Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Think First. Write Later.

Here are the mistakes I see some (not all!) 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. 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 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 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 while walking 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 ground-breaking, 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 cellphone 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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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.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday August 22nd, 9:42 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
When on a project, I think/rehearse when walking, showering, driving, or listening to my wife (Oops!). I'm even absent minded while dreaming, missing quality time with my nocturnal demons. The cost? Arising in the middle of the night to ink wayward tissues with the visions of epigrams that danced in my head.

More often, I just sleep.

As always, Daphne, thanks for getting me thinking.
Saturday August 22nd, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Susan B.
I liked what you said about moving in order to generate writing. I shared your idea and column with my writing group this morning. However, I'm not so sure about your point of figuring out what we want to say by writing and how you disagreed with that concept.

That is exactly how I write. Something, a word or phrase or situation, sparks my interest and I start to write about it in poem or scene. I don't know what's going to happen or what my characters are going to say until I've written it.

Am I missing your point? I find that aspect one of the most delicious parts of writing--discovering who I am or who a character is by writing.
Saturday August 22nd, 9:15 PM
Comment by: Hotse L. (Lauderdale by the Sea, FL)
When I step away I give myself time to enter the story. I place myself in the middle of it and imagine what occurs next. I don't care about the details, it's the general thread I want. Once that is clear, how to get from A to B, or Z, I go back to my writing and the story unfolds in front of me.
I'm often amazed at what shows up. I know the start and I know where I want to end up, but the in-between I don't worry about. That happens as I write, as if I am an onlooker, a spectator in sense.
There are times I hear myself think, 'How do I get out of this,' or'How did this happen'. But the story finds a solution as long as I let it happen and don't actively interfere.
I love this process.
Monday August 24th, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the fascinating comments above, David, Susan and Hotse.

Susan, I want to explore you comment a little further. I think the process is probably a bit different for fiction writing (and REALLY different for poetry.) I'm a non-fiction writer myself so I don't feel well equipped to speak about the novelist's or poet's perspective...

When I talk about the benefits of separating the thinking from the writing, I'm referring to the need to really figure out what your MESSAGE is, what you want to say, before you start trying to say it.

I've worked with many academics who will write 1400 words when they only need 700 because they have to write a bunch of chaff before they get to the wheat. To me, it makes much more sense to spend more time THINKING and REFLECTING before you commit any words to paper or screen. And most of us think better when we're physically active.

But, as I said, the process is likely totally different for novelists. Or certainly SOME novelists!

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