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.”

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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.

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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.