This post got me thinking. After all I’ve been writing a lot about productivity recently, and as a freelance writer (with other responsibilities) I’m under a lot of pressure to make sure I’m using every moment efficiently and effectively, maximizing my outputs and minimizing those inputs to get as much done as possible in the time I have available.

What I’ve learned in my research of productivity as a concept and its application in the business world is that (among other things) it matters tremendously what the output is. “Product” after all is the root of the word, so the object that’s delivered is vitally important. If the end result isn’t worth anything, all the efficiency in the world isn’t going to make that time any better spent.

While the tips in the post linked above are all good and worth considering, they all approach productivity from the perspective of time management. That can’t be overlooked, but productive writing, in my experience, stems from one consideration alone: What is the finished piece meant to achieve?

Writing is a talent that’s in high demand by employers. That’s not just for actual writing projects such as blog posts, white papers, marketing materials and so on, but simply for day to day operations. Too few people know how to effectively share their thoughts in a concise email, or write a persuasive presentation. The ability to do so absolutely sets you apart in the marketplace.

Productive writing isn’t the same as efficient writing, though. The latter is when you are able to pound out that recap your boss asked for in the 30 minutes you had free between meetings that totally could have been emails. You used every minute available and accomplished what you’d been tasked with, so let’s check that off your bullet journal list. Good job. Doing so is to be lauded.

The former is more about answering “did this do what it needed to in the best way possible?” I’ll use an example from my own experience to illustrate.

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself with an email that needs responding to, one that opens up several cans of worms. I then proceed to spend 20 minutes writing seven paragraphs, each going into great detail on each of the points raised and offering my thoughtful analysis of not only the situation but where I see opportunities or dangers. It is wonderfully phrased, conveys authority and knowledge, and will absolutely convince the individual on the other end to adopt my recommended course of action.

There’s just one problem: It’s not at all what they’re looking for. Even worse, it’s so dense there’s zero chance it will be given the attention it’s due, likely resulting in my being asked to explain myself more clearly.

The first thing I do when I realize I’ve given in to my verbose tendencies is saving what I’ve just written. It may not be what needs to be sent at that moment, but copying it and pasting it into a Google Doc for use later can’t hurt at all. Then I delete the novella I just wrote and replace it with a series of bullet points that more directly address the issues raised or questions asked, offering short and clear responses that can easily be consumed and processed, followed by an offer to go more in-depth on anything if there are continued issues.

This process is admittedly inefficient since 20 of the 25 minutes I spent on it resulted in something that wasn’t used. But that whole period of time was productive, because:

  1. The drafting process helped hone my own thinking, so my eventual shorter answers were better.
  2. The “brain dump” process (for me at least) helps ensure I’ve addressed the whole issue, not leaving anything out, or at least minimizing the chance of doing so.
  3. Because I archived that initial draft, I’ve saved myself time later if or when more detail is requested. There may be some revision that’s necessary, but it’s more or less all there to be pulled when needed. I’ve sometimes shared this document with teammates so they can understand my thinking and bring their own perspectives to it, which is valuable.

My efficiency may be in doubt (“Can’t you just skip that first step and get it done?”) but my productivity is optimal because the end result – the product – is exactly what it needed to be, no more and no less.

That’s the real trick when it comes to productive writing. It’s not so much about fitting as many words into the time you have at the keyboard as you can, it’s about doing the most with that time and ending up with something that is what it needs to be.

It’s that issue that often gets missed when talking about productivity in general and writing productivity specifically: What does this need to be? Who is this meant for? What is it supposed to do? What’s the best possible form this can take?

If you’ve answered those questions and have a plan for addressing them, you’re well on your way to being a productive writer.