Using Brackets to Write Faster

Posted January 12, 2016 by Briana in writing tips / 30 Comments

Today I’m talking about a little trick that’s saved me so much time while writing first drafts, and I’m so excited to share it with you! Sometimes, it really is the simplest things that can make the biggest difference. Give this technique a try and let me know what you think!
Using Brackets to Write Faster

In her book, Writing Faster FTWauthor L.A. Witt shares several techniques that have helped her write several books a year at impeccable speed. I’m a huge fan of fast drafting and picked this book up hoping to learn some useful tips and tricks to improve my writing speed. One of Witt’s favorite techniques involves the use of brackets. If, while writing, you get to a point where you don’t know what to put for a character’s name, eye color, or dialogue, toss in some brackets! Then, once you’re finished with the draft, you can search for the brackets and beef up the manuscript as needed.

While working on the first draft of my novel Reflections, I’ve been using a lot of brackets. Most of the time, at the end of the day’s writing session, I’ll go back and replace the brackets with relevant information. But when it seems that more in-depth revision will be needed, I leave the brackets until it’s time to do my second draft. For a glimpse of what this technique looks like in action, see the excerpt below:

With her father out of the room, the restaurant felt [adjective], cold, and unsettling. The television, which had gone to a commercial break and was blaring [description of ads], was far too loud for human ears. Rama’s hands trembled as she picked up the remote again and turned the whole thing off. She [phrase about safety even though it meant she had to face her [adjective] thoughts without any distractions.

This paragraph isn’t my favorite passage by a long shot, but it works for the purposes of this post. While working on this snippet, I used brackets to avoid getting bogged down by words that didn’t come to my mind right away. Once I put the brackets in, all I had to do when I was finished was go back in and flesh out the details I missed. Here are the changes:

With her father out of the room, the restaurant felt cavernous, cold, and unsettling. The television, which had gone to a commercial break and was blaring insurance ads, was far too loud for human ears. Rama’s hands trembled as she picked up the remote again and turned the whole thing off. She felt safer in the silence even though it meant she had to face her racing thoughts without any distractions.

Interesting, right? At any rate, it’s readable. And I couldn’t have gotten that paragraph finished as quickly without using brackets.

If you’re working on a first draft, I highly recommend using brackets when you’re drawing a blank on details. They can be used for everything from names to hair colors and even whole descriptions. Instead of getting bogged down in the details, let brackets do the heavy lifting. You can go back and fix them with the first draft is finished.

What are your tips for writing faster? Have you ever tried using brackets?

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30 responses to “Using Brackets to Write Faster

  1. OMG YES I totally do this too! The only catch is that sometimes you might forget to take them out XD I’ve since then learned to Ctrl+F every time before sending my mss off to anyone. I always do something like [Rebel 2] whenever I have recurring characters I haven’t named yet so I can go and do a find and replace 😛

  2. Yes! Such a great tip. While love is an important part of TLM, it isn’t the primary focus on the plot. But it is important that a specific relationship be created and as naturally and realistically as possible. Unfortunately, it has been bogging me down as I write, so I ended up using brackets to come back to finish this section and then skipped ahead to the next one where the relationship is already set so that I can get as much of the first draft written as possible. When I get the draft mostly finished, I’ll go back and finish up that section already knowing where it’s headed!

      • I really enjoyed reading your blog post and learning from all of these replies. I wrote down the summary that I understand on my non digital note to organize it later on my OneNote (by uploading my note’s photo to my MS OneNote 2016). The thing is, after I read Kate’s comment for 5 times and did some searching, I still don’t follow 🙁 Can you elaborate on this one? What’s TLM? What does it do with the bracket technique you shared?
        I’m sorry I’m slow.

        Thank you for everything.

  3. Ooo, what a great tip! I’ll be sure to use it and pass it on to my fellow writers.
    I stop my daily writing in the middle of a sentence if I know I need to finish it the next day. Otherwise, I write a 1 – 3 sentence description of what comes next. It’s similar to the brief plot outlines I have for each scene, but I’ll instead capture what was inspiring me at the time so I can return to that inspired moment more easily.

  4. Blaise Haddow

    I like to use this for points I have to research, too, or if I have to include the mechanism for HOW something is done–basically, I usually use it for large notes to self rather than the details you list here, partially because I can bulk it out during later drafts. That way, I don’t have to worry about the little things until I’m really into editing the nitty gritty.

  5. Erica

    I love this idea and will use it! I’ve been doing something similar for some years now: I use the review tab on MS Word and use the comments features throughout the manuscript. To keep track of names, descriptions and places as well as gaps in the story.

  6. Louise Lilley

    I do this too! It saves so much time, especially in the early stages. I haven’t named a lot of my secondary characters in my WIP so I use square brackets with other identifiers so I know who’s talking, like ‘Hey,’ said [TALL DUDE].

  7. Dee

    I personally stick in a blank–hit the underscore key for at least 5-10 spaces or draw a line if writing longhand. Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) uses the brackets as I understand it. Sometimes to indicate a translation is needed, sometimes a thing/place/person she needs to look up, etc; I don’t know if she uses them in all the ways you describe, however. Does a CTRL-F to find them later.

  8. Jyl Milner

    I use a variation on brackets – I type three capital Xs (XXX) as a placeholder when I’m not yet sure what goes there. Easy to search for, but limiting in the info I can store there. I will try brackets on my next novel, to be sure!

  9. I love, love, love this idea and had to come back and read this post again. Thank you for finally opening my eyes to a way that I can power through and actually get drafts finished. 🙂