7 ways to stop editing while you write

editing while you write

Word count: 745 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Are you writing slowly because you’re editing WHILE you write? Today, I give some practical advice on how to break that terribly destructive habit…..

When I started writing back in high school, I developed the nervous practice of producing a sentence and then going back to edit it, immediately. Perhaps you do the same thing? I advise you to take a hard look at your own writing and, break the instant-editing habit as quickly as possible.

It took me 20 years to understand why editing-while-writing is so destructive and another three years to (mostly) stop it, although I still slip up from time to time. The reason we do it relates to the way we’re built. We all have creative brains AND critical brains. Think of them like siblings — ones that don’t get along very well. The creative brain is the shyer and less assertive of the two — prone to hiding under the bed whenever the critical brain looks as though it’s about to issue a punch to the nose. The critical brain is diligent and well organized but not so great at writing.

Here are seven ways to keep your critical brain temporarily at bay:

1) Turn off your monitor (or at least turn the light off it). If your screen is blank then your critical brain will have nothing to do! Note that you must be a touch typist for this to work — otherwise you might get a sentence like: mpr r% jyur yo,r gpt s;; hppf ,rny yp vp,r yp yjr sof pg — and no one wants that to happen! Alternatively, you can simply hang a dishtowel over your screen.

2) If you are writing something long, such as a book or lengthy report, copy your LAST sentence at the end of every writing day into an entirely new document. Then spend a minute writing out some directions for yourself about what you want to accomplish the next day. The next day, work only from this fresh document.  This way you can’t be lured into editing your work before you finish writing it.

3) Monitor your self-talk and tell yourself you’ll deal with it later. If you’re not conscious of your own self-talk then please go looking for it over the next few days. If you’re like everyone else in the world (including me) you’re probably saying things like: “My boss is going to hate this” or “This is just too boring.” Or “I’m a really bad writer.” We ALL talk to ourselves — mostly negatively — ALL the time. The trick is to be conscious of it. Then, say back to yourself –“I’m writing right now; I don’t have time to talk. I’ll deal with these concerns when I’m editing.” And do exactly that.

4) Write with a noisy timer. I write using pomodoros — 25 minutes of intensely directed activity. When I started on the pomo trail, I first used a silent digital timer, figuring that the sound of a noisy one would interrupt my writing. Eventually, however, I switched to a tick-tock (yes, it sounds as if a bomb is about to explode in my office), and weirdly enough I found it didn’t distract my creative brain at all. If anything, it kept me better focused. Now I ALWAYS write with a noisy timer clicking in the background. It makes my family less likely to interrupt me, too. Bonus!

5) Use Dr. Wicked to prod your productivity. I’ve written about Dr.Wicked before  but want to mention him again because his (free) tool will help train you to turn off your critical brain by punishing you for writing slowly. My advice? Use his “normal” mode. Then you’ll be punished by sound. If you switch to “kamikaze” he’ll start erasing text on you!

6) Write yourself notes for anything you want to fix. When I drafted this column, for example, I repeated the word “habit” too many times in paragraphs one and two. Instead of stopping to fix it, I put XXs beside the word every time I used it so I could change it later. This sort of “promissory note” puts our critical brains at ease because they are TERRIFIED that our “sloppy” selves are going to let mistakes slide by.  Short circuit this problem by promising that you’ll address these problems later.

7) Reward yourself for not editing while you write. In time, the reward of writing quickly will be prize enough. For now, however, be sure to lavish yourself with other incentives: magazines, books, music, tea, coffee even time on YouTube.

Remember, you should always write as quickly as you can. Just be sure to edit (later), as slowly as you can bear.

Posted November 29th, 2011 in Power Writing

  • Grateful

    This is soooooooooo helpful! I NEVER post comments –i shamefully admit that I tend to leech off advice on the net and never thank people (guilty!) but this is so useful that I had to stop my selfish habit and say thank you! I am writing a thesis and am struggling with this problem. This is great advice!

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      And thank YOU sooooo much for posting! I cured myself of editing while I wrote by using these tips. The result? I LOVE writing now. I used to hate it… When you finish your thesis be sure to drop me a line. I’ll be interested in hearing how it worked out for you.

  • Angst Writer

    OMG thank you SO MUCH for the Dr. Wicked (Now called Write or Die) suggestion. This has literally saved me so much agony. I’ve been struggling for years to increase productivity and turn off my vicious editor while I write. This tool helps with both. Amazing.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant

      I am very happy it worked for you. It also worked for me and made such a big difference to my writing.

  • Rohi Shetty

    Thanks, Daphne, this is great advice. I’ll try all of them as see how it goes. Have already subscribed to your newsletter.

    • Let me know how it works for you. This step — of stopping editing WHILE you write — is so crucial to writing success.

  • Samantha

    Hi Daphne! I am definitely a “born editor” but often receive compliments on my writing. It takes me waaay too long to write and I never think it’s good enough. This challenge often keeps me from blogging regularly (you should know who this is!) The best I have done so far is 3 weeks in a row. Shooting to blog every week in October. I will get there, I am determined. Thank you for all of your support.

    • Thanks for posting here, Samantha! Yes, I know who you are and want to encourage you to write without WORRYING about what your readers think. See if you can just postpone that worrying until you get to the editing phase of writing. I think it will make a big difference to you.

  • Shuyin

    Your methods are quite effective. i always use the pomodoro, mindmapping and recently writing without editing. Thank you for your awesome advice. Keep it up!

  • Sam Penman

    i have been writing for as long as i can remember. recently, i have become blocked – actually, not recently. it has been going on for longer than i like to think about. I used to be able to write quickly and prolifically, and never had blocks or anything. i had come to accept that i wasn’t going to write any more. however, reading this article has flashed a light-bulb in my head! i never really thought about the whole editing while writing thing… i never used to do it (maybe a word or two). i can only put this down to the arrogance of youth. I was, after all, the greatest writer since [insert great writer here]. unfortunately, that delusion gets chipped away, and one day you can’t write. then the next and the next. every line feels like a long, slow and often joyless enterprise. i had put it down to having nothing left to say. but since reading this article, it is so clear that this has been my problem for a good while now. that is, editing while writing – and the realisation is a breath of fresh air. the problem is, it is a vicious circle of defeat and self-defeat. one has a moment, a day or two when nothing seems to reach the page. “oh, dear, what if i can’t write any more? what if i’m not a writer?” these thoughts feed the super-ego and all of a sudden one really isn’t writing. the self-editing demons have laid our confidence to waste, until every line is the wrong line, every word is the wrong word. and one is stopped in one’s tracks.

    all of these tips are very helpful, i shall be putting them into practice as soon as possible – i especially like the idea of turning off the monitor and also copying the last line and only working from that.

    • Sam, here’s another tip for you to try: Give yourself really SMALL goals — for example, promise to write for only five minutes per day. Make it so small and easy that there’s no way you’ll be blocked. Do this for a couple of weeks and, assuming all goes well, you can then increase your total (to say, 10 minutes.) This is called the Kaizen technique. You can read more about it here:


  • ddo

    How can I turn my screen off in a way that it stays off while I wirte on the keyboard?
    The text I write should be saved.

    With my old medion laptop I had the hotkey “fn + f11”, now on my new Thinkpad I miss this function a lot!

    I only found software that turns the screen off, but it resumes after pressing any key. I need a software that resumes the screen only after pressing the hotkey.
    Does anyone have any solutions?

    Thank you very much!!

    • My solution? Hang a dish towel over the screen. No peeking!

      • ddo

        Thank you! I already thought of it, but my inner perfectionist said “there must be a software solution” – I guess I’ll not let him make me procrastinating. I’ll do it the towel-way 😀

  • Frederic Merizen

    Nitpicking alert. In point 5, you write free with a full stop mid-word, like this: fr.ee. To me, it looked like an attempt to circumvent a spam filter, and just made my skin crawl.

    With that out of the way: I LOVE your first advice (turning off the screen). When I first read it, I thought it was a little silly but I gave it a try anyway, just to see what would happen. I thought I was doing pretty well before, but when I turned off the screen it made me realise how much editing I had been doing.

    • Thanks for mentioning the “fr.ee” issue. I have now fixed it. (I need to do this for my newsletter because otherwise the email might get misidentified as spam, but there’s no need for me to do it on this blog. I don’t know how that slipped through.) Am so glad to hear that turning off your monitor is working for you!