Do you have a broken writing process?

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Are you still editing WHILE you write? This broken writing process is only slowing you down, as a clever little app can help demonstrate to you….

I spend a good chunk of my life trying to persuade people to stop editing while they write. I do this because I know the horrible, soul-destroying, disruptive habit made me an uncomfortable writer for more than 38 years of my life. It also made me a painfully S-L-O-W one.

Once I finally broke the habit — which, I must admit, wasn’t entirely easy — writing became a whole lot more fun, and I more than doubled my speed. My secret sauce? I’m an excellent touch-typist, and I covered my screen with a towel for about three weeks so I couldn’t see what I was writing. It took me longer than that — more like six months — to fully banish the habit.

Reader John Blois recently sent me a link to a FiveThirtyEight blog post on Draftback. (You may know FiveThirtyEight for their work on polling and political reporting. But they do other stuff as well.) Draftback is an app developed by James Somers, a developer for Genius.  You can play with it for no charge in Google docs, as long as you’re using the Chrome browser.

You can read all about it (and see a sample of how it works) in the post written by FiveThirtyEight blogger Chadwick Matlin. But here’s what astonished both John and me: Matlin fails to notice the problem of editing while you write.

That said, Matlin does have some interesting points to make about writing in general. Here is what I found to be the most appealing of his insights:

Somers started all this because he thinks the way we teach writing is broken. “We know how to make a violinist better. We know how to make a pitcher better. We do not know how to make a writer better,” Somers told me. In other disciplines, the teaching happens as the student performs. A music instructor may adjust a student’s finger placement, or a pitching coach may tweak a lefty’s mechanics. But there’s no good way to look over a writer’s shoulder as she’s writing; if anything, that’ll prevent good writing.

To me, the answer is simple: Teach people to write without editing as they go. Instead, help them crank out a crappy first draft  — as quickly as possible — and then persuade them to postpone the editing/rewriting work until after the draft has had some time to incubate. (I suggest six weeks for non-urgent text such as the draft of a book. But a minimum of one day may be enough for a blog post. And even one hour can suffice if you have to produce something super urgent. Just be sure to do a different, distracting task — such as speaking to someone on the phone — before you begin editing.)

I was intrigued that Matlin chastised himself for his frequent use of TK, which is newspaper-speak for “To Come,” meaning information that the writer still needs to research. In fact, I think his TK strategy was the smartest thing he did. It makes no sense to mix up researching with writing, and if you can “batch” the tasks (don’t do anything else when you are writing; don’t do anything else when you are researching), you are going to save significant time.

His sad-to-me comment, “I didn’t realize they [the TKs] were a sign I wasn’t committed to a piece’s embryonic structure,” made me want to grab him by the lapels. While shaking him, gently, I would say: “Think first, research next, then write, finally, edit.”

Worse, his admission that he was 40 percent through the piece before he figured out a way to approach it made me mourn all his wasted time. (Think first, write later, Chad.) Finally, his confession that the 1,800-word piece took him at least a week to write — and perhaps more than that — made me feel something close to despair. He should have been able to finish it in a day — two, max.

As I wrote the post you’re reading here, I followed my usual habit of attempting to get it on paper as quickly as possible. I did the editing later, as a separate job.

If you want to give Draftback a try, start by watching the video in Matlin’s blog. (No need to watch the whole thing — it’s way too painful for that.) If Draftback appeals to you, try installing it yourself. You can get it here (if you are in Chrome). Then, open your Google docs, and you’ll see a Draftback box in the top right-hand corner, adjacent to the “comments” and “share” boxes. I installed the app but when I tried to make it play back for me (to include here), I couldn’t succeed. I’ve emailed a note to the developer and will post back here when he replies.


My video podcast last week described how to deal with a creative dry spell. See it 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.


How effective is your writing process? 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 June 30/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Writing to Learn by William Zinsser. 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.


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