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.”

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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.