Let It Flow: Writing Without Editing

November 7, 2017 § 18 Comments

Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:

How do you stop editing as you write?

I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?

Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:

Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?

Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.

Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?

Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.

…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?

Replacement Habits.

Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?

Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,

I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.

We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?

What works for me:

  1. Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
  2. Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
  3. Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
  4. Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
  5. Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?

Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:

I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.

It doesn’t work that way.

We know it doesn’t.

Let it go.

Let it flow.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 18 Responses to Let It Flow: Writing Without Editing

  • Jeff Cann says:

    Can’t.stop.editing! Every time I return to what I’m writing (short nonfiction), I read from the start, edit as I go and then add the new content at the end. I try to *not* do this, but it happens all the time. Thanks for the reminder to just get through and then return for the polish.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I hear you! I limit myself to going back one section or one chapter. If it’s short, maybe 1/3 of the way back.

  • I think there is no writing practice that works for everyone and different people need to write different ways. Some people write entire stories or essays in their head before one word reaches the page. Several friends who are well-published do edit as they write, polishing each sentence before proceeding to the next and always working from beginning to end.

    Mostly, I have not done that. I cannot do that. I work here and there, a tiny polish and then pages of raw and terrible writing—the middle, the beginning, late, early, sometimes with the end written before I am half through. No coherence at all when I start me next complete draft.

    So my struggle has often been the opposite. Find the structure, the sense or music of what I am doing, and work through from beginning to end, seeking precision as I go instead of hoping that clarity will appear later. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect—far from it! But at least in the next draft, what I have is whole.

  • harveycd says:

    I actually didn’t think people edited as they go, how do you get your ideas down? I have so many ideas that I just need to write them down. I practically write each section in my head then it changes as it goes on paper (or screen!). I have a long and frustrating edit after the story is complete, personally can’t make myself edit until I have the first draft down. In fact I struggle to make myself edit after it is done!

    • Exactly. Allison’s suggestion to Jeffcam to read the previous chapter (1/3, 5 pages?) before moving on might work for you. Instead of reading “not more than” you might try “at least.”

  • Great advice I wished I had known at the beginning. Oh, the ego. I have found word count goals to be extremely helpful in first draft stages. I like the visual on Scrivener. It keeps me focused on the quantity of my effort. Quality comes later.

  • […] via Let It Flow: Writing Without Editing — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Fariba says:

    Excellent advice! I am already doing some of the suggestions (making placeholders, setting deadlines) but I’m only now beginning to write every day.

  • Always great advice Allison. Since my problem is also Ass in Chair, I loved the idea of sitting with computer open or yellow pad for an hour with a timer and if I get lost in social media or get up, then the timer starts again. That’s an excellent self-discipline technique. Next year I am going to be a Nanorebel (a non fiction writer participating in Nanowrimo) and get my 50K words on a page with little to no editing. Anyone doing it this year can use your advice to just keep going and stop curtailing your own progress by the constant tweaking.

  • Editing as you write is a strangely compulsive thing for all of us to do. A habit that the authors who have cracked it seem to to have broken. But sadly even when in full flow, when I am in the world that I am writing about, the simplest distraction and I notice a mis-spelt word, misplaced comma and I’m off editing again. I will try your remedies to see if one or more of your suggestions works for me, Thank-you.

  • This was great! I’m bad for over editing. With my fiction piece, I’ve improved by telling myself I’m always able go back and edit, but my ideas may not be on fire then. So I’ve taken advantage of that stream of creativity when it comes. But the timer idea is a good one ok use too! Thanks 👍🏻

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I find myself editing as I go if I write a sentence or paragraph that I immediately find jarring, but start at the beginning of the chapter and read again when I sit down for the next session. Not so much for editing purposes, but to see exactly where I left off and to be sure that I’m going in the direction I want. Then read again five or more times before sending to my editor. When that comes back I’m shocked at the suggestions I need to make. But they are always exactly what is needed.

  • S. Bodus says:

    Thank you for this. So simple, but my brain–oh, look! A bunny! Tinsel! Fluttering leaves!

    …that, and the relentless belief that the first draft can’t have errors. I know better, but my lizard brain ignores reasonable talk.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Very Meaningful re-blog today………

  • I started my “life’s work,” a novel yet to be completed, by getting it all down during a NaNoWriMo competition – 50 thousand words in the 30 days of November. Simply writing with abandon was helpful…at first. The only real competitor was my compulsion to edit as I went. Everyone who meets the 50k word count wins. I met the challenge but, instead of getting a first editor, I began editing it myself – several times. Then when I consulted a real “First Editor” she made suggestions to the plot which I liked but that also meant going back to the beginning and changing a lot of things. You know, “Write the story with the end in mind.” I got so frustrated, I put it down over three years ago. Perhaps some day I’ll get back to it. Right now I’m struggling to get my day-to-day life organized so I will feel like writing. I’m following my sister’s advice, telling stories from my life. Not an autobiography…just silly events.

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