Posted On October 22, 2012 by Print This Post

Hold Your Nose and Type – The Upside of Writing Fast with Ruth Harris

RU contributor, Ruth Harris, joins us today to discuss ways to jump start your writing and boost your word count.   

Hello, Ruth!

Today, as we head for NaNoWriMo, I’m going to talk about another, much less frequently suggested, but equally anatomically impossible act: the plusses of holding your nose and typing. But, you ask, won’t I add to the “tsunami of crap”? The answer is yes, of course, but let me remind you that writing slowly and agonizingly can also result in unspeakable crap. So, you choose.By writing fast, you warm up the engine and get it running.

You quash the inner scold, that mahatma of negativity that rains on your parade. By writing fast, you don’t have time to censor or second-guess yourself and you avoid wasting time obsessing over whether your hero should be blond, brunette or a power-baldy à la Bruce Willis. You can always figure that out later and, more often than not, as the character engages and develops, hair color (or lack of hair) will become obvious.

Writing fast increases your chances of “getting into the flow” and gaining access to your sub-conscious or what Steven King calls “the boys downstairs.” Those “boys”—or girls if you’re of the female persuasion—are the source of inspiration. They are the ones who come up with the unexpected (even to the writer!) plot twist and help you get the work done.

By watching the words and the pages pile up, you give yourself the gift of a sense of accomplishment. Where there was nothing, there is now something and the mere fact that there’s “something” where once there was nothing builds confidence.

Last of all, writing fast is professionally crucial in these days of self-publishing because a new book helps sell the old books. Just ask Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith.

Now that I’ve persuaded you (I hope!) of the importance of writing fast, one obvious question rises: How do you make yourself write when you’re tired, distracted, uninspired or just plain “not in the mood.”

My friend Rona Jaffe used to “read something good.” Which meant one of her already-published books. For Rona, reading her own work reminded her of what she did well and what she’d been successful at.

Other writers read something by an author whose work they admire.

Coffee works for some. Loud music for others. Vivaldi’s The Seasons for still others.

An external deadline can help: a contract or even a promise to someone else—including the dog who is in need of a walk.

Setting a word target, a time target, a scene target adds focus in the form of an achievable goal.

Do you respond better to the kiss or the whip? If the first, promise yourself a Dove Bar at the end of your just-get-it-down writing session. If the whip, then no dessert for you tonight unless you get your quota filled!

Shut the door, turn off the phone, the internet, do whatever you have to do to get the job done. Adapt Nora Roberts’ approach: you will permit interruptions only in the case of “blood or fire.”

Just begin and power through because once you’ve got something —almost anything— down on paper or, these days, on the screen, you have a point of departure. You can always fix it later. If you don’t have something down, there’s nothing to fix.

In the Universe of Writing Fast, there are a number of possible outcomes:

1) Might be much better than you think & just needs a light edit. Yay!

2) Might be pretty good but needs a careful edit. OK, editing is just part of the job of being a writer so get on with it.

3) Might be dull, drab and needs major, butt-in-chair revision. That’s OK, too, because revision is also part of the job.

4) The aaargh! draft: So what you wrote is real crapola and needs a four-corners rewrite? Don’t let that get you down. As I always say, “It ain’t the writing it’s the rewriting.” Professionals know it and the aaargh! draft is the perfect case in point.

5) Even worse than the aaargh draft is draft so putrid that it threatens the very integrity of the time-space continuum. We’ve all been there, done that and that’s why keyboards come with delete buttons. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you have to publish it or even that anyone else has to see it. Just trash it and move on. But don’t forget that writing has powerful after-effect and that even the worse draft imaginable can trigger important new ideas.

6) Saving best for last: OMG! Did I write that? It’s just about the best feeling a writer can have and, when you write fast, you outrun your insecurities and second guesses, your tendency to “fix” and diddle, you’re also raising the odds of the OMG!-Did-I-write-that? moment.


How do you motivate yourself when faced with a blank page? Have you ever discovered a nugget of brilliance among (as Ruth so eloquently phrased it) your tsunami of crap? 

Are you participating in NaNoWrimo this year? Nano veterans: share your secret to achieving 50K words in 30 days.


Debut author, Susan Boyer, joins us on Wednesday, October 24th.


Bio: Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books (with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St.Martin’s Press) have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club. Ruth started out in publishing right after she graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to a textbook editor, an unpromising start if there ever was one, but she was soon promoted to copyediting—much more interesting.

She’s been a copywriter, assistant editor, editor, editor-in-chief and, eventually, publisher at Kensington.

Ruth blogs with author Anne R. Allen and WG2E . For inspiration and insight into Ruth’s world, check out her blog.

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43 Responses to “Hold Your Nose and Type – The Upside of Writing Fast with Ruth Harris”

  1. Hi Ruth:

    You are so right. When I was in college, the professor made us do what he called “quick writes,” writing without thinking about it. It frees up your creative side and helps to get the words down on the page.

    Attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, and plan to write fast and turn off the mahatma of negativity (love that term).

    Posted by Janice Lane Palko | October 22, 2012, 5:23 am
    • Janice—”Quick writes” is a perfect way to describe what I’m talking about.

      Thanks for the kind words about mahatma of negativity. MoN is a perfect example of what happens when you write fast. One day, I was working on my current WiP & MoN just popped up on my screen. Pretty good, I thought, amazed that I’d written it & wondering where the h*ll did that come from? I sure didn’t plan it & would never have been able to consciously invent it. Your college prof knew what he was talking about!

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 7:00 am
  2. I’ve participated in NaNo since 2009 and even during the rest of the year, I use Write Or Die to quick-write my first drafts. The only aaargh draft I got was my first novel, and that was because I hadn’t really learned the rules yet (excessive head hopping, adverbs, detailed minutiae–he stepped off the coach; he walked to the house; he stepped into the foyer; etc.). The more I write, the more I get the OMG moments rather than seeing a tsunami of crap. Now…there is crap. Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty to edit when I’m done, but it’s nowhere near as bad as I expect. I attribute this to my characters taking over while I write, and sometimes I reread and don’t remember typing those words at all! (Those are the OMG moments, usually).

    Tips for NaNo:
    1. Plot, even if it’s a bare skeleton outline so you don’t spend precious time trying to figure out where it’s going.
    2. DO NOT DELETE. If you’re using MS Word, highlight words (in red) you know you need to cut later. I’ve also realized halfway through a scene that it needs to be in another character’s POV. I keep BOTH versions in the main doc, with some sort of marker at the beginning (i.e., [x scene, heroine’s POV]). Sometimes I can’t decide, so it’s nice to have both version already written. If you’ve written yourself into a corner, just start a new paragraph picking up where you want it to and keep typing. Highlight the useless bits for deletion on December 1.

    Posted by Noelle | October 22, 2012, 6:30 am
    • Noelle—Thanks for mentioning the need for advance plotting. As you say, even the barest skeleton is essential. I find a scribbled list à la a grocery list does the job just fine.

      In addition, I usually start with some idea of the MC–how old, where she lives, her personal & professional lives, maybe her family background. No details at this early stage, but a rough sketch is a big help.

      PS: I know that some writers need to know the ending when they begin but I never do. For me, the characters take over at a certain point & do that job. The most I knew is that there will be a happy (or at least resolved) ending.

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 7:08 am
    • I don’t know why I have never considered highlighting for what you have mentioned! Thanks! That is so liberating! =)

      Posted by Tammy | October 27, 2012, 9:50 am
  3. Hi Ruth,

    I write two stories at once. Pushing both keeps me in the zone and piles up a lot of crap. One day a week is all about editing.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 22, 2012, 6:54 am
    • Mary Jo—Yep, crap is inevitable. But if speed kills, crap doesn’t. It (usually) just needs editing.

      If editing doesn’t help, just go write some more crap. This time around you might produce superior—ie fixable—crap. 😉

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 7:12 am
  4. Morning Ruth!

    Oh I love writing fast. Nano is perfect for me….=) There is yes, tons of crap, some of it needing hauled out with Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, but at the end of the first draft I KNOW my characters and settings and what’s not working. For a non-plotter, that’s really important!

    I’ll also use the comments feature on myself when I’m typing fast or *** star certain items *** that I know need to be fixed later. Then it’s easy to go back and find the fix-this-please areas. =)

    Great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 22, 2012, 8:04 am
    • Carrie—Excellent! Love the MM Steam Shovel concept. I bet even Stephen King & Nora Roberts are familiar with MMSS. 😉

      Good idea to use the comments or *** to set off parts that you KNOW need work. Very easy to find later & gets you right back into the flow.

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 8:36 am
  5. Ruth – I want a “Tsunami of Crap” t-shirt! Thanks for the brilliant advice, and for the reminder that writing slowly doesn’t necessarily generate brilliant work. When I started writing fiction, I completed my first story in about 6 weeks. In the next year I completed three more. Last year I “completed” two stories – they STILL need work. This year? Not a one. I question every word I write now. I wasn’t going to do NaNo – I’ve got a stack of NaNo stories waiting for revision already – but maybe that’s what I need to do. Thank you so much!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 22, 2012, 10:20 am
  6. I’ve signed up for NaNo for the first time this year. I’ve done some speed writing, more because of getting into a groove than for hard and fast deadlines, but I’d like to make fast drafting a regular practice.

    Posted by Marji Laine | October 22, 2012, 12:02 pm
  7. Hi Ruth!

    I want t-shirt, too! I could probably write faster if I didn’t feel the need to stop and tweak after every page. I like to scribble the ending first. It’s a crutch, but in my mind, I need to know that the story has an end, even though the ending usually changes.

    When the words aren’t flowing, I’ll fill a page with crap…random snippets on the current ms (or if I’m really desperate, another story). I call it brain-dumping. It keeps the gears in motion.

    Love your post and phraseology. Thanks for joining us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 22, 2012, 12:05 pm
    • Jen—I’m pretty sure tsunami of crap is not my creation. Joe Konrath maybe? Not sure. Anyway, whoever created it has reason to be proud & I can certainly see it on a T-shirt!

      Lots of writers draft the ending first & I understand why—it gives them something to write toward. I just can’t do it…I need the characters to do it for me. Plus I need to be surprised. The few times I’ve written an outline, the end product is DOA.

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 12:40 pm
  8. Hi, Ruth. I’m a believer in the ugly first draft. I’m a plotter and tend to do an outline first. Once I have that outline, I try to pound out a first draft without editing. I find it completely takes the pressure off and let’s me just have fun.

    The hard stuff comes later when I have to edit!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 22, 2012, 12:33 pm
    • Adrienne—Agree about the ugly 1st draft! As I said just above, editing/revision is what takes time & thought. It’s also what produces the polished, delightful-to-read book that comes out the other end.

      Do you do a very detailed outline? Or just a rough sketch?

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 12:42 pm
  9. NaNo has been huge for me. I have several partial and complete manuscripts. Nearly every one stemmed from my participation in NaNoWriMo. Sometimes it took me a couple years to go back and finish, then rewrite, rewrite, and revise the manuscript, but it’s been completely worth it.

    NaNo is worth doing for the productivity alone.

    Posted by Roxanne | October 22, 2012, 12:38 pm
    • Hey, Roxanne!

      Come to think of it, three of my manuscripts are from Nano, and two of them are connected, although that wasn’t my intention since they were written three years apart. Not sure if I’ll have time for Nano this year, but happy writing if you’re participating.

      Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 22, 2012, 1:19 pm
  10. Roxanne—Sounds like you’ve created a treasure-trove of material that will serve you well! I’m not surprised you’ve spent a few years rewriting & revising. That’s when the real work begins. Hope you have another productive NaNo this year!

    Posted by Ruth Harris | October 22, 2012, 12:45 pm
  11. Ruth,

    Thank you for joining us today and many thanks to everyone who stopped by!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 22, 2012, 10:39 pm
  12. Wonderful post! Wholeheartedly agree!

    Posted by Hugh Howey | October 23, 2012, 11:16 am
  13. I will be forever grateful to the person who pointed me in the direction of this article about writing fast. It soooo works. I’ve been working on a triligy of short stories and where the first one took me weeks, the second one took a day. I’m about to do the third one and expect it also to be done in a day. Obviously been making things hard ofr myself!

    Posted by Carol Clifford | October 24, 2012, 7:59 pm
  14. I’m a big fan of fast writing – I’d far rather get words down on paper now and edit/fix later, than get bogged down as I go.

    I also find that the more detailed the initial outline, the faster I can go.

    Posted by Mark | October 25, 2012, 2:28 am
  15. If you want to turn off your ‘editing’ head, reduce your manuscript page where you can only see four lines, much like an AlphaSmart, and have at it. You can change the margins later.

    Posted by Pepper Phillips | October 26, 2012, 9:41 am
  16. I’m way late to this party, but I wanted to chime in. This is such great advice. Last month I forced myself to pound out a daily word count on a book due next week. Now that I’m revising, I’m finding it’s much easier than if I had nothing on the page. Another big plus–I simply outlined some scenes that I thought would need heavy research and now I’m finding I don’t need the scenes! Saved myself a bunch of time.

    Posted by Anne R. Allen | October 29, 2012, 6:16 pm
    • Anne—You bring up a major point. I cannot tell you how much time I have spent (wasted) polishing/editing/researching/revising chapters that I find out later need to be cut.

      I never even thought of this until you mentioned it so thank you!!!

      Posted by Ruth Harris | October 30, 2012, 6:49 am
  17. Good post.
    This is my first year participating in NaNo. So far, so good in word count. The story itself might even be okay, but I know the style/prose needs to be improved drastically.

    In any case, its a much different experience from when I took time to write out my first manuscript, a couple years back. For myself, I think fast writing has many uses, but also tends to limit quality during certain parts of the story.

    Some of this might also come from overwriting. I took a break from NaNo for a day, did no writing, just watch movies, relaxed, etc. The next day my writing style shot up considerably.

    Posted by Gibson | November 17, 2012, 12:01 pm


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  2. […] because you haven’t a clue on what to write? Don’t despair! Check out this fabulous post by RU contributor Ruth Harris on how to resuscitate your writing […]

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