if you can leave marketing tasks and other miscellany for other times and use more of your prime writing time for writing, you’ll naturally get more done with greater ease.

Keep raising the freelance writing speed bar

Not all of these tips may be relevant to your situation, but hopefully there’s something here that could help you get faster.

My final tip? Simply have a goal of continually speeding up your writing process. Track your hours, and keep challenging yourself to get assignments written faster. It’ll pay off in more well-developed writing chops, the ability to take more rush work at prime rates, and ultimately, in higher income.

How have you improved your writing process? Leave a comment and share your tip.

Freelance Writers Productivity: 13 Ways to Get the Writing Done Faster

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65 comments on “Freelance Writing Improvement Lab: 7 Productivity Hacks to Write Faster
  1. Lorrie Beauchamp says:

    Wow. I have to wholeheartedly DISAGREE with you on this one, Carol. In fact, communicating online (and very much so with blogs) has become incredibly sloppy and rife with errors, both grammatical and otherwise.

    If we’re going to avoid spreading FAKE NEWS, then research is more critical than ever. I learn so much when I research! I would never cut back on that. If we want to provide professional content, then PROOFREADING and editing is crucial. You don’t have to be a perfectionist, but there’s no excuse for allowing a post out into the world without pulling up its socks and combing its hair.

    For accuracy and for historic reasons, recording interviews is just GOOD SENSE. You can verify a quote, you always have a backup if your mind goes blank, and for legal reasons, it’s important to keep a record for a year or so. By the way, pushing the “record” key on your smartphone app is not time-consuming, and digital storage makes this a no-brainer.

    Speaking of time-consuming, WHAT’S THE RUSH? Where are we rushing to? Why are we always rushing?

    I honour the intent of this post, Carol – people can spend too much time agonizing over content and fussing over details. But this is more a question of letting go of the worrying, not letting go of the process.

    Find a balance, but never compromise the quality of your work. I will not read a blog post that feels as if it was pushed out in haste, and unless the content is significantly magical, I can’t overlook bad grammar. Writing is an art, and if you let it get sloppy, you disrespect the art.

    PS – I even re-read my comments, because that’s a reflection on me as well. I can write a blog post in under an hour, and enjoy tweaking it, which might take me three more hours. Just because you take time to do it MINDFULLY doesn’t mean it will take that much more time.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hey, if you’ve got the time and you’re making the hourly rate you want then swell! I hear from many writers with low hourly rates so these tips are for them. In my 12 years as a staffer filing 4 stories a week to keep my job, there wasn’t time.

      I don’t believe I’ve sacrificed any accuracy and haven’t had a correction in years–I type 120 wpm+ and I’m like a court reporter. πŸ˜‰

  2. Mark Anderson says:

    Hey Karol,
    Thanks a lot for coming up with this blog post. I was researching for some working tips to fasten my writing.
    I am a dead-slow writer. And, being a blogger who writes for his blog himself, I find it difficult to deliver.
    I do edit as I write. And, now I know it is a time sucker.
    Thanks a lot for coming up with this article.
    ~Mark

    • Carol Tice says:

      What would you like to fasten your writing to? Just kidding…

      My sense is that you came on here to stuff links to unrelated sales stuff onto my blog, so I removed them. If you’re really interested in writing tips, stick around and keep commenting. We just turned CommentLuv back on, and are trying to decide whether to leave it up. If I get a lot of links to sales pages, we’ll probably remove it again.

      PS — name’s Carol, with a C.

  3. Karin says:

    Great tips! I’ve saved this so I can reference often.

  4. Thank you–holy cow, I have TWENTY TWO PIECES due by next Friday. Plus I’m still setting up my writer’s website, and doing a ton of start-up administrivia, so I’m ALREADY thinking of raising my rates. I’m nervous that this is just a holiday rush, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like I’ve been in denial about how much money I *could* make, and nervous about actually stepping out there.

    Now I’m out there. πŸ˜€

    So, I needed some time-saving hacks. πŸ˜€ Thank you!

    • Carol Tice says:

      You’re welcome, Dotty — but, 22 pieces in a week? What ARE you charging? That sounds like it could only be rock-bottom rates.

      Yes, there’s plenty of work like that, churning out dozens of pieces (where being quick is absolutely mandatory), but you’ll be burned out fast having to write in that volume. Those clients are unlikely to give you a raise, either — you’ll need to find different types of clients (ones that you don’t get through Craigslist, UpWork, Textbroker and the like) to get paid well. The last article I did, for instance, paid $3,400.

      Take a look at this post with some resources on appropriate professional rates — it’ll probably be an eye-opener:

      http://www.makealivingwriting.com/truth-freelance-writers/

      • Oh, I read that already! πŸ˜€ I’ve *literally* only been doing this full-time for two weeks, and I’m making $30-50/hour, with three different clients. πŸ™‚ One gig is copywriting for MY FAVORITE COMPANY, EVER, and it’s the pre-Christmas rush for all of their new products. They said work would taper off mid-December, but so far they’re already like, “Where have you been all our lives? WE LOVE YOU!” So, I plan on asking for more after Christmas. πŸ˜€

        I got this gig without showing them a *single sample*, but by writing them a cover letter in their preferred tone, referencing all of their products, and by Twitter-stalking them with funny gifs about how much I love their company. Then I didn’t hear from them for SIX WEEKS, despite following up twice. Now they’re never getting rid of me. πŸ˜‰

        And I’m saving up to buy a house, so I don’t mind the insanity right now. πŸ˜‰

        • Carol Tice says:

          That IS on the low end for pro rates, but a great start! And sounds like a client you really like. Next client, ask for more. πŸ˜‰

          I LOVE your story of how you got this client — more writers need to be bold and go AFTER, aggressively, the clients they want.

  5. #5 was always what I was guilty of. I’ve gotten good at cutting that out and my speed has definitely improved as a result.
    Colin Newcomer recently posted…How Blog Posts Are Made (or, one man’s writing process)My Profile

  6. Melissa says:

    Writing overlong drafts is my #1 speed-killer! I’m working on that through crafting more specific questions so the source stays on topic and starting with an outline so I stay on topic.

    I have a caveat re: “don’t record interviews”. I always, ALWAYS record interviews for my magazine articles (for newspaper it varies) while also taking extensive notes. I usually write a draft based on my notes, then go back to the recording for the verbatim quote or to verify information from the source. Having the recording has saved my butt twice in the past year – not with sources but with my editors!

    One instance was an interview with a top official at a business organization who was talking about the Presidential election. I verified, on tape, that his comments were on the record. When my editor wanted to cut the entire section and chastised me for “going there”, I was able to play the recording of the source saying straight up that he wanted his comments in the article.

    The other instance was when an editor challenged me over the wording of a quote, and I was able to excerpt that part of the interview and email it to her.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Melissa, you can excerpt that interview from your NOTES — I’ve never been asked to produce a transcript, in 25+ years of doing this. Still not a reason you have to record.

      And if there’s a controversy about whether or not a statement should be included, there’s always getting on the phone and asking the source to confirm. That takes 5 minutes, vs. having to scan back through a 30-min or longer recording to find the spot where they said it.

      • Melissa Lowery says:

        I have to respectfully disagree. It took a month to get on that source’s calendar; who knows how long it would have taken to confirm that he wanted his comments on the record. Because I’d recorded the interview, I could provide verification in moments. Especially beneficial because the magazine was already in production when they decided they wanted confirmation.

        It takes nothing to press record, even if I never use the recording. And I’m not sure how you not being asked to produce a transcript in 25+ years negates me needing to do so twice in one year? But then, I’ve been the exception to almost all of your rules. πŸ™‚

  7. Felix Abur says:

    Awesome tips. I have had issues with meeting deadlines and procrastination. Staying focused can be a problem, especially when your research keeps leading you to many different interesting angles. So your first point, Stop Over-Researching, applies most to me. Over-editing and not organizing my time well have been my other struggles and I’m happy to say I’ve been increasingly overcoming those.

  8. Whitney Allen Foster says:

    Thanks for this! I’m the slowest writer ever :). Partly because I’m such a perfectionist and partly because I have a hard time sitting still. Oh, and I procrastinate. I’m always trying to think of ways to be more disciplined.

    Love your blog, keep it up!

  9. Susie Rosse says:

    Do magazines generally let you give emails via email, or are you expected to interview in person usually? I was thinking of querying magazines that were out of state.

    • Susie Rosse says:

      *Interviews via email xD

    • Carol Tice says:

      Emails are NOT interviews, Susie, as I discuss here: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/interview-secrets/

      But you can talk to people on the phone. πŸ˜‰ The vast majority of interviews happen that way, outside of local publications. National pubs can’t really expect you to fly to 4 different cities to interview experts from all over the country, right?

      • Susie Rosse says:

        Thanks!! I have another question: What about writing for newspapers? Would the interview process be the same, and would they pay as much as magazines would? I found a huge newspaper list for my state.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Susie, newspapers don’t tend to pay much these days, outside of the largest papers in the big cities, sadly. You might want to check and see how many of the papers on that ‘huge list’ are still operating.

          Not sure what you mean by ‘interview process’ but for dailies, they will more often be expecting you to interview people in person, since you’re usually both in the same city.

  10. Eloise McInerney says:

    The two big tips for me here are ‘stop over researching’ and ‘stop over-editing’. I’ve been aware that these suck up a ridiculous amount of time. I’m far too obsessive!
    I’ll stick these up on my wall somewhere to remind me to rein it in πŸ™‚
    I will also be doing multiple blog posts together for a client this week! Thanks for the great advice as always.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Batching blog posts is a life-changer — that’s what allowed me to have several 4-a-month blog post clients at once and easily fit them in with other freelance work. πŸ˜‰

  11. Jennifer Mitchell says:

    Over-researching is the big one for me! I’m too curious for my own good and want to learn absolutely everything about topics.

    • Carol Tice says:

      That was the hardest one to shake for me — I was always doing a book’s worth of research for every article, and then having a nightmare time boiling it down. In fact, my first big article got killed because of this very problem. I knew too much and then couldn’t possibly cram it into one brief story, so it came out like gobbledygook.

  12. Great tips! Productivity is always something I’m working on. When I was doing my internships in news, I expressed that concern with an editor and he gave me your first tip: Stop over-researching. He told me to research the basics and rely on my sources to fill in the gaps. When I’m working on a piece that requires interviews, that tip helps a lot.

    When I was at that same internship, I remember there was a reporter who would type like a mad man whenever he was interviewing someone. I was so amazed that he had the confidence to not even set up a recorder. I still record everything because I would miss things (or direct quotes) if I didn’t. But by typing too, I know that one day I can be fast enough to forget about recording, as you suggest. Plus, typing is always more reliable than recorders! I know that first hand, lol

  13. Holly Bowne says:

    I struggle with speed. And one of the things that has helped me is using a timer. I set specific “time goals” for getting different chunks of a project done and try really, REALLY hard to finish in time!

  14. Carla says:

    Number 1, over-researching, is my thing and boy, is it ever! Right from my uni days and writing essays, I’d read and read and read. Problem with that approach is that it cuts into the time to write, write, write ;-). Your third point, over-interviewing, also resonated with me. I’ve been guilty of this and you are totally right – so often you don’t even end up using most of the interview material in the same article. Better, as you say, to save the ideas and sources for another article!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’ve definitely spun interviews into more than one article, if it was a good source.

      But even more important, you don’t want to abuse sources’ time. Writers need to realize that if you spend 90 minutes talking to a source, they’re thinking they’re getting a LOT of ink — and they’re upset when they see they got 2 lines.

      When I was a business journal staffer, we had one reporter who’d go out and waste half a day with people, and they’d call the editor and complain when they saw how little space they got. Don’t be that writer!

      • Maureen says:

        Great advice! One important thing I learned in journalism school is to be mindful of your sources’ time. Before setting up the interview, know the questions you’re going to ask and why you need that information from that person, so you can make the most of the interview time. I figured out that in many cases (there are exceptions), 15-20 minutes should be plenty, unless you’re writing a profile.

  15. Diane Young says:

    A light went on when I read your suggestion to divide an article word count by the subheads to get the total word count of each subhead. Brilliant! That’s a huge time-saver to keep myself from overwriting. You
    also pinched me about over-researching. It’s always been my MO to research more, write more,and then prune back, rather than write too little and then have to pad the piece with fluff. Thanks, Carol!

    • Carol Tice says:

      You DON’T have to pad a piece with fluff if you’re under. Ask an expert one more question! Bring back in one side point you had pruned out. I think we fear that too much.

      And those of us with habit really rarely end up short of word count. Look at your past work, figure out how many sources really fit…and stop when you’ve done that much. Save more ideas and sources for the next article!

  16. Nora King says:

    My problem is lack of computer skills. I have used computer programs for years now but still have difficulty “getting it”. My learning is random in that, even when I do something correctly, I do not know what I did. And if I do not know how I performed a given function, how can I do it again? Randomly? It is quiet maddening!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m not sure how that’s impacting your writing productivity — but with program learning, I have resorted to creating cheat sheets for myself, or delegating that kind of work to others. I think there are tons of computer-skills classes out there — could be worth taking one. And taking notes. πŸ˜‰

  17. Thank you for this article. These tips are great!

  18. Isaac Anim says:

    In my opinion, it just a matter of time. When I started blogging it took me almost a whole day to write a single post.

    But now I can write a post in less than 2 hours.

    The points you made also make a lot of sense. Over researching makes you write a very long post that no one will read entirely. Research shows that visitors don’t normally read long posts, they only skim through.

  19. Drew Drake says:

    Awesome tips. I am definitely guilty of writing huge pieces. No.4 ‘Stop Writing Overlong First Drafts’, is sound advice.

    Naturally, my writing flows in the moment. I am learning to structure it more thoroughly and this saves stacks of time, whilst improving focus. I can be guilty of flying well off topic by not deciding on sub-topics beforehand and going with what comes to me.

    I also like point No.5 ‘Stop Editing As You Go’. I find it much easier to write by leaving notes such as ‘quote here’, ‘study reference’, and ‘so and so’ (when I cannot remember their name). The flow and creativity is not interrupted when editing is left until the end.

    Thanks for such a great post πŸ™‚

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, Drew. Long ago, I took a training from The Reynolds Center (a great business-reporting resource) and was taught the mantra, “Write without notes, write without quotes, write without attribution.” Stopping to flip through notes, or look up name spellings completely destroys your creative-writing flow. Do it later, and save a ton of time. πŸ˜‰

    • Hard-core perfectionist that I am, I also find it hard not to edit as I go, and will probably never get to the point of making myself leave the wrong-keys-hit-in-haste in for the next round. A whole post could likely be written on how perfectionism, specifically, slows us down.

      Come to think of it, maybe the first five points of this article ARE that post.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Yeah, they are!

        I’ll admit to never leaving typos, either — hopefully that doesn’t slow us down TOO much. πŸ˜‰

        • Maureen says:

          I don’t leave typos either, but I’ve never found that to slow me down, as it doesn’t take much thought to correct it. Even if I tried to move on, I’d find it too distracting!

  20. Amy Campion says:

    This post was written just for me! What shorthand method do you recommend learning? That sounds like a great idea.

    • Carol Tice says:

      As I recall (It was LONG ago), I started with Speedwriting for some basic common words and phrases (don’t even know if that’s still around!), and then sort of created some symbols of my own that were relevant to the beat I was on and common phrases I needed to write down related to my topic. For instance, ‘contractors’ became simply K. That sort of thing.

      • Holly Bowne says:

        Ha, ha! I took Speedwriting way back in high school – used it all through college and ever since! I hadn’t met anybody else who knows about it till you, Carol! Speedwriting is awesome! ;o)

      • I do that too: invent my own abbreviations as I go along. BTW, when doing phone interviews, I’ve often saved overall writing time by typing my notes directly into the file that will become the final manuscript document.

        • Carol Tice says:

          I usually use 2 different docs so I can put them side-by-side more easily, myself — I get tired of flipping up and down the same document to pull info.

          One thing I do that seems to cut my time is PRINT IT ALL OUT. I know, seems crazy. But I’ll print out and quickly highlight for key quotes. And spread that all out in front of me. Then I flip around less and waste less time trying to remember who said what, where that great quote was, and so on. On articles where I skip that step, I think it always takes longer. Lots more flipping around, either digitally or through my pages.

  21. I’m guilty of a few of these! Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  22. Mike Devaney says:

    Hi Carol,

    Not recording interviews (#2) really intrigues me b/c, as you said, they’re huge time investments. I guess I’d worry that the interviewee might complain if I didn’t quote him or her verbatim.

    Learning shorthand sounds good. I know a former NY Times reporter whose work tools consist of nothing more than a tiny notepad and pencil.

    Thanks.

    • Carol Tice says:

      EXACTLY, Mike — I had a formative experience early on when I ended up reporting an event and found myself next to legendary LA Times metro section editor Bob Pool. As you said, teeny little notepad, no recorder. “I don’t have time to record, I have to file by 3!” he told me.

      That was the end of my recording everything! Now I only do it if it’s Mark Cuban or Ozzy Osbourne or something, and I think followup might be tough.

      AND…stop worrying about misquoting, and simply offer to read back exact quotes to sources prior to publication. That’s legit, and reassures subjects. Also…it’s rare to REALLY quote sources verbatim. In fact, they want you to smooth it out and make them sound articulate. πŸ˜‰

      Little of what sources say ends up in quotes, it’s mostly paraphrased anyway. And the snappy quotes tend to stand out in your memory — you can about quote them off your head. You don’t even need the notes, much less the recorder, for that! If it wasn’t that memorable, it probably doesn’t belong in quotations, anyway.

      • Celise says:

        I think the no interview recording thing would be harder if you were writing case studies.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Why, Celise? I certainly write case studies. I just wrote a 3,000 feature article with about 10 different interviews in it, all without recording anyone. That’s can’t be less hairy than not recording interviews for a case study, where often you’re only doing 1-3 interviews!

          If you type fast, you’re good. I can type more or less as fast as people talk. I’m like a court reporter. Huge, huge, timesaver in our biz.

  23. Hmmm! Thanks for this great piece, carol. I am guilty of Number 1. I love researching for facts and figures to a fault. I can spend hours to on research before I finally settled down to write. Good one!

  24. Awesome advice! I really need to work on my typing speed, as I definitely notice how much of a time-suck recording interviews can be. I should have paid attention to that typing class in middle school!

  25. Amy Hardison says:

    Carol, this was my day yesterday. I had 2 hours to write two blog posts that normally take me a total of 3 1`/2 hours. And I actually got them both done! I am especially guilty of the over-researching, and was able to cut it down drastically. Now, to keep that momentum going….

    Thank you again for the always helpful tips!

  26. Olamide says:

    Great tips for a newbie like me. Thanks so much Carol.

  27. Hailey says:

    Great tips–very helpful!! Thank you πŸ™‚

  28. Caryn says:

    I am bookmarking this to read and re-read — I need it! Thanks for sharing these great tips, Carol!