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Writers Talk About Writing

Seven Ways to Stop Editing While You Write

When I started writing back in high school, I developed the nervous practice of producing a sentence and then going back to edit it, immediately. Perhaps you do the same thing? I advise you to take a hard look at your own writing and, break the instant-editing habit as quickly as possible.

It took me 20 years to understand why editing-while-writing is so destructive (and another three years to stop it) but the reason we do it relates to our grey matter. We all have creative brains AND critical brains. Think of them like siblings — ones that don't get along very well. The creative brain is the shyer and less assertive of the two — prone to hiding under the bed whenever the critical brain looks as though it's about to issue a punch to the nose. The critical brain is diligent and well organized but not so great at writing.

Here are seven ways to keep your critical brain, temporarily, at bay:

1) Turn off your monitor (or at least turn the light off it). If your screen is blank then your critical brain will have nothing to do! Note that you must be a touch typist for this to work — otherwise you might get a sentence like: mpr r% jyur yo,r gpt s;; hppf ,rny yp vp,r yp yjr sof pg — and no one wants that to happen! Alternatively, you can simply hang a dishtowel over your screen. If you're not a touch typist, consider investing in some voice activation software (such as Dragon) that will allow you to dictate your words – and DON'T look at your screen while you're doing this.

2) If you are writing something long, such as a book or lengthy report, copy your LAST sentence at the end of every writing day into an entirely new document. Then spend a minute writing out some directions for yourself about what you want to accomplish the next day. The next day, work only from this fresh document.  This way you can't be lured into editing your work before you finish writing it. 

3) Monitor your self-talk and tell yourself you'll deal with it later. If you're not conscious of your own self-talk then please go looking for it over the next few days. If you're like everyone else in the world (including me) you're probably saying things like: "My boss is going to hate this" or "This is just too boring." Or "I'm a really bad writer." We ALL talk to ourselves — mostly negatively — ALL the time. The trick is to be conscious of it. Then, say back to yourself — "I'm writing right now; I don't have time to talk. I'll deal with these concerns when I'm editing." And do exactly that.

4) Write with a noisy timer. I write using pomodoros — 25 minutes of intensely directed activity. When I started on the pomo trail, I first used a silent digital timer, figuring that the sound of a noisy one would interrupt my writing. Eventually, however, I switched to one that tick-tocked (yes, as my husband likes to observe, it sounds as if a bomb is about to explode in my office). Weirdly enough I find it doesn't distract my creative brain at all. If anything, it keeps me better focused. Now I ALWAYS write with a noisy timer clicking in the background. It makes my family less likely to interrupt me, too. Bonus!

5) Use Dr. Wicked's Write or Die software to prod your productivity. His free online tool will help train you to turn off your critical brain by punishing you for writing slowly. My advice? Use his "normal" mode. Then you'll be punished by sound. If you switch to "kamikaze" he'll start erasing text on you!

6) Write yourself notes for anything you want to fix. When I drafted this column, for example, I repeated the word "habit" too many times in paragraphs one and two. Instead of stopping to fix it, I put XXs beside the word every time I used it so I could change it later. This sort of "promissory note" puts our critical brains at ease because they are TERRIFIED that our "sloppy" selves are going to let mistakes slide by. Short-circuit this difficulty by promising that you'll address the problems later.

7) Reward yourself for not editing while you write. In time, the reward of writing quickly will be prize enough. For now, however, be sure to lavish yourself with other incentives: magazines, books, music, tea, coffee even time on YouTube. Remember, you should always write as quickly as you can. Just be sure to edit (later), as slowly as you can bear. 


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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:

Wednesday January 11th 2012, 3:19 AM
Comment by: Sante J. Achille (L Aquila Italy)
Great advice I am going to try and out in place immediately. There are other "distractions that keep interrupting the flow of thoughts that should be turned off like skype where contacts are pinging all the time, incoming Email, cell phone and landline.

In principle one should literally shut down all communications with the outside for the duration of the writing session !

Thank you for this excellent piece of advice :)
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 5:25 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
I hardly agree with this advice. It departs from working near random writing into good writing. To me that is demotivating. I'd rather know how to write a first draft in a firmer context. Creative writing can be supported by method as well. I use a pocket dictaphone to 'catch' fleeting thoughts that only by their context seem naturally relevant, but isolated can be steady stepping stones. Once at my computer I write them out, then start my writing above them and spoon in my observations, deleting them from the 'pool' underneath when used.
Also I write in two languages, Dutch and English and when I have one language 'done', begin translating from one into the other. I use my thesauri for selecting synonyms and translating them back into the first language and even often back from there, also by thesaurus, to the second language. This way I can refine my writing by choosing from lists of alternatives. This methods allows me a command of both languages that is not decisive on which one I start which, as it works both ways. Needless to say that the Visual Thesaurus plays a crucial role in this process.
Working with these two methods increases their effect in practicing them. I'm sure other writers use such rather intimate procedures and I'd be more interested in being informed on those than on the revalidation clinic to turn creative writing into hard work.
janploeg.nl, 'Dolphin Address.
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Kevin J.
I love you for this advice..THANKS!
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Your advice comes at a critical time for me.
Thank you for your wisdom.
I am a medical doctor so I know a little bit about how the brain (the conscious part) works!
For me, I have written a 150 page book about myself and how I could have left six innocent and helpless children to be raised by their mother who had just divorced me after 11 years.
One of my professor/personal-editor/courageous-friend announced his advice was to REMOVE 11 paragraphs of beautiful, subtle, detailed narrative to make the thing read better.
WHAT A SHOCK!
My cricital brain found a great friend in my friend's advice.
This may become a watershed in my nascent writing career (at age 81).
Thank you so much.
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Anthony L. (New Haven, CT)
Your advice will work for some but not for others. Or, as the cliche goes, different strokes for different folks. If we agree, and I think we do, that each brain learns in a fashion peculiar to the person -- then why (with respect to writing) attempt to wire your brain into my brain. I find that my brain works best when I edit as I go. Otherwise, I've got a huge mess of words at the end of my writing journey. Alas, I enjoyed your article anyway but my brain rejected it.
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
As support to your critical/artistic brain model I will add my experience when I had to command large volumes of data into memory to succeed in becoming a medical doctor.
The process simply was to break study time into approximately 15-minute segments. The content for each concentrated segment varied between subjects to the greatest degree possible. Whatever it is in the human brain, the juices flow best when the variety is highest, it seems.
No one, even in today's advance state of knowledge, understand the workings of our thinking abilities, much less the meaning of consciousness, but if a method works for you, then GO FOR IT!
I still applaud Daphne for her imaginative and helpful (for some) advice!
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 6:54 PM
Comment by: Jim S. (Manly Australia)
Love your comments and they work for me.
I remember hearing that write/edit/write/edit is like driving a car going from 1st gear to 4th gear to 1st gear to 4th gear and so on. That is, it creates too much mental friction for the result. THanks for your piece, very timely for me
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I agree with Anthony L.-different strokes for different folks. This would not work for me, as better ways to say sentences are constantly bugging me- kind of like the ping on Skype, as Sante pointed out- and I go back and rewrite sentences. If Daphne is correct and this is a bad habit, then I am hopelessly lost. But that's how I write, and often the finished product is better than what if would have been if I had just written.
Excellent advice, though. I know at least one person who would greatly benefit from it. Thank you Daphne, for your wonderful article and advice, however criticized it may be!
Wednesday January 11th 2012, 9:16 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all the comments! I do believe that all rules are meant to be broken -- at least some of the time -- but for those who argue that they cannot write without self-editing, let me offer the following.

I used to edit myself while I wrote. I believed that was just the way I did things and it would be too much trouble to try to change.

Now I write without editing and I found this process has REVOLUTIONIZED my writing. Please, give it a try, even for one article or one day.

From time to time, I still self-edit. Only now I find it a vastly inferior process. And I find it much easier to make myself stop!
Thursday January 12th 2012, 12:51 PM
Comment by: Janice B.
I appreciated the practical nature of the suggestions. Especially putting the XX's next to things that you immediately know will need further work. Doing that will mean I won't loose my full train of thought, and I won't worry that I will forget what I wanted to improve. Using Find and Replace will mean that I can quickly get back to those places when it is time to edit.

I am also going to try suggestion #2 for ending one day and beginning the next (in some variation). I find that at the beginning of each day I go back and re-read/edit what I did yesterday and it can be hours before I start getting new content down. That just makes me feel bogged down. I am thankful for a suggestion for how to alter that behaviour. Thank you.
Thursday January 12th 2012, 2:29 PM
Comment by: Nancy C. (MWC, OK)
maybe this is why it takes me so long to write anything. I keep going back to change what I have already written instead of focusing on my new thoughts. I hope this article helps me become a better writer.
Thursday January 12th 2012, 4:56 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Janice B.
You have solved a problem for me in writing my first book.
FIND AND REPLACE is the answer!
My document of 38,000 words needs MUCH work yet (even though my children have all read it).
I can read through it, yet one more time! and mark the needed changes with "xxx" as you suggested.
Thank you for your suggestion.
ANOTHER TIP:
when I revise a single paragraph, I do a "SHIFT + ENTER" prevent a paragraph break at each tiny change or word order adjustment. Then it isn't too hard to take the jumbled up paragraph and put it back together again in a more pleasing fashion!
Sunday January 15th 2012, 3:46 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
It is so refreshing to read an educational article that contains HUMOR! I read some of the essay to my wife. She could be described as an LOL, who laughed out loud (LOL).

I'll reserve judgment on your suggestions until I've tried them, yet they already resonate - for the most part.

Perhaps you could address another issue that slows me down considerably: stopping mid-sentence and doing research. For example, I am writing a play for classroom use that could expand the vocabularies of middle and high school students. I am using a sci-fi genre with a space-time machine that takes a set of twins back to Ancient Rome around 20 B.C.E. The basic plot is in place - in my creative brain, but my critical brain slows me to a snail's pace interrupting me time after time saying, "Look that up, klutz. Is that historically valid?" Any recommendations?

One final note: I almost resisted using the "B.C.E" abbreviation above. I do know what it stands for, but my muse told me it also could mean Before the Common Error. My muse's last name is Moore. His first name is Hugh. As indicated above, I'm glad he has made your acquaintance, as well.
Sunday January 15th 2012, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Keith,

My suggestion is that you try always to complete AT LEAST 80 - 90% of your research before writing a word. After that, if you run into a question (as you suggested above: "is this historically valid?") then used strategy #6: writing yourself a note to look it up later. Hope this helps!
Sunday January 15th 2012, 9:07 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I noticed a very interesting style here. Your suggestions are always marked with some notations.
Do you ever write without any marking?
By the way, the rules discussed here are effective and creative persons will indeed get benefit following the steps. People like me who wants to write for fun, who only writes few sentences each day, editing at the end or instant editing doesn't matter.
But I agree, instant editing generate sometimes 180 degree ideas, I mean total opposite that I wanted to express initially.
Monday January 16th 2012, 12:00 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm not sure what you're referring to when you say my "suggestions are always marked with some notations." What do you mean??
Monday January 16th 2012, 4:56 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
I write everything I do in my prolix-doomed daily journal, not only for reference purposes, (comes in handy), but because I enjoy self-editing and always use the finger-wagging green line beneath, for instance, a sentence where it says, ‘passive voice consider revising’, or ‘fragment, consider revising’ etc, etc. Sometimes I switch it off, and blather on as I would if not stopped. I then go back, turn it on again, and WHOAH, discover many grammatical errors, especially that humbug ‘passive voice’.

When mulling over how to change passive to active so it makes sense, often means rewriting the passage, and yes, for sure – greatly improved.

However, recently I had a look at what I used to write on a manual typewriter, and I'm amazed at how fresh, funny, and vigorous it read, compared to now on a computer, although grammatically correct, so stilted in comparison. It's a bit depressing to realise I remember nothing that the green line suggests.
Monday January 16th 2012, 8:34 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Gabrielle, keep your writing and your editing separate. This may have been easier in your old "manual typewriter" days because editing was so painful then. Now, with the easy of "move block" and "delete" it's tempting to edit all the time. STOP yourself from doing this! Write first. Edit later. You'll be fresh, funny and vigorous again!
Monday January 16th 2012, 9:09 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Gabrielle T:
Regarding your perception of your creativity using the old ribbon-and-keystroke method, you may be attributing a result to an erroneous cause, if I may be so bold as to speak clearly.
Perhaps, it is not in the manner of the efficiency of modern computerized word processing so much as the rekindled memories of the days long gone, that seems to be improved and more fresh than the later writing.
EXAMPLE: I ran across a short blurb I had written 10 years ago on Flickr about "who I am". I could not have said it with more freshness today than then: It began, "I am a Geriatric Delinquent and ..."
It was the frame of mind rather than the method of transcribing that was a brief stroke of genius!
So, take heart my friend, "it's not the weather, it's the economy!"
And believe me, you have reached my heart with your story...whether true or false.
Monday January 16th 2012, 10:47 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
Thanks Roger, you're probably right, hadn't thought of that. Perhaps when living a less mundane life with less time to become such a pettifogger is the reason I look back in dismay. Guess I had better get out and about a bit more - who knows might find something more interesting to say, rather than, 'DAMN, left an egg boiling on the stove and up blew the whole lot to bits’, OMG - how riveting!!
Monday January 16th 2012, 10:49 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
Thanks Roger, you're probably right, hadn't thought of that. Perhaps when living a less mundane life with less time to become such a pettifogger is the reason I look back in dismay. Guess I had better get out and about a bit more - who knows might find something more interesting to say, rather than, 'DAMN, left an egg boiling on the stove and up blew the whole lot to bits’, OMG - how riveting!!
Tuesday January 17th 2012, 3:24 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Hey, not to be outdone, your description of the egg blowing up is an extremely cogent example of the powers of observation and retelling.
That one simple "dull and failed" statement opened for me an entire sad incident pivotal to my own story (read my book) when I did just that very thing in the confusion and distress of being divorced in 1966! It is at once riveting and poignant! Never underestimate the power of your own God-given talents and keep plugging away, my friend!
I'm right there with you!
Roger
Tuesday January 17th 2012, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
Ah, memories are made of this. Similarly, my divorce in 1971 (after 18 months married) certainly blew up more than an egg, but many thanks for your slant on the incident.

Am I correct in presuming you actually have a book published, and is it on that vexed topic, about which I could write a tome; settled for a work of (somewhat toxic) fiction instead that I've been nibbling at for more than 10 years, finger hovering over the delete button, but somehow can't bring myself to kill off the imaginary characters. Got no plot outline you see, just launched into it on a whim with no ending figured out. Oh well, who knows ... one day......
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I didn't have the courage to actually write my UNPUBLISHED book until after 43 years of procrastination when I wanted to have each of my six children hear the story in my own words. There is a lot to this little story on many levels.

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