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.
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.
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.
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.
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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