Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Consider Back-And-Forth Writing

There is something wonderfully concrete about writing. If your boss or client asks you for 500 words, you can make a plan, do your research or interviews and then start writing. Your software will even tell you exactly when you've hit that goal.

Or, if you're writing a book of 80,000 words you can subdivide it into more manageable chunks — such as 10 chapters of 8,000 words apiece — make a plan and then get started fairly quickly.

I see writers do this every day of the week. They focus on their ultimate goal — the finished product — and think that every minute they are not spending writing is wasted time.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is walk away from your writing.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Our minds get stuck in ruts

When we write, we usually become very focused. I picture writers as cross-country skiers stuck in a classic track, with snow carved up on either side making it difficult — and sometimes even slightly risky — to go in any other direction. When all we can see is the perfectly groomed tracks heading out for miles in front of us, it's always easier to stay on the pre-determined route.

2. We don't have anything new to say

Sometimes, after working on a piece of writing for 45 minutes we just plain run out of things to say. It's not that these ideas don't exist. It's just that we can't see them. And trying too hard, also known as over-thinking, doesn't help one iota.

3. We need more time for reflection

Other times, we may need to do more thinking, in a more relaxed fashion. A certain pressure sits on our shoulders whenever we park ourselves in front of a computer. But when we remove ourselves from the computer our brains become free to wander in any direction and to think more creative thoughts.

All these reasons indicate that it's often wise to consider a different path.

Recently, I’ve started following the path of what I call "back-and-forth" writing. What do I mean when I say that?

I'm guessing you might visualize "back-and-forth" writing as a group project in which a draft is passed between three (or more people) with each person adding their own point of view to the text, correcting errors and making comments in little boxes along the side.

Trust me, I've been involved in lots of projects like that, and I don't recommend them. When I say "back-and-forth&" writing, I mean projects where YOU go back and forth with yourself. Reconsidering that 500-word piece for your boss or client, for example, you might begin by writing an introductory paragraph, say 56 words. Then walk away for an hour or more.

Later, you return and add another 376 words. Then take another break.

Still later, you can add the remaining 68 words.

I know this sounds inefficient and tiresome, but it's actually the reverse. I know because I recently had to write a story in exactly this fashion. I had a day filled with meetings and I also needed to finish a piece of writing, a blog post for a client. Instead of working late, I decided to squeeze the piece of writing into my already-full day.

Instead of being difficult, it was easier. In each writing session, I had very little time so I was motivated to write as quickly as possible. When I returned to the piece (each time), I was always cheered to see how many words I'd already accumulated. (There's a big benefit to not having to face a blank screen every time you start working on a piece of writing!)

I also felt the quality of my writing was better because I came to it with fresh eyes on so many occasions during the day. This allowed me to do a better job of self-editing.

Back-and-forth writing might sound like a time-waster, but it's not. Instead, it's a way to make your writing easier, fresher and less daunting. Goals are always important, but they aren't the only thing you should focus on. Instead, figure out a way to make the process better and more productive for you.

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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.