Fast and agile writing projects go best

Photo: Acid Pix via Flickr

I’ve noticed something about the significant writing projects I work on: the faster they go, the better the results. It’s not that writing in a hurry is effective (it isn’t). It’s that projects completed in a short timeframe benefit from a higher level of concentration. You might call it an agile writing and editing process.

While I help people with short projects like blog posts and op-eds, the projects I like best are a little meatier: white papers, book proposals, and book editing. Three of those projects stand out for both their speed and quality of the result:

  • I edited Shel Israel and Robert Scoble’s book on augmented and virtual reality, The Fourth Transformation. Over a period of about a month and a half the authors submitted chapters to me, I edited and turned them around quickly, they made updates and volleyed them back to me, and we assembled the completed project into a book. Completing the edits so quickly was challenging for me; I’m sure writing the chapters was challenging for them. But it went so fast that we actually moved the publication date up by two months.
  • I worked with a leadership consultant who had an idea for a book. After meeting with him briefly in New York, I ginned up a treatment for the idea, then we went to work on a proposal. He sent me sample chapters, which needed a lot of work; I suggested restructuring and improvements. I assembled the competing books section of the proposal with him; we collaborated on parts like the promotion section. We completed the process in a few months.
  • A CEO author was seeking ghostwriting help on a marketing book. Another ghostwriter had written a proposal for him, but it wasn’t even close to what he wanted. After talking to him on the phone, I flew out to Los Angeles and met with him, members of his staff, and his PR guy. Based on that meeting, I quickly assembled a rough draft of a completely new proposal. He continually fed me articles and links relevant to the project. He also set up relevant case study interviews over a period of just a few weeks. We completed the proposal quickly after that.

Why fast writing projects turn out better

In a typical project of this size, I’m working with writers over a period of many months. Weeks may go by between drafts and reviews. These projects were different in that there was no dead air: at any moment in the process either the client or I, or both, were making significant progress. Speed, rather than making us sloppy, made us efficient. Here’s why:

  • We concentrated on clearing obstacles out of the way. When you’re on deadline, any impediment gets full attention until you resolve it.
  • The projects made rapid evolutionary progress. The parts that were working, we settled quickly. The parts that weren’t, we worked on until they were.
  • The constant context helped keep things coherent. It was easy for the clients and me to keep the project top of mind because we were constantly working on it. This made the communication better, and made it easier for me, at least, to make sure I remembered stuff we’d decided on chapter 3 when we were working on chapter 6. If there was anything ambiguous, we settled it rapidly with a phone call or an email.
  • We avoided cumbersome, slow processes. In each of these projects, my client was able to approve results quickly, or command the resources to get that approval. The simple approval processes eliminated the weeks of waiting around that tend to come up more complex review cycles.

Slower writing projects can certainly come out great as well. But they’re more likely to run afoul of unresolved issues and permissions, uneven content created by multiple contributors, and inconsistencies borne out of an inability to keep the whole project in mind. I’d rather have a project occupy nearly all my time than juggle a bunch of projects at once, even if it’s stressful, because the results are better — and it’s more exciting, too.

There’s one other reason I like these projects. I charge people some of the money up front and the rest on completing certain milestones. Even if the total amount of money paid on the project is the same, when the project goes quickly, I get paid more quickly. This means I don’t have to multitask with other projects at the same time to pay the bills. (If I insisted that people pay me for waiting around, this might be an issue, but I prefer to keep the their expense and my pay predictable based on the project. I don’t like to get paid for doing nothing.)

How to work faster

You can benefit from these same dynamics in your writing projects. No, I’m not suggesting that you invent deadlines just to scare yourself. But I do recommend a process where you:

  • Prepare all the needed materials ahead of time as much as possible. Start long-lead items like lining up interviews as soon as you get started. You can write quickly if you’ve prepared properly.
  • Simplify review processes. The fewer reviewers whose approval you need, the better. Work with people who have the authority to approve things.
  • Keep it moving. At any given moment you and your reviewers should be working on each others’ content. Eliminate dead time.
  • Concentrate on clearing obstacles. If it’s not moving, do what you must to keep it moving.

I don’t know enough about agile software development to know if this is an agile process, but it sounds something like that. If it is, I now understand a little more about how agile is effective.

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  1. Absolutely agree with this, Josh. Sometimes having no deadline is worse than a tight deadline. And while a tight deadline might bring on the fear, especially when you’re already busy, it does focus you. I’ve experienced this many times, even last week.

  2. The ability to focus often seems like a luxury with the “urgency” of emails, phone, and social media tugging. There are days I put a sign stating, “Intense thoughts: Do not disturb” on the back of a chair blocking my cubicle. Doesn’t control the overall room noise, but does keep visitors who can wait at bay.