Is lack of reflection sabotaging your writing?

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If you want to get better at writing you probably think diligent work is the key. Here’s why writers should reflect and plan, instead….

Have you ever used an expression like, “experience is the very best teacher,” or “I learned everything I know from the school of hard knocks?” You might want to rethink those lines.

While experience — and hard knocks — are often helpful, their utility doesn’t come from living through them. Instead, their value comes from reflecting on what you have learned.

Let me repeat that: The value comes from reflecting.

If you’re anything like most people — including me — you probably don’t enjoy thinking about things that went badly. That writing deadline you missed and the way your boss went ballistic on you? Regrettable! That interview you blew because you asked the wrong questions? Humbling! That story pitch you lost because the magazine had already done the same article two years ago? Embarrassing! You’re already eager to move on and do the next task better.

Let’s not reflect on what we do poorly, we say to ourselves. Let’s keep our chins up and stay positive.

Here’s why that’s a bad idea: Without thought and planning, we’re likely to make the same mistakes over and over again. The unfortunate situations we encounter likely arise out of a toxic combo of bad luck and our lack of preparation. But if we plan for what we need to do — planning extra-carefully for the tasks we’ve screwed up in the past — we’re more likely to be prepared for curve-balls life throws at us.

So, ask yourself this: Do you give yourself enough time to prepare? (I ask this question specifically about writing but it may apply to other aspects of your life, too. Feel welcome to consider the idea more broadly if that’s useful to you.)

Here are some other questions writers should ask themselves before beginning their next assignment.

Do you know your desired word count? (Never rely on page counts — this number is way too non-specific. The size of the type, the width of the margins, the depth of line spacing and the dimensions of the page can change the number of words by as much as 50 percent. Also, most word-processing software will tell you how many words you’ve written at the bottom of the screen. Word count is the only logical measure to use.) If you don’t know this number, how will you know when you’ve finished? Also, how will you plan your time? By the way, if your editor, boss or supervisor won’t give you a word count, then give it to yourself based on what you think is reasonable.

Who is your audience? What do they need to know? What’s going to be most interesting to them? What’s their level of education? What is their comfort with English? If you haven’t defined your audience, how will you know that you’re producing material that will satisfy them?

Is there a “model” or example of similar writing you can emulate or, at least, use for inspiration? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you find a good model (if you’re writing an annual report, for example, look at other annual reports!), it will help guide you through the typical steps of the process.

What are your interim deadlines going to be? Many people wrongly see writing as a single step — they’re sitting in front of a computer, and their fingers are moving across the keyboard. No! It’s far more complicated than that. It involves thinking, planning, researching, mindmapping, writing, incubating, editing, rewriting and proofreading. So, reverse engineer these steps and see how much time you’ll be able to allocate to each one. Note in particular that many writers shortchange the editing process because they don’t allow enough time for it. I believe that if you don’t edit WHILE you write (and if you do, break that bad habit!), editing should take roughly twice as long as writing. 

How are you going to reflect? Reflect in writing, if you like, but don’t feel bound to sit at a computer. In fact, it’s often better to get away from your desk and move around while you think. Me? I like to walk but if that doesn’t suit you consider going for a bike ride or a swim. Other people prefer to do this type of thinking when they’re driving or doing housework such as dishes, laundry or vacuuming. Or, if you’re super-social and reflect better when you’re talking with other people, go for coffee with a friend. It doesn’t matter where you do your reflecting. Just do it!

When are you going to reflect? It’s notoriously easy to procrastinate on those tasks that are important but not urgent, like planning and reflecting. Put these tasks on your calendar, so you don’t overlook them. The amount of time you devote to reflecting needn’t be enormous. I spend five minutes every morning planning my day and 10 minutes at the end, reflecting on what went well and what went awry.

I like the way the late American management consultant and writer Peter Drucker summarized the value of thinking time. “Follow effective action with quiet reflection,” he said. “ From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.”


My five-minute video podcast last week aimed to help people who think they might be writing too quickly. (Yes, this is a problem for some!) See it here 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.


Do you make time to reflect on your writing? 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 Oct. 31/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of On Writing Well 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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