©2019 by Nathan Thompson.

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Analogue Planning in a Digital World: How to Cut Your Writing Time in Half

Updated: Feb 16

Do you know what the most expensive part of my job as a writer is?

I’ll give you a hint: It’s not a laptop; it’s not a coworking space; it’s not even the $6 hipster coffee. No. It’s pens and legal pads.

Over the last ten years I’ve probably spent more money on pens and legal pads than I have on my mortgage—and it’s been totally worth it. Why? Because I hate wasting time as a writer and when it comes to coming up quality, well-organized content, there’s simply no substitute for pens and legal pads. What’s funny, though, is that I do all my actual writing on a MacBook.

“So,” you may be wondering, “why on Earth would you go through so many pens and legal pads?” That’s simple. Creating outlines. We all know the benefits of creating outlines before you dive into the actual writing, but so many people make the mistake of doing this on their computer. While there are some benefits to digitally planning your work, the real time-saver is actually doing it by hand. That’s why I outline all my written work—yes, including this—with good ol’ fashioned pen and paper.

Here are reasons why: 1. Think before you speak...but also while you speak

So much of my time is spent typing. Emails, texts, and social media give me enough opportunities to click-clack the day away that I’ve become incredibly efficient with a keyboard. The problem is that sometimes this efficiency appears in the form of “mindlessness.” I’ll start writing an article or responding to an email, have a pretty good idea of what I want to say, and just go at it until the result is a passable paragraph full of semi-coherent jargon—much like this last sentence. Writing by hand, however, is a habit I’ve grown out of and requires a certain amount of focus as I’m going through the process. When I’m outlining my work on paper, it becomes a lot harder to switch on “auto-pilot” and forces me to grapple with what I want to include in my message. As a former professor once told me: “The key to clean writing is figuring out exactly what you want to say and say only that.” This level of precision is a lot harder to tackle at 75 WPM.

2. Stop all the Ctrl + C’s, V’s, and Z’s.

Every writer does this. It’s part of the process. But writing by hand means doing it a whole lot less simply because it takes so much more work to make any changes. Asterisks, decoding systems, and long arrows in the margins will still mark up your legal pad, sure; but the changes you choose to make will be more thoughtful and calculated when you can’t make them with the click of a button.

3. Distraction-free is the way to be.

I remember being in college and hearing some of my roommates talk about their 10-hour study sessions at the library. I was jealous. I had always found it difficult to study for longer than 3-4 hours without needing a mental break, so hearing about their willpower was a huge inspiration. So much so, in fact, that I resolved to join them. Sitting in that study room was a real eye-opener because I realized that their 10-hour library “sesh” only included 2-3 hours of actual study. The rest of the time was spent on Facebook, YouTube, or showing each other what they had just found on Facebook or YouTube. Turns out, I was able to accomplish more in my 3-4 hours than they could in 10 because I was less susceptible to distractions. As the worldwide web has grown, this has only become all the more true. After all, BroadBandSearch.com noted that on average people spend over 2 hours per day just looking at social media. My own computer constantly has between 5-8 tabs open at all times and email notifications that never seem to calm down. You know what has none of these? My legal pad. The bottom line is that sitting down for 30 minutes and creating an outline without a million distractions will save you hours of wasted time in the long run. Didn’t think writing would take so much effort?

No worries. You’re not alone. Most people think that writing is easy, painless, and spontaneous… and it is. But good writing isn’t; it’s just the opposite. In fact, this seems to be the common secret among good writers:

Making your writing style seem effortless takes 10x as much effort.

Fortunately you can cut out over half of that hard work with a a pen, a piece of paper, and a solid outline. So the next time you sit down to structure your upcoming piece give it a shot. If you feel weird, that's OK, too. Just remember that it's a process that is tried and true. In other words, when it comes to the analogue world, we have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't. It's all that digital stuff we're still trying to sort out.