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Writers Talk About Writing

Become a Better Writer by Incubating

When I was a callow teenager and completed my honors political science thesis in June 1979, I finished it only because my professor declined to give me another extension.

Although this made me furious, I'm now very grateful. If he hadn't refused to molly-coddle my deadline-averse ways, it would have taken me the entire summer to write it. If then.

As it was, I wrapped up my writing in a three-day marathon during which I did not sleep. Instead, I moved between the dining-room table, which I had commandeered (I now can't recall where the rest of the family ate!), the kitchen and the bathroom. I did nothing but write, edit, drink coffee, eat the odd crust of bread and, finally, finish the damn thing.

My professor gave me a 79% which was both generous (given my lateness) and a slap in the face (by scoring less than 80% I was awarded second class honors instead of first.) Of course none of this really mattered, as I had no interest in pursuing an academic career. I still recall writing that thing as one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

If only I had known about incubation!

If incubation is not a tool in your writing quiver, be sure to pay attention now. When you incubate, you take a complete break from writing. This is one of the main reasons you should follow five guidelines listed here (none of which I knew about when I started my thesis):

1) Don't start writing until you have finished the bulk of your research and know much of what you want to say. There is little to be gained by scribbling 750 (or more) words, early in the process. Do not assume that "getting started on writing" is a smart move. Instead, work to research first, write later. This will allow you to see your work as a whole, rather than just a word count.

2) Start your project early enough so that you aren't forced to write and edit, as I was, in three days running. Or even one day running. After you finish researching, you need a stretch of time to think before you start to write. (If you think best with a pen, be sure to do a mindmap.) Otherwise, you can expect to spend a bunch of time sitting in front of a blank computer screen, fretting. This will make you feel panicked rather than in control. Not good. Instead, use incubation to avoid this terror.

3) Be aware that you will need another (longer) stretch of time to take a complete break after you've finished writing and before you start editing. Magic happens in the time when you leave your first draft in a dusty corner of your hard-drive or a vacant drawer of your desk. This is the only way to activate the "editing elves" who will come and do substantial work on your draft while you are away working on other things. Seriously, though, by taking a long break, you give yourself some much needed perspective so you can determine whether what you've written is any good and how it can be made even better. If you're like me, you'll frequently discover that some writing you thought was disastrously bad is actually pretty good. This has nothing to do with wearing rose-colored glasses. It is simply the power of perspective. (The reverse is also true: The exquisitely good can, occasionally, become irreparably bad.)

4) Remember: You should never edit while you write. I consider this "global incubation" because it means you are not allowing yourself to "think" while you write. I always tell myself that I should write as quickly as I possibly can and edit as slowly as I can possibly bear. Writing and editing are two completely different tasks. Keep them that way.

5) Whenever you feel particularly stuck or puzzled, don't force yourself to write. Instead, take a break — and by break, I mean do something completely different: for example, a walk, a drive, a bath, a book, a piece of music — and return to writing only when you feel completely refreshed and, more importantly, distracted from your problem. Whenever Albert Einstein encountered a particularly tricky problem he always took a break to listen to some music. And we all know how that worked for him!

Incubation is not about wasting time. It's about using it wisely.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 12th 2012, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
This is superb advice. What I love about Daphne Gray-Grant is that she doesn't keep "discovering" new, magical revelations about how to write well, but comes back again and again to the very simple process and principles that she talks about here. I have read her excellent book and followed her blog for years, and she has made a big difference to my writing. And, not surprisingly, to the enjoyment I get out of it.

I do disagree with her doctrine of NEVER editing as you write. It is good advice for many writers, but I sometimes edit as I go along and don't feel any loss of creative flow.
Thursday April 12th 2012, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your very kind words, Graeme. I do want to clarify my doctrine of NEVER editing while you write. If you are in the habit of this (as I was) it's important to make a clean break from the practice. Once you are "recovered" I think it is occasionally acceptable to do sparing edits as you go along. But this NEVER means going back to the beginning of the article and starting editing from the top every time you write a new sentence! (Yes, this is what I used to do!) I am living proof that the habit can be broken.
Thursday April 12th 2012, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Kelly
My master's mentor called this percolating. Better see if the coffee's done so I can keep writing. Great post!
Thursday April 12th 2012, 9:16 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
References, table of contents, figures if any, page number, introduction, body,conclusion with the rest of the thesis requirements in three days of time to organize is too difficult. I think that "B" was a justified B because more refinement were necessary to get a B+ or A-.
For literature it was possible. An MS thesis in Physics. chemistry or biology-- writing it in three days is incomprehensible. So, no comment, no thanks. I am a chemistry major!
Thursday April 12th 2012, 9:18 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
References, table of contents, figures if any, page number, introduction, body,conclusion with the rest of the thesis requirements in three days of time to organize is too difficult. I think that "B" was a justified B because more refinement were necessary to get a B+ or A-.
For literature it was possible. An MS thesis in Physics. chemistry or biology-- writing it in three days is incomprehensible. So, no comment, no thanks. I am a chemistry major!
Friday April 13th 2012, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
My degree was in political science and, of course, I didn't leave all the work til the last three days! I spend eight months on the thing! It was simply the writing that unravelled me.

I'm not going to argue about marks, however, because the question is both unimportant to me and irrelevant now.

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