7 ways to stop editing while you write

Reading time: Just over 5 minutes

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

When I started writing back in high school, I developed the practice of producing a sentence and then going back to edit it, immediately. The game usually went something like this:

Write sentence #1.

Edit sentence #1.

Write sentence #2.

Re-edit sentence #1.

Edit sentence #2.

Re-read sentence #1 and discard piece of writing and start over again.

Write (new) sentence #1.

Edit sentence #1.

Write (new) sentence #2.

Re-edit (new) sentence #1.

Etc. bloody etc.

This nervous, start-and-stop habit was slow and painful and this frequently discouraged me from writing at all. But I didn’t know how else to approach the task. Perhaps you feel the same way?

It took me 30 years to understand why the editing-as-you-go habit is so destructive. Then, it took me another three to (mostly) stop it, although I still slip up from time to time.

Here are the reasons I advise you to stop editing while you write. Note: I am not saying you should stop editing, of course. I’m simply saying that you should do it later.

The problems with editing while you write

We all have creative brains AND critical brains. Think of them like siblings — ones who don’t get along very well. The creative brain (AKA the writing brain) is the shyer and less assertive of the two. It likes to hide under the bed whenever its critical sibling (AKA the editing brain) looks as though it’s about to issue a punch to the nose. The editing brain is diligent and well organized but not creative enough to be much good at writing. Still, like many bossy-boots, it’s reluctant to let anyone else be in charge. THAT is why it’s so hard to stop editing when you should be writing. Your critical brain won’t let go.

But if you let your critical brain constantly dive in when you’re writing, you are essentially multitasking. I say “essentially” because experts now believe that true multitasking is, in fact, impossible. The best we can hope for is rapid sequential tasking. And guess what happens when you try task switching? You waste time. Psychologist Susan Weinschenk highlights these costs:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.

As Weinschenk puts it:  “The opposite of multi-tasking is concentrated time. So if you are trying to stop multi-tasking you must start doing the opposite.”

I know many people fear that if they don’t edit-while-they-go they will doom themselves to producing nothing more than absolute dreck. This fear is utterly misplaced. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that you are in no position to edit your work until you have had some time away from it. This is because you are too close to the material.

You did the research. You did the thinking and planning. You did the interviews. You did the writing. How can you possibly get the distance you need for editing when you’ve been the one doing all the work? For a short article, you need at least an hour (or, better, a full day) away before you edit it. For longer form work, such as a book or a thesis, you need six weeks. If you edit too early you’re far more likely to make a hash of things.

Other people fear that if they let themselves write without editing as they go, they’re simply creating more work for themselves down the road, when they finally get around to editing. I have not found this to be true, either. Instead, what’s happened, is that I enjoy writing so much that I no longer procrastinate about doing it. And for those rare times when what I’ve written needs really significant editing, I don’t mind. I’ve always enjoyed editing anyway.

Have I convinced you to stop editing as you go? I hope so. It will make your writing life so much more pleasant and productive. Even though breaking the editing-while-you-write habit is hard work, it’s worth the effort. I have more than doubled my own writing speed by doing so.

Here are seven ways to stop editing-on-the-go:

  1. Turn off your monitor (or at least turn the light off it). Some of my clients gasp when I make this suggestion at workshops, but try it. It works. 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. Use the pomodoro technique. A time management system developed by Italian inventor Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the pomodoro technique requires you to focus on only one task at a time for 25 minutes. I’ve written about it before and many of my clients swear by it. It helps me write faster because it imposes a mild but discernable time pressure. It also requires me to take prescribed breaks, which is a helpful and necessary reminder for many of us. And, be aware that the pomodoro system calls for a noisy timer. When I first started on the pomo trail, I began by using a silent digital one, figuring that the sound of a noisy clock would interrupt my writing. Eventually, however, I switched to a tick-tock timer (yes, it sounds as if a bomb is about to explode in my office). Weirdly enough I found it didn’t distract my creative brain at all. Instead, it did the reverse. It keeps me better focused. I’m using it now as I write this post. In fact, I ALWAYS write with a noisy timer clicking in the background and whenever I hear the sound it makes me want to write (Pavlovian conditioning perhaps?) It also makes my family less likely to interrupt me, too. Bonus!
  3. Write yourself promissory notes.When I drafted this post, for example, I repeated the word “habit” too many times. 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” creative brain is going to let mistakes slide by. Short circuit this problem by promising that you’ll address these problems later. You can use this technique for many sorts of mini-research issues that should not interrupt your writing: the spelling of names, job titles, small facts etc. When you write, write. Do everything else later. But write yourself a reminder to do it.
  4. Use  Dr. Wicked to prod your productivity.  Dr.Wicked’s free online app offers a great place to train your brain. Go to his site and, at the very top of the page, enter the number of words you want to write, your time goal and your “mode.” (I suggest using “stimulus” which is positive — purring kittens — or “consequence” which will punish you with an unpleasant sound, such as a car alarm or ‘70s disco music. Avoid the “kamikaze” mode because he’ll start erasing text, if you don’t write quickly enough.) Click on the “try” button and you’ll be faced with a blank screen in which to write. When you’ve finished your writing, simply copy and paste it into a Word document or whatever software you’re using. If you really like Write or Die you can buy a desktop version but I always just use the free online one.
  5. 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, open only this fresh document. I used this trick to bust through writer’s block for my last book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. And it was so successful I’m using it for the book I’m working on now, working title: Your Crappy First Draft. You can’t be lured into editing your work if you can’t see it, so make it invisible.
  6. 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 not to try to suppress it. (That only leads to what’s known as the white bear problem.) Instead, work to be conscious of your doubts. 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.” Your doubting self has every right to doubt. Just as your writing self has every right to write. 
  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 shower yourself with other incentives: magazines, books, music, tea, coffee, walks in the park, even time on Facebook or YouTube.

Many of us seem to believe that writing slowly or more mindfully will improve the quality of our work. Paradoxically, there is no evidence that this is the least bit true. You’re far better off writing as quickly as you can and getting that crappy first draft committed to paper. Once it’s down then you can lavishly apply your time and attention to editing. That’s where more time and work will do you a lot of good.

Let me conclude with the advice of American fantasy writer Sharon Hale:  “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

*

My three-minute video podcast last week addressed the question of how to recognize ‘good’ writing. See it (or the transcript) here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

Do you usually try to edit WHILE you write? How does it work for you?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 28/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Around the Writer’s Block, by Rosanne Bane. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted February 28th, 2017 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:

      http://www.publicationcoach.com/what-the-japanese-can-teach-you-about-writing/

  • 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!

  • Tom Morrisey

    Daphne, two thoughts:

    The first is that I recently watched a biography of Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us), and she suffered from edit-while-you-write-itis. It was an issue that made her feel she was chronically behind-schedule in her work.

    The second is that, when I feel the urge to mess with the text whilst writing, I often switch over to my AlphaSmart Neo (http://www.andybrain.com/extras/alphasmart-neo-review.htm), a keyboarding device that has been off the market now for close to four years. The tiny screen shows only six truncated lines, discouraging that editorial scan and its resulting rash of editing.

    While the Neo is no longer made, one can frequently pick a nice used one up on eBay or Amazon for less than $30 American.

    • Thanks for mentioning the Neo Alphasmart, Tom. It’s a FANTASTIC tool and I didn’t mention it only because it’s not being made any more. I did write about it several years ago: http://www.publicationcoach.com/how-the-neosmart-helps/

      Good suggestion to look for it on eBay or Amazon! The limited character display is indeed very helpful in breaking the editing-on-the-go habit.

  • Omer

    Thanks for the great post, Daphne!
    Regarding Pomodoro – I’ve found it a bit disturbing to have the 25-minutes expire exactly when I’m very focused, especially when set to noisy mode. Do you actually stop writing even if you’re focused and in a good pace?

    • It really depends on how I feel. If I’m feeing super enthusiastic and raring to go then I just immediately start another pomodoro. But if I feel the LEAST bit tired or have the remotest desire for a break, then I take off five minutes and go back to the task after that.

  • kimmarla

    I love this! I’ll be sharing it (with a link) on my email newsletter that goes out tomorrow.

  • namajz

    Great advice, Daphne. I especially loved the quote about building castles.

  • Hafiz Nazari

    Thanks for these great tips Daphne, and I really appreciate it. It really works for me! Especially, I love the idea of monitor your self-talk and tell yourself you’ll deal with it later. It is a great way to focus on just writing and coming back to editing later. However, I don’t know how to turn off my screen. I am using a Macbook Air. Dose anyone know how to turn off the screen on Macbook? Your help would be very much appreciated. THANKS

    • I’m sorry, Hafiz. I don’t know anything about Sloth but I’ll try to take a look at it this weekend. Just so you know, even though Francesco Cirillo suggests 25 minutes for a pomodoro, I never feel completely bound by that. Sometimes I use 15 minutes.Very rarely I’ll use 45. Most of the time I stick with 30. (My timer does not allow 25.) I don’t think the actual number is what’s important. I think it’s the commitment that matters.

    • Noornaj

      You can make the screen dark by decreasing the darkness (F1 on the MacBook Pro. It might be the same on the Air).

      • Hafiz Nazari

        Thanks Noornaj. Its the same on my Macbook air. It works well.

      • Thanks for sharing this tip! Very useful!

  • Petruta

    Thank you Daphne for yet another great post !
    Also, thank you for mentioning free tools on the internet.
    However, I have to admit- I miss your previous style- shorter posts. The shorter, the more actionable- the longer the more overwhelming and theoretical – for my brain; I do not know for other people. Printed material is different. I would be curious to hear your opinion on the length on paper vs. blogs.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Petruta. I agree with you about length (I prefer reading AND writing shorter posts) but my webmaster has advised me that longer ones are more popular with readers. I have come to a compromise with him and am writing a longer post only once a month. Hope this is a reasonable compromise for you, as well.

  • cathy

    While turning the monitor off might be effective, I would end up with unintelligible gobbeldy gook. But, I have followed much of the other suggestions Daphne makes in her post particularly the pomodoros and placing editing time outside of writing time. I laughed out loud at the start of this post….it is how I used to write!

    In response to Omer: there are times when I do not even hear the chime after 25 minutes but if I do I generally take a short break. I found when I paid attention to taking these timed breaks I felt much more eager to return to my writing. The process is different for everyone so I suggest trying a few strategies with the pomodoro and the other techniques and using what works best for you.

    • Thanks for your wise words, Cathy. I believe many of us think that HARD WORK is the only way to get anything useful done. But if we’re gentler with ourselves and more mindful of the need to take breaks, we can often accomplish a lot more in a shorter amount of time!

  • Bob Marshall

    Hello. I have just found your website through a search engine and I have one huge question I would love to get help with.

    I was ‘bitten by the writing bug’ about seven years ago and I haven’t been able, quite literally, to write anything since. I am quite aware that I don’t have the writing skills to leave a note for the milkman but I cannot shake the idea that I still ‘want to be a writer’, even though this is akin to my wishing to be taller or younger or having Tom Cruise’s looks.

    What can I do to get this silly nonsense out of my head for good and have some peace?

    • Hi Bob, I’ll email you privately but I suggest you ask this question of my weekly video podcast, The Write Question. Will send you instructions on how to do that.