How to Write Nonfiction Fast and Well

How do I turn out great written work under deadline?The WNFIN challenge focuses on finishing a nonfiction project in 30 days. A deadline like this often means you have to write fast. As a magazine journalist and a blogger with five blogs, I know all about writing fast to meet deadlines. However, it’s not enough to write fast; you also have to write well. It’s easy to write shlock when you write fast. That’s not the goal during WNFIN. I want you to write great nonfiction–and to finish your project in record time. That’s why I asked my first WNFIN guest blogger, Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, to start us off with a post on how to accomplish both tasks: write fast and well. As a journalist and a journalism teacher he has a wealth of experience to share on this topic. NA

The secret to writing nonfiction fast and well is to write and report at the same time.  This advice may sound either obvious or contradictory to some, but to me it has a Zen like quality in which opposites are reconciled.  What is the sound of two hands writing?

Good fast writing may seem like magic to those who bleed their words on the page or screen. But it is neither magic nor sanguinary.  It is the result of a set of rational steps, a process that can be practiced and mastered.

It begins, of course, with the search for a story idea.  It leads to a period of hunting and gathering, research and reporting that will create the raw material.  Suddenly a focus emerges, a clearer sense of what the story is really about.  That focus helps us select the best material we’ve collected.  Somewhere along the way, an order comes into view, an architecture that helps us plan a beginning, middle, and ending.  If these steps go well, then drafting should be a snap, leaving time for revision.

To describe writing this way seems mechanical and linear, I know, when it is really more organic and circular.  If I can’t figure out how to select the best material, I can go back a step and review the focus.  If I have no focus yet, I turn back and collect more information.  And, guess what, I can begin a draft at any time, even when I am just trying to discover a good idea.  It may not be worthy of the name “first draft” yet.  Maybe it’s just a “zero draft” or “free draft” or “barf draft.”  But it gets my hands moving, my mind working, and teaches me what I already know and what I have yet to learn.

Two things slow the writer, and we all have battled them:  procrastination and writer’s block.  These are not identical evil twins, but they are first cousins.  We experience both as negative forces that prove our unworthiness. Two great writing teachers from New Hampshire, Donald Murray and Donald Graves, taught me the antidotes to these poisons.

I no longer procrastinate.  Now I rehearse.  Anyone who has asked a boss for a raise knows how to rehearse, how to imagine a conversation long before you actually speak the words or pop the question.  The time when I look like I am not writing, I am actually cooking the story in my mind—on one side of the brain or the other.  This simmering on the stove let’s me turn up the heat and deliver the meal in a timely and tasty way.

I never have writer’s block.  Now, on the advice of poet William Stafford, I just lower my standards—at the BEGINNING of the process.  They can be raised as I move closer and closer to revision.  I lower my standards by writing in pencil on a yellow pad, or blasting out 300 words on my computer, or writing myself or my editor a quick note about how the story is going.

When it comes to writing, I believe that struggle is over-rated.  It may romanticize the craft, but that has never helped a writer please or instruct a single reader.  In writing, and reading, the goal should be fluency and daily habit.  “Remember,” Donald Murray once told me, “a page a day equals a book a year.”

About the Author

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute since 1979.  He serves Poynter, a school for journalists, as vice president and senior scholar.  He is the author or editor of 17 books on journalism and writing, the most recent being Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English, and Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, for which there is a mobile app.  His fourth book for publisher Little, Brown is due out in 2013:  How To Write Short:  Word Craft for Fast Times. (Head shot of Roy Peter Clark courtesy of Kelley Benham French.)

Photo courtesy of © Andres Rodriguez |



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