Write or die: teaching students to write quickly

Mark HamiltonWhen teaching my students to write first drafts quickly, explains Mark Hamilton, the web-based tool Write or Die is a big help. It puts emphasis on the revision stage and adds some fun in the classroom.

Write or Die  is an interesting tool to help journalists-to-be get to that magical point where they have the confidence to write quickly.

The web-based tool (there’s also a desktop app; more on that later) lets you set a word-count target and a time limit, then gives you a writing screen with a countdown timer at the bottom left and a word-counter at bottom right. There are no other distractions on the page, other than two buttons: one to click when you’re done; and one to pause.

If you stop writing, the screen around the writing box gets progressively redder. If you pause for too long without using the pause button, Write or Die may start eating your words. When you’re finished, you get a report on how well you did and you can copy and paste your work into a word processing document to save it.

Write or Die isn’t meant for the type of writing that involves polishing each sentence and editing as you go. And that fits well with the process I’ve been trying to woo my students to: write the draft of the article quickly and then spend much more time revising it to make it a solid piece of writing.

Writing the first draft quickly means turning off the internal editor, ignoring the typos and living with the clichés that make their way into the piece. It means jumping over the spots that are giving you trouble (filling them with a question mark or two to flag them) and getting on with it. It works best when you have the subject of the story clearly in mind, and some idea about a working structure, then letting ‘er rip, from the starting capital letter to the final dot.

It’s when you’re finished the draft that the real writing begins — fixing the typos, replacing the clichés, rewriting for both sense and rhythm, filling in the blanks, hunting down unanswered questions, providing answers and making the necessary small (and sometimes large) structural changes.

You can do this with longer pieces, too, if you break the bigger story down into its individual parts (scenes, chapters, sections, etc.), quickly draft each of them and use the time you gain to piece them together and build the transitions during revision.

As well as getting students to draft more quickly, this also puts proper emphasis on the revision stage for improving the writing, not just a doing a light proofread.

This works for most, but not all students. One reason is that, as well as giving them the ability to draft quickly, it develops increased confidence in their ability to structure information. Another is that it shuts up the internal critic and takes away the terror of the blank screen. Without the pressure to make it perfect the first time through, writing becomes easier. Because it’s usually easier to work with something that exists, than it is to create a well written piece in one go, it becomes easier to recognize the revision stage (or stages) as the place where the magic happens.

(I have at least two students who swear by this process. One told the class that it has cut the time it takes her to write the final article by as much as 20 per cent.)

Write or Die fits into that process nicely, as a tool for developing the skill of getting it down quickly. Here’s how I’ve told my students they might use it:

   1. Start with a subject you know well — a story you’ve just researched, for example.
   2. Review your notes and fix, in your head, the main points. Give some thought to the order they need to go in.
   3. Set a word limit and what seems to be a reasonable time limit.
   4. Write it.
   5. After you’ve done it a couple of times, and have a sense of how fast you can write, challenge yourself by either increasing the word limit or cutting the time limit.

Write or Die can add some fun to learning and writing. (It might be even more fun if the whole piece disappeared if you didn’t meet your goal, but what that might wind up teaching is frustration.) It can also be used, with a bit of analysis, to figure out what it is that’s stopping you from writing drafts quickly.

As I said, the process of drafting quickly and revising for quality doesn’t click with all students, and neither will Write or Die as a way of learning. But it’s another nice tool to have hanging on the pegboard.

A final note: as well as the website, Write or Die is available as a desktop app. It costs $10 and includes the ability to customize the way it looks and works, and even have a Word War, where you compete head-to-head with another writer.

Mark Hamilton teaches journalism at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. This column first appeared in his blog Notes from a Teacher.