How to see yourself in a writing mirror

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If you’ve ever vowed to stop editing while you write, here’s a tool that will really make you want to keep that promise. Watch the video to see how writers waste time, editing while they write…

Do you have difficulty writing your crappy first draft? Anguishing over every comma and em-dash? Regularly surfing Google to check the spelling of someone’s name or an arcane rule of grammar?

James Somers knows all about people like you. A New-York based writer and programmer, Somers has invented a program called “Draftback.” An app you can plug into the Chrome browser and use with Google Docs, it creates a “video” of your writing.

Think of it like an “instant replay” in a hockey game or tennis match. But with Draftback you see every time that you’ve deleted (or added) a word, sentence or paragraph. In fact, you see every key stroke. As a non-athlete it reminds me of a player-piano. Invisible fingers are on a keyboard creating music/words and all you have to do is listen/watch.

Somers wrote an article about his app for the Atlantic in 2010. He even posted a sample of his writing in it, but, sadly that link no longer works.

Because Draftback is one of those things you can understand only by seeing, I suggest you go to a 2015 blog post by Chadwick Matlin.  Scroll to the end so you can see him writing his draft as if you were standing over his shoulder while he wrote. Note: I don’t suggest you view it at actual speed because that takes way too much time.

As I watched this painful video — the raw material that ultimately created a very well written piece — I was struck, again, by how much time writers spend editing themselves while they write. Not that I needed this lesson. I hear it in every workshop I teach and every client with whom I work. They all edit while they write and, paradoxically, it only cements their self-notion that they’re lousy writers.

In fact, that was one of the lessons Somers himself learned about his own work. “I waste a lot of time on the micro-mechanisms of sentences….at the expense of the broad structural problems,” he told Nora Young, host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s program, Spark. (If you want to listen to the nine-minute interview, go here and click on the “listen” link.)

What, for me, really nailed the wisdom of writing a crappy first draft faster was Somers’ description of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. I’d studied this poem in school and had always particularly loved the opening line, April is the cruelest month. Imagine my shock to learn that this did not begin life at the beginning. In fact, it rose to the top only after Eliot’s friend and mentor, Ezra Pound, removed the first 100 lines. (I realize the discovery of this edit occurred in 1971; I do not profess to be a literary scholar.) How much time did Eliot spend on those first 100 lines? Talk about a wasteland!

Somers, of course, was intrigued to watch the video of Chadwick Matlin’s article. He praised Matlin’s use of “TK” (a journalist’s mark meaning “to come” — you use it when you have some factual information you want to check later. I call these “promissory notes” and I write about them here, in item #6.)

Interestingly, Matlin was self-critical of his use of TK. To him, it meant that he hadn’t adequately determined the structure of his piece. He says: “I already knew I used a ton of “TKs” as placeholders in my work, but I didn’t realize they were a sign I wasn’t committed to a piece’s embryonic structure. The replay showed me that I build a story’s skeleton first, so I can see where all the pieces fit before I put any flesh on the bones.”

I think Matlin is wrong in criticizing himself for that. The reality is that you can’t determine your structure until after you’ve started writing. This is because, thinking occurs while you are writing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Writers just need to tolerate ambiguity in order to be able to stick with their job.

Scholar Stephen Bochner has identified nine characteristics of people who are intolerant of ambiguity. They display a…

  • Need for categorization
  • Need for certainty
  • Inability to allow good and bad traits to exist in the same person
  • Acceptance of attitude statements representing a white-black view of life
  • A preference for familiar over unfamiliar
  • Rejection of the unusual or different
  • Resistance to reversal of fluctuating stimuli
  • Early selection and maintenance of one solution in an ambiguous situation
  • Premature closure

To me, these characteristics offer a virtual recipe for unhappy writing. The big take-away message of Draftback is not that no one writes a perfect first draft. So you have a choice. You can write a first draft slowly and painfully (I call this being nibbled to death by ducks, when your internal editor is in a kindly mood, and being the victim of a gang slaying when he’s not.) Or you can write it quickly. And lavish your time on editing. It’s up to you.

Thanks so much to my good friend Eve Johnson, who alerted me to the story on this app that aired on CBC radio.

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet tried Draftback myself because even after I installed it I got a “draftback unavailable” message. I’m wondering if this is because I’m on a Mac. In any case, I’ve emailed Somers and will report back on what he says, in the comments section, below.

What’s your comfort with ambiguity when you’re 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. And, congratulations to Cindy Ramirez, the winner of this month’s book prize, The Vacationers, by Emma Straub for her March 17/15 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by April 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How To Write: Advice and Reflections, by Richard Rhodes. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.