Writing a thousand words
A method for getting them done well, in just 90 minutes
I write a lot these days and I write quickly. Sometimes I’m asked what my process is, at least for writing mid-length (~1,000-word) articles.
On Monday of this week, Harvard Business Review (HBR) published this article on timeboxing. I’ll use that piece to illustrate the method here.
I’ve always enjoyed working with HBR. As you’d expect, their editorial process is excellent. The editors are thoughtful, knowledgeable and exacting. The iteration is effective and the process takes just a couple of days. The remit is clear: they need ~1000 words on a topic at the intersection of their author’s expertise and their readership’s interest. Having written in several other publications too, I’ve found that on various measures the reach and impact of writing for HBR is immense - their x.com (formerly Twitter) account has almost six million followers.
The timeboxing article mentioned above took 90 minutes to write from start to finish. Let’s see how.
A detailed plan
Harvard requires a pitch / plan. But whether working with a publisher or not, a thought-through plan is essential. I would never start writing without one. My favourite HBR article ever, from half a century ago, states that clear writing means clear thinking.
The plan needn’t be long. A few bullets is enough. Even if I’m very familiar with the subject matter, I’ll take a look at what’s been written recently online. Getting from that research to an ordered (the order matters as that represents how the story’s going to unfurl) list of key bullet points doesn’t take long. I usually get this done in a 30-minute timebox.
If specific, apt phrasing occurs in the process, I’ll throw that in too. Any links to research, are also added in case useful for the writing..
For Monday’s article, I’d sent HBR a pitch of exactly five bullet points.
Sleep & exercise
Then I give my brain a rest. Ideally, I’ll have an overnight sleep or two before sitting down to write the article itself. If I’m up against a very tight deadline, a different activity, and physical exercise in particular (moving works especially well for me: a run, a walk, a swim, a cycle) is a good substitute.
The purpose here is to allow and encourage the brain to work on the topic from a different angle. I usually get a couple of extra perspectives or ideas on the topic precisely by not thinking about the specific topic itself. As I get those ideas, I add them to my notes immediately so they’re not forgotten.
Writing it out
I need ~60 minutes for this. I find I’m raring to go as long as I have my plan. Obviously, I apply good timeboxing practice here (as well as in the planning session) ie I’m focused on this single activity, distraction-free.
The intro and conclusion (the first and last bullet points) take ~15 minutes, together. Each of the three points in between also takes around 15 minutes too. Since each section is 200-250 words, these are never intimidating tasks.
If I’ve done all of the above, my energy is good throughout the process. I never get writer’s block because, done this way, the writing path ahead has been cleared by the plan. 80% of the time I achieve a state of flow for some or all of the writing.
And so the hour flies by. All of a sudden, there are a thousand words, which I’m pretty happy with, ready to be shared with the world.
Image: NightCafe Creator