Why you should spend LESS time writing

less time writing

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I know it might seem unreasonable that you should be spending less time writing (particularly if you’re a procrastinator) but read on to learn why I offer this counterintuitive advice… 

You’ve probably never heard of burning mouth syndrome. Unless you suffer from it, as I did for almost eight years.

How to describe it? It made me feel as though I had just eaten a particularly peppery radish and the sensation affected my tongue and the roof of my mouth. This “I’ve-just-eat-a-hot-radish” feeling never started before noon and, in fact, didn’t appear every day. But sometimes it showed up relentlessly, day after day, week after week — like a thoroughly unwelcome and belligerent houseguest.

In my case, doctors suspect it was caused by a root canal although burning mouth doesn’t always have such a definitive source. I saw a multitude of dentists and oral medicine specialists, followed all of their suggestions — from dietary, to herbal remedies to drugs — and nothing worked.

Until late last year. I had a new dentist and he sent me to a different specialist. And what did this guy suggest? To put a couple of drops of Tabasco sauce in a cup of water and swish my mouth with it three times each day. It sounded CRAZY to me — like an old wives’ tale — but I really respected the doctor so I decided to give it a try.

And guess what? It worked! The theory is that the sudden influx of heat from the Tabasco overwhelms your neurological system and short-circuits the “burning” sensation. (We accomplish the same sort of thing when we rub our arms after banging our elbows on something.)

Believe it or not, we can do something similar with writing as well. Here’s my strange, counterintuitive recommendation: Spend less time writing.

When I tell people they should spend LESS time writing, they frequently look at me as though I’ve grown two heads. But here’s why this counterintuitive suggestion makes sense:

  • Writing always expands to fulfill available time. Also known as Parkinson’s Law this principle means that if you give yourself a large amount of time for writing you will need all of it. Conversely, if you challenge yourself to write in a shorter amount of time — taking great care NOT to edit while you write — you’ll likely get it done in the abbreviated time frame. (Think for example, about how much work you can achieve when you’re focused on getting ready to go on holiday.)
  • It’s impossible to write a superb first draft, anyway. I know many people think that prolific writers such as Seth Godin, Stephen King and Alice Munro, have liquid gold flowing from their fingertips. In fact, they’re just like everyone else. They write crappy first drafts too, and then edit them into excellence. The secret to good writing is not in the writing, it’s in the editing. Don’t waste your time trying to produce a fine first draft. Instead get that crappy first draft down as quickly as possible and devote more time to editing it.
  • Spending too much time on writing takes away time to do the other things that feed your work. Writing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It comes from your life. If you don’t have the time to read books, see movies, listen to music, go for walks, get exercise, visit with friends, then you won’t have the raw material you need for any sort of writing, even non-fiction.
  • The creative part of our brain is reluctant and easily tired. When we write, we should use the creative part of our brain, rather than the linear, logical part. But here’s the deal: our creative brain is a shy cousin who needs to feel incredibly welcomed and comfortable before she’s willing to play. And even then, she can play for only a short time before she becomes too tired. Don’t expect your creative brain to be available for too long.
  • Spending more time writing makes writing painful. And who wants to do something that hurts? If you can develop the habit of spewing out your crappy first draft as quickly as possible, you won’t be stopping to correct grammar, fix spelling and find missing bits of info with more research. If you write slowly, however, doing all of these things will become irresistible. And before you know it, you’ll start to convince yourself that producing a crappy first draft isn’t such a good idea after all.

Putting in more time writing sounds like a strategy that should always pay off. Instead, it’s a strategy that only works for editing. It’s completely ineffective for writing and is far more likely to lead to failure than success.

Instead of being profligate with your writing time, safeguard it and spend it only in small, regular amounts. The secret is to do it daily so that writing becomes no big deal, just something you do without thinking about it, like brushing your teeth or making your bed.

And if you want to write a book, consider signing up for my next Get It Done program. Deadline is March 19.

How much time do you spend writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by March 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of the beach-read novel The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below. 

Posted March 10th, 2015 in Power Writing

  • Jan Caster

    oh my gosh, I am so grateful not only for the refresher about spending more time editing than writing, but also for the “cure” for burning mouth (tongue, lips) syndrome. I am going to try your remedy today — and if it works, pass it along to my dentist. Two great ideas in one blog!

    • Hi Jan, I was hoping this column would reach someone else with burning mouth. I can’t believe more dentists aren’t aware of this remedy.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    OMG – I follow the ‘Parkinson’s law’ by devoting 5-6 hours hours for a 700 word article, thanks to my tendency to procrastinate (sad that I am finding ways to FEED my procrastination habit instead of nipping it in the bud by challenging myself to write faster 🙁 )

    I struggled with putting any words down on Sunday. I had a Tuesday afternoon deadline, and although the words were in my head, they seemed banal on the screen. I kept rewriting the article in my head until my fingers refused to even touch the keyboard.

    Last night, however, I chose to just get something written…and within 2 hours at almost 800 words on my screen. Of course, the quality of my prose wasn’t great (although it wasn’t as bad as I had expected – lol), but I spent 2 hours editing it this morning and made the deadline! 😀

    Thank you so much for an ah-mazing article #HUGS

    • Glad to help. Don’t let your writing suffer from Parkinson’s law!

  • Just what I needed. I had forgotten that law. No wonder I’ve been spending more and more time on a certain project. I’m going to shorten up my allotted time and move along. Thanks, Daphne.

  • Stephen Coomes

    I am cursed with this bad habit. Thanks for the reminder to just vomit out that first draft.

    • So was I. It took me about six months to break the habit (eight or so years ago.) I think it took me that long because I was almost 50 before I addressed it. Don’t wait!

  • Vicky White

    Thanks for this reminder – I know it and I forget it. I think it applies to most things. And also the recommendation to write every day – I’d forgotten that one too. Glad you found your burning mouth solution – that doesn’t sound like much fun.

    • Definitely not fun. Also infuriating to get the “cure” so late in the game. Don’t treat the cure for writer’s block the same way! Write every day and write as fast as you can.

  • Nafiseh

    Thanks for reminding. I never edit my writing befor ending and now i am happy to hear it in your suggestion. Today i was using the mind mapping method for the first time to write my idea. But I am thinking about how could i use this map and from where should I start writing 😉 I will try it some day later.

    • The mind map should give you an “ah ha” moment, when you KNOW what you want to write about. If that hasn’t occurred for you, try mindmapping on a slightly different topic/angle.

  • Charli Mills

    That’s all very interesting. I like how you find analogies between ever day (or odd days) living and writing.

  • RTG

    Gosh, Daphne. You just keep getting better and better at this. Thanks
    Roger G

  • Your point about Parkinson’s Law sounds about right for myself! I should try giving myself shorter deadlines, I bet it would definitely get me to write faster. Thanks for these points Daphne!

    • Don’t beat yourself up, Robyn. Parkinson’s law applies to EVERYONE!