Think first. Write later.

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Some writers try to figure out what they want to say by writing. Here’s why you should think first, write later….

Here are the mistakes I see some (not all!) academic writers make:

  • They use the passive voice too much, hiding the ‘actor’ of the sentence (e.g. “Mistakes were made”).
  • They feel guilty if they don’t spend at least three hours a day writing.
  • They believe they can’t accomplish any writing in 15 minutes.
  • They figure out what they want to say by writing.

Each of these mistakes deserves its own column, but today I’m going to talk about the downside of the last one — writing to figure out what you want to say. Note that you don’t have to be an academic writer to attempt this wrongheaded manoeuvre. I have many non-academic clients who try it as well. Here’s why it’s a bad idea.

Thinking WHILE you write creates too much work

I acknowledge that I overstate the case when I call the problem “thinking WHILE you write,” but I want you to take this issue seriously. Of course, we all need to think — a little bit — while we write, otherwise, how would we get any words on paper? But starting to write before you spend some dedicated time thinking, is only going to create way too much work for you.

Let me spell out the problem with some numbers. If you’re working on a paper (or a book chapter) of 8,000 words and you write at a rate of 300 words an hour — which is what many of my academic clients tell me is their speed — it will take you almost 27 hours to write the first draft.

But let’s imagine you don’t know what you want to say. Instead, your plan is to start writing and figure it out as you go. The inevitable result? You’ll likely have to write 2,000 words (or perhaps even more) to figure out your point. That’s an addition of almost seven hours of writing time alone. Who would sign up for seven unnecessary hours of work? (And maybe more if your writing speed is slower than 300 words per hour.) Yikes!

Even worse, however, is the mindset you’ll need to adopt for this sort of writing. Here’s how I picture you: You’ll be staring at your blank computer screen until beads of blood form on your forehead. (Credit for that line goes to writer Gene Fowler.) This is no way to write! It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant and your memory of these feelings is only going to make you want to procrastinate about writing in the future. Which will only cost you even more time.

What you should do instead

Instead of thinking on paper, plan some dedicated thinking time away from your desk. I know, you won’t be able to take notes, or look up references or check citations, but those are all jobs you can do LATER. Instead, go for a walk and think about what you’ve read and what you want to say. Your ideas are the most important part of your writing.

Our brains work better when we’re moving, which is why I write on a treadmill. But before I acquired that device, I always went for a walk in my neighbourhood before writing. (I still do that from time to time because the fresh air and the scenery I enjoy when outside also energize me.) If you don’t like walking you can do something else: running, cycling, swimming, house cleaning, cooking, whatever. I had one client who told me that she always thought about her writing when she groomed her dog. What you do doesn’t matter. Just get away from your desk!

Removing the pressure of writing will help your brain move into its diffuse mode, a term coined by engineering prof and Coursera teacher Barbara Oakley. And in this diffuse, day-dreamy mode your brain will be free to wander, to ponder, to reflect and to make new connections.

Many clients tell me they’re afraid of thinking away from their desks because they worry about losing or forgetting their best ideas. Here’s what I say to that: If your idea is really groundbreaking, you’re not going to forget it. Especially if you race home and get it on paper right after your walk. Or if that worries you, take your cell phone with you and record a reminder.

Try to do one thing at a time. When you are researching, research. When you are thinking, think. And when you are writing, write.

Here is what writer Michael Harris, author of Solitude, has to say about what happens when we try to avoid the single-tasking approach: “We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But, in reality, we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.”


My video podcast last week explained the risks of sticky writing. Or, read the transcript,  and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. 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 do you do your writing-related thinking? 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 March 31/18, will be put in a draw for a copy of The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. 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 March 13th, 2018 in Power Writing

  • Fátima Solana

    I go for a walk towards my favorite coffee shop, and take a notebook with me. I start to day dream fueled by espressos and cold brew, and take notes of all the ideas that come to my mind. Afterwards, I order them and start to write.

  • Susan Heffron Hajec

    Going for a walk always a fave of mine in the midst of feature writing. Always returned a better writer! Agree think a bit before you write.

    • And, more importantly, think while MOVING!

      • Susan Heffron Hajec

        Thank you. Incoming always happens with a fresh twist. Now I am older with issues and walking is difficult. I miss the gusto I used to-do it with. Am in midst of important to me memoir and am loving the process.

        • Can you use an exercise bike or something like that?

          • Susan Heffron Hajec

            Yes and I do. I just miss the feeling from the walking. I am going to experiment with two walking sticks.

          • Susan Heffron Hajec

            I found you here from Janet Conner’s high recommendation of ” if you are going to pick one to read, choose you. Glad I did.

          • Aw, gee thanks, Susan!

  • Carol

    Going for a walk helps me the most.

  • Shea

    I tend to wake up earlier than desired, so I spend the time before the alarm goes off thinking about my current project. By the time the alarm goes off, I have TONS of good ideas percolating!

    • Glad that works for you, Shea. If I did that, I’d just drift off back to sleep. But we’re all different. So glad you have a plan that works for you!

  • Kelly Carter

    Great points, and I’ll share that this same approach helps with other forms of creative work.

  • Jean Scoon

    I often am able to hone in more on what I think by writing. So I do figure out some of what I want to say by writing. It’s part of my crappy first draft process. Then I rewrite many times of course. I also do all those other things–walk, sit and think, etc. But in the words of the author E.L. Doctorow, “How do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.”

    • Jean, you’ve raised an interesting tension. (1) It’s so important to think FIRST, before writing. (2) It’s also important to be prepared to “let go” and have your writing take you in a different — and perhaps surprising — direction.

  • petruta

    Thank you for this reminder. After working with you, my favorite sequence is : think, mind map, research, think, ignore that project, go back mind mapping , write, ignore the project, edit, edit, …edit, submit, edit to answer reviewers’ suggestions ( sometimes doing more bench research), resubmit . And YES – celebrate with others when their or my papers are published or have an impact ( citations, feedback, etc) .

    • So glad you mentioned celebrating, Petruta. That’s a key piece of the puzzle that many writers ignore — to their peril!

  • Jagadish Kumar

    Go for a walk and think about what you’ve read and what you want to say. Terrific advice, Daphne. It looks simple, but when it comes from a writer like you, a great value gets added to the message!

    • Not sure it has much to do with me, Jagadish. Many writers have advocated walking. Probably the most famous one is Charles Dickens. He walked for many miles every day!

      • Jagadish Kumar

        Delighted to know about Charles Dickens. Thanks again, Daphne. You never miss a chance to impart us with useful information whenever you get a chance to do so.

  • LJ

    Walking is magic. It always leaves me feeling happy and energized. When I have ideas, I used to write notes on paper. Now I speak into my phone. But mostly I just enjoy the walk. Totally agree with post!

  • William Stoner

    Before I start writing, I always believe I know what I want to say. But at some point in the writing process, usually during editing, I realize that what I wrote is misleading or just plain wrong. One time, I started out wanting to “correct” something I read in technical paper X, and I find a work-around to set everything straight, and I write it down. Then I read what I wrote and I realized I misunderstood something in what I read in X, and that there is no need to correct anything. Instead, I could warn others what point of view to accept to properly understand the
    approach taken in technical paper X.
    Here is an example. There are visual illusions that trigger completely different gestalts when viewed at different times. I recall one that appeared to be the face of a young woman, or it could appear as the face of a elderly woman. Once you get one way of seeing the image, it is nearly impossible to force yourself to see the other image, even though you know it is there! This can happen with technical sketches of 3-dimensional structures, if there are no powerful cues to lead the viewer to adapt the intended perspective. A Cartesian coordinate frame, sketched on a flat surface, can appear to be a right-hand OR a left-hand frame, depending on whether the viewer adapts a perspective in front of the frame or behind the frame. Adapt the wrong perspective, and you can conclude the author got something backwards. That happened to me. After I realized technical paper X was OK if I adapted the intended perspective, I did not have to completely re-write the technical paper. All I had to do was re-draw figures from the paper and put in strong visual cues so the nearly everyone would automatically see the figures in 3-dimensions from the perspective intended by the author of technical paper X.

    • By suggesting that we THINK before writing, I’m certainly not meaning to suggest that text will all come out A-OK the first time. I just believe that it makes more sense to think to the best of our ability before writing. I find that too many people rush this process — and then end up paying a price later on. But the thinking BEFORE writing does not prevent changes. Nor does it absolve us from the need to edit.

  • KW

    Thank you, Daphne. I am one of those academic writers you speak of; one of those that hides the actor and writes to find out what I think (ACK!). I am editing an empirical book chapter now using this ‘dreaded’ approach. I use Grammarly online, so I will overcompensate and edit until it is close to whatever my version of perfection is before submitting to the editors. On my next paper, I will follow the Pub Coach Method 100%. Thank you for this post of inspiration.

    • Grammarly is good at correcting grammar but, of course, it doesn’t address issues relating to content, which, to my mind, are far more important than grammar. How about stopping using Grammarly until you get to the END of yoru editing process? I think you’d find it less disruptive and it would also help you focus on what’s most important to your writing.

  • Shannon Lambert

    Hey Daphne! I think about writing while I run. I write out all sorts of blog posts while I’m running! I also come up with a lot of topic ideas – so many so that I could never write them all. Running definitely frees my mind to explore ideas. I do forget some after the run, but the good ones I remember! I have never had writer’s block (yet!) and I usually know exactly what I want to say when I sit down at the computer. I think your article is right on!

    • Our brains need lots of oxygen! That’s why exercise helps. Good for you to think about your writing while you run.