Word Count

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 Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.