Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Abandon the Edit-As-You-Go Method

Whenever I talk about the benefits of the crappy first draft some people always object. Not long ago, when I ran a webinar for a group of graduate students at a Canadian university, the whole concept irked some of them. "They are very resistant to the idea of not editing as they go," their professor wrote me afterwards. "At least half objected to the idea."

I encounter the same skepticism when I deliver in-person coaching with large corporate groups, as I've been doing quite a lot recently. Why? For some, it's a habit and — as anyone who's tried to quit smoking can tell you — habits are hard to break. But for others the problem is fear.

I think it boils down to three types of worries:

  1. Fear that their boss or client will be horrified by the crappy first draft.
  2. Fear that writing a crappy first draft will take longer than the edit-as-you-go method.
  3. Fear that the crappy first draft will turn editing into an absurdly painful mess, like trying to get sticky marshmallow out of long, thin hair.

Let me address these concerns one at a time:

My boss/client will be horrified.

This fear stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of a crappy first draft. No one else should see it. Let me repeat that: No one else should see it. The crappy first draft is for your eyes only. Do not show it to anyone else. Not your boss. Not your client. Not your friends. Not your teacher or supervisor. Not even a writing partner or life partner. Write it, put it aside for a day (more, if you have the time) and then edit it before you show it to anyone. Only with the reassurance that no one else will see it will you be able to write with the freedom and confidence you need.

It's going to take longer.

My experience is, it doesn't. I now write at least three times faster than I did with the old edit-as-you-go method. But we're all individuals so, if you think your experience is going to be wildly different, I suggest you collect some evidence.

First, how many words can you typically write in 30 minutes? I realize there's no absolute answer to a question like this. Some material is relatively easy to write and other is much harder. But you should be able to identify a range. For example, I can write between 500 (hard) and 750 (easy) words in 30 minutes.

If you can't answer this question with your own range, then take a couple of weeks to time yourself. Use a kitchen or digital timer or even a stopwatch until you can figure it out definitively. (Bonus: if you're a freelancer, knowing this number will make quoting on writing jobs ever so much easier.)

Then, resolve to try writing without editing for at least two weeks. It will feel uncomfortable first, so give yourself time to adjust. See here for seven tips on how to do that. And be sure to do your writing-without-editing first thing in the morning, when your willpower is highest (even if you're a "night person"). Once you feel you have the swing of it, get out your timer again. I'm betting you'll discover a net savings in time by doing the writing and editing separately — even when you add in the time editing takes.

It will be more painful.

If you want to talk pain, think about your current writing process. Are you sitting in front of a blank computer screen until beads of blood form on your forehead? Are you staring vacantly into middle space feeling both blank and desperate — not to mention thoroughly inadequate — with your fingers sitting absolutely still on the keyboard? Are you writing a sentence, then erasing it, then writing it again, then erasing it again, then writing it a third time, then erasing it again, then…

Many people who dislike writing often enjoy editing. So, use the promise of editing as your reward for writing. In this manner, you can write your crappy first draft without fretting and without pain. Following that, you'll get to do something you really enjoy.

It's a first draft, not a bomb. Or as writer Katherine Paterson puts it: "I love revision. Where else can you turn spilled milk into ice cream?"

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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.