Stop Stopping Yourself with Premature Edits (Guest Post by Rosanne Bane)

Please welcome Rosanne Bane, author and writing coach and one smart cookie. Since I’m not here to beat this drum she’s gonna do it for me.

Trying to edit while drafting is like trying to polish your shoes while walking. Actually, it’s more like trying to polish your shoes while trailblazing over rough and unmapped territory. It takes longer to get where you’re going, you can’t possibly get a good shine and you’re almost guaranteed to lose your balance and fall.

photo by Michal Zacharzewski

“Short Cuts Make Long Delays” – J.R. Tolkien

Your brain stem and limbic system can do more than one thing at a time, which is why you can walk and chew gum and still notice cars in the crosswalk. But your cortex, your creative brain, simply cannot multitask.

Your cortex focuses attention on one thing at a time. When you think you’re skillfully juggling multiple tasks that require conscious attention (aka multitasking), your cortex is actually shifting your attention from one task to the other to another and back again.

Every time you shift your attention, you lose processing speed and accuracy. Research shows that it can take up to twice as long to multitask than to do the tasks sequentially and that multitasking can cause up to twice as many mistakes.

People multitask because they believe it will save time, but in truth, multitasking is a short cut that takes the long way to completion.

Make It Shine

Because drafting and editing are two different cognitive tasks that require your cortex to pay attention, trying to edit while you draft is a form of multitasking. Therefore it takes more time and introduces errors that make your writing less effective.

Your cortex shifts attention from drafting to editing what you just wrote, then back to generating and back again to editing. You can’t possibly maintain your train of thought when you’re constantly derailing it.

If you’re thinking “But I edit and draft all the time; I know it works for me,” keep in mind that the people who think they’re good at multitasking perform the worst when tested. People who don’t think they multitask well actually outperform those who are convinced they’re good multitaskers.

Some writers might be willing to pay the price of extra time because they want to polish their writing. They need to make every word, every sentence shine. In other words, they want to eliminate every spot of mud from their shoes as they walk. Unfortunately, the obsession with the shine interferes with their ability to make the journey from first to final draft.

When you let yourself write a truly awful first draft, you make far more progress than you could using the multitask-draft-and-edit method. Gradually improving multiple drafts takes you farther than endlessly obsessing about how good the first paragraph is.

Take the Fall

When writers revise and edit our work, we need discernment – when we think “This is off somehow, I wonder what I can do to tweak it” – far more than we need judgment – when we think “This section sucks, I’m a fraud, not a writer.” Resisting the urge to judge and maintaining a discerning perspective requires the kind of focus that is fractured if we attempt to edit as we draft.

Once we slip into judging a draft, which is supposed to be messy, awkward, incomplete, clichéd, we open the door to our Saboteur.

The most obvious form of the Saboteur is the Attacker. As I explain in Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, the Attacker is “the hypercritical voices that nags, threatens, insults, judges, denigrates and disparages you.” Revising is challenging enough without inviting a critic to scream in your ear every step of the way.

After being pummeled by your Attacker’s unrelenting criticism, you may welcome a less noticeable, but equally dangerous, form of the Saboteur: the Protector. In AWB, I explain that this form:

“promises to keep you safe from rejection, criticism and failure. Of course, it doesn’t admit that this safety means isolating yourself and your writing so that you also remove yourself from opportunities to receive acceptance, encouragement, discerning observations that could help you improve the writing, and ultimately, success.”

In its Protector guise, the Saboteur encourages you to keep revising and rewriting. It cautions that you need to endlessly edit your work because you need to make sure it perfect before moving on. It also subtly causes you to censor yourself to avoid negative responses to certain topics, genres or techniques, which inhibits your growth and development as a writer.

Your Saboteur may take other forms (the Innocent, the Unlucky or the Enticer). No matter what form it appears in, nothing will please it more than derailing and delaying your writing. One way to close the door to the Saboteur is to refrain from judgment and to delay editing until after you’ve completed the rough drafts.

“No Mud, No Lotus” – Buddha

You can’t get to your final destination without getting your shoes muddy and scuffed. You can’t get to the final draft without being willing to be imperfect and vulnerable as you go.

Creativity is messy business – you may as well let yourself have fun playing in the mud.

Bio: Rosanne Bane is a creativity coach, teaching artist and author of Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance. She has given thousands of writers the tools to break through writer’s block and other forms of resistance.

11 thoughts on “Stop Stopping Yourself with Premature Edits (Guest Post by Rosanne Bane)

  1. Roseanne, so true that these ninja prose assassins come in many guises. Mine is “This Will Only Take a Second”—he pretends that going back to buff a sentence won’t interrupt the compositional flow. But as you explain the multitasking minefield, it just ain’t so.

    My problem (well, the one that’s relevant here) is that I’m an editor and proofreader as well as a writer, so the head that wears many hats is often turned by a pretty little sentence moving by—maybe just add a nice belt and shoes before it goes? Need to learn to dress it up or undress it later.

    As John says above, baby steps indeed.

  2. Thanks for posting.

    My wife struggles with this mightily. She wants each sentence to be perfect the first time through. I keep telling her there will be plenty of time later to make the sentences perfect, just get them all down first.

  3. Excellent baby step, John!
    Seriously, unlearning the habit of editing while drafting is a matter of repeatedly changing your behavior and giving yourself kudos when you do.

  4. I know the “This will only take a second” ruse all too well. To follow your fashion metaphor, the trick is probably to take the editor and proofreader hats off your head when you draft. Seeing yourself as Barthelow Cubbins with the 500 hats on your head and symbolically or literally removing all hats other than one labeled “Drafting Writer” off your head might be a silly, but helpful ritual.

  5. Exactly Phil, because until you get a critical mass of sentences collected on a page/screen, you really can’t tell which of the many ways to phrase any one sentence actually is best.

  6. Thank you for this post! Editing while you’re drafting, does that include fixing wayward typos or punctuation? When I’m refreshing myself on a prior scene and re-reading it, I will stop to fix typos that jump out. I’m not re-working the scene, just fixing something where my brain was moving faster than my fingers. Or do you suggest that ALL editing wait?

  7. You’re welcome Cheryl. Great question. Copy editing is a slippery slope. What will interfere with your creative flow the least: breaking your drafting focus to fix the typo so you can “move on” or promising yourself you’ll fix it later? My reasons for delaying editing include: 1) When you later revise, you might dramatically change or even delete the sentence with the typo, so your editing was wasted effort; 2) When you respond to one typo, you started noticing other typos more and you keep splitting your focus until you aren’t really drafting at all; 3) Multitasking almost always feels like “This will only take a minute… I’ll take care of this just one thing…” and before you know it, you’ve completely splintered your attention. I think the best strategy is to train yourself to avoid editing while drafting as much as possible and accept that you won’t be perfect at this either.

  8. I usually do pretty well with a few typo fixes and moving on, but I see what you mean…makes perfect sense. Thanks again!

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