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Write First Edit Later: Stop Editing As You Write. Use These Tips

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 11.16.2023 by Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning content writer, website publisher, and author of 9 books.

Write first edit later. It’s a cardinal rule for writers. Yes, there’s one rule that precedes it: there are no rules. But the “write first edit later” rule clocks in as a close second.

The principle is simple. Write-first-edit-later means that you get your thoughts out on paper or the screen before you go back and tidy them up. Doing so means you save time and save work. “Do not edit while writing,” says Dr. Steven R. Shaw, associate professor at McGill University and editor of the Canadian .Journal of School Psychology.  “There are many ways to be an efficient writer, but editing while writing is not one.”

Yet I struggle to write without stopping. My main problem, I confess, is that I don’t always draw the line between the three key writing tasks – research, writing, and editing. When I have not determined in my mind that I am writing – rather than researching or editing – then I get bogged down.

For instance, sometimes I get start writing while my idea is just a seed. In those situations I need to do more research before I start typing. Other times, I’ve not organized my thoughts. All my mumbo-jumbo content needs to be plastered into a good old-fashioned outline before I start pecking away. Time slips away until I realize I’ve been caught in the edit-as-you-write trap.

Write first, edit later with these tips with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #selfediting

Don’t edit as you write

There’s a well-known admonition to write-first-edit-later from a guy knew a thing or two about writing well:  John Steinbeck (1902-1968). “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper,” said Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate. “Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.”

When you write without stopping, Steinbeck explained, you unleash creativity.  In contrast, the start-and-stop process stifles it. “Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on,” said Steinbeck. “It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

Excuses and distractions. Yep, I’m guilty. Deep down, I get afraid that what I write isn’t good enough, so I mentally make excuses that I need to go back and edit it. Or my email dings …  it’s time to move the clean clothes to the dryer … or I make the handy excuse that my internet surfing is in reality deeper research. It’s easier to stop writing because so many other needs are allegedly pressing in on me.

But the start and stop technique slows me down because to the brain, writing and editing are two different kinds of tasks. When you switch between writing mode and editing mode, you’re switching between the creative and critical sides of your brain. You’re multitasking – or at least trying to.

By getting into write-now-edit-later mode, you create “flow,” first identified by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-HIGHLY CHEEK-sent-me-high-lee). When you’re writing “in the flow” or “in the zone,” your mind is fully immersed. You write freely. 

While originally thought to be subjective, flow is now documented by our friends in the scientific community. Research electroencephalogram (EEG) suggests both heightened electrical brain wave activity and elevated dopamine levels during flow. In other words, your brain experiences both electrical and chemical changes when you’re “in the zone.” 

But once you switch to self-editing mode, you move to the critical thinking side of your brain. You halt all of freewriting’s creative electrical impulses and pleasure-sensing dopamine levels. Your mind flips off one switch and turns on another. 

Editing as you write: an example

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about polishing a piece by editing and re-writing. And yes, you can pick up your creative burst once again. But by starting and stopping the creative process too often, you sabotage your own writing progress. When you go back and forth repeatedly, your brain ping pongs between the two.

Here’s the way it works: imagine you’re fixing dinner. You’ve sliced the chicken into strips but you need to measure ingredients for the marinade.

But as you open the cupboard containing the measuring cups, you notice it’s in disarray. So you stop making dinner and take time to re-organize the cupboard. Yes, you return to your meal preparations. Yes, you eventually finish cooking dinner. But in the meantime, you’ve got to find your recipe amid all the measuring cups and paraphernalia that you’ve pulled out of the cupboard. And in order to resume cooking, you must review in your mind what steps in the recipe you’ve completed already. 

The cupboard could have waited. Likewise, self-editing can wait. You’ll take less time to finish your draft when you write without stopping.

How to stop editing while writing

Editing while writing becomes a habit. If you’re not in the habit yet, then good for you. But if you struggle to write without stopping, it’s time to break your pattern. Fortunately, it’s easier to develop a good write-first-edit-later habit than it is to stop chewing your fingernails. Here’s how to stop editing while writing.

Create a personal self-editing checklist

  1. Schedule a specific time of day for free-writing to “train” your creative juices to be ready then. Schedule other sessions specifically dedicated to research and editing.
  2. Turn off email and text notifications when you’re writing.
  3. Go offline so you can’t hop onto the internet when you hit a writing snag.
  4. Set a timer and write until it sounds. This now-famous Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, offers a way to work in intervals – whether it’s 55 minutes followed by a break or just a 15-minute dash to dump your brain’s contents onto paper.  
  5. Start writing by first editing what you wrote the day before. Limit yourself to 10-15 minutes of editing time. Then start writing new material.
  6. Give yourself a daily word count goal to reach or exceed. 
  7. Start with a clean document. Copy and paste the last sentence you wrote the day before and then proceed with new content.
  8. Start free-writing by creating a bullet list. Then flesh out each item on the list, one at a time.
  9. Use self-editing tools and apps. Write or Die allows you to self-program your goals, with a consequence pop-up screen and annoying sounds that appear if you stop writing.  Or try Write or Die alternatives like WriteRoom, which eliminates distracting word processing formatting tasks or 4thewords, an app that offers encouragement when you reach a writing goal.
  10. Use placeholders. If you keep using the same word over and over and want to substitute it with a synonym for variety, highlight it or use [brackets]. You can find a replacement when you edit.
  11. Keep a writing journal. Record your daily thoughts, fears, or word count. Every 7-10 days, review your journal entries and look for patterns.
  12. Write longhand.
  13. Give yourself a short writing assignment to complete before you allow yourself to edit. Make yourself write 10 headlines … outline a blog post … complete the first section of an article before you review what you’ve written.
  14. Avoid looking at what you’ve written until your writing time is over or even until the next day.
  15. Use a writing template. “The best writers create systems,” says prolific financial writer Dickie Bush.  Maybe your system is a certain number of words a day. Maybe your system – like mine – is to identify which hat you’re wearing as you write: researcher, writer, or editor. Maybe your system is to follow a particular template as you write a specific project. Author and speaker Michael Hyatt used a simple 3-part blogging template to blog every day. 

Why you should edit as you write (maybe)

Write-first-edit-later – is it truly the only way to write? Nope. As with all writing rules, this one was made to be broken. 

“I always edit while I’m writing. It’s the only way I can feel good about what I’ve done,” says Mark D. White, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. “I make sure every sentence sounds exactly as I want it to sound; I make sure every paragraph is structured in a way that makes my point as well as I can; and I make sure the paragraphs flow in a way that makes my argument as clearly and carefully as possible.”

By bucking the system and breaking one of writing’s cardinal rules, does Dr. White give proof of why you should edit as you write? His approach clearly works for him. He’s got seven books  and 69 published scholarly articles in print.

Maybe. And maybe not. Most writers agree that write-first-edit-later is a good rule of thumb to at least try in your quest for writing efficiency. 

In time, and with experimentation, you’ll find your own personalized writing and editing rhythm.

Fantasy writer and Newberry award nominee Shannon Hale explains how she discovered hers. “I write a first draft by reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box,” she says, “So that later I can build castles.” 

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