Are You Editing While You Write?

April 9, 2014


If you find it difficult to get your ideas onto paper quickly when you write, perhaps you’re editing while you do it.

When I started writing … way back in high school, when pterodactyls still flew … I thought my best stories developed when I simply sat down and wrote, as fast as I could put words down. I even sold one of those early efforts, which was one of the most exciting things to happen to me until I met my future wife.

The nervous practice of producing a sentence, and then going back immediately to edit it, began to happen as I got more serious about the craft.

The funny thing is, when I started doing that … the editing as I wrote thing … my writing got worse (I’ve long since deep-sixed every one of those stories).

It took me a couple of years to understand why editing-while-writing is so destructive and stop it, although … all these years later … I still slip-up from time-to-time (like my recent return to that unsightly area known as “writer’s block”).

The Creative Brain
The reason we do it relates to the way we’re built. We all have two-sided brains: a creative brain and a critical brain. I once read an author who advised thinking of them like siblings … ones that don’t get along very well.

The critical brain is diligent and well-organized but it’s not so great at writing. The creative brain has marvelous ideas, but it’s the less assertive of the two … prone to hiding under the bed whenever the critical brain looks as though it’s about to throw a punch.

Immediately editing your work puts the critical brain in charge … and your creative writing will suffer.

Perhaps you’ve done that, too? If so, I advise you to take a hard look at your own writing and break the instant-editing habit as quickly as possible.

Keep Your Critical Brain At Bay
One of the tricks that works for me: I write at a furious pace, slowed only by the bothersome “instant spell-check” function of my laptop.

Then at the end of every writing session I spend a moment (and I mean it, just a MOMENT), writing out directions about what I want to accomplish in the next part of the story. A few words will do … never more than a short sentence.

The next time I sit down to write, I start work from that thought, so I can’t be lured into editing my prior work before I finish writing the whole thing. That’s the plan anyway. As you know (because I told you), I sometimes forget to follow my own advice.

Monitor Your “Self-Talk”
If you’re like everyone else in the world (including me), while you’re writing you’re probably saying things like: “This is just too boring.” Admit it, we all do it.

Whether we actually speak the words out loud, we all talk to ourselves … usually in the negative. The trick is to be conscious of it and tell yourself, “I’m writing right now. I’ll deal with these concerns when I’m editing.” And then do exactly that.

If you’re not conscious of your own self-talk then please go looking for it over your next few writing days… and then promise yourself to learn to keep it quiet.

Write Yourself Notes
Like I mentioned in in the previous note, when I’m writing my first draft I frequently feel something isn’t quite right about the words I just put down.

However, instead of letting myself constantly stop and try to fix them (most of the time, anyway), I skip a space on the page and write REVISIT in all caps … and go on.

This sort of “promissory note” puts my critical brain at ease by acting as a promise that I won’t forget to address something I initially identified as a problem (and sometimes on revisiting the section when I edit, the problem is no longer there).

Reward Yourself
Reward yourself for not editing while you write. In time, the reward of writing quickly will be prize enough.

For now, however, lavish yourself with other incentives: magazines or books you enjoy, music, tea, coffee, lunch at your favorite bistro, a glass of your favorite wine … or maybe time with the loved ones you sometimes neglect while immersed in your fiction.

Now you might wonder “Who is this Herron character, anyway? Why should I listen to anything he has to say?”

My response is to say it isn’t just me saying it. If you search for it, you’ll find nearly every successful novelist and writer has similar admonitions about the craft. All I’m doing is passing them on.

Good Advice
Stephen King, one of my all-time favorite authors, has several quotes worth remembering in his phenomenal book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” If you’re an author and haven’t read it yet, I sincerely urge you to get a copy and read it before you continue your next story (don’t worry, it’s a serious work, with no evil clowns or rabid dogs).

    “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

    “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

    “I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months. Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”

    “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”

Remember, to get your ideas out you should always write as quickly as possible. Let the ideas from your creative brain flow.

Just be sure to edit later, as slowly and carefully as you can.


You can find my books on Amazon. You’re also invited to visit my web site, BROKEN GLASS, or like my Facebook page. You can also follow my shorter ramblings on Twitter.

Why Walk Away From Your Writing?

March 31, 2014

Finding My Muse in Montego Bay.

Sometimes the only way you can make progress as a writer is to walk away from it.

Like many authors, I’ve joked about tying myself to my office chair in order to finish a story. After all, like my dear father tried to drum into my head while I was growing up, perseverance is essential to the completion of any project. Isn’t it?

Well … yes.

However, sometimes the determination to never leave your chair can hinder your progress.

The reason for that conundrum lies in how ideas come about.

When you’re stuck in the middle of a manuscript, looking for inspiration, remember the two essential elements for receiving a “light bulb” moment.

1. You Need to Have Done the Work
Your mind needs to have been immersed in the subject, so all the relevant details are already spinning around in your head, and;

2. You Need to Have Walked Away
Relaxing your mind and moving your focus elsewhere allows these swirling possibilities to gradually crystallize into an idea.

Think back to some of your best ideas. Did they happen:

    * While you were in the shower?
    * During a walk?
    * Dozing in church?
    * On your way to work?
    * Just before bed?

What Do These Situations Have in Common?
For one thing, you’re not in front of your computer staring at a blank page. They’re moments when your mind was distracted by other things.

Meanwhile, in your subconscious, elements you may never have consciously associated with one another coalesce to form the solution to your problem.

Naturally, you can’t spend all your time wandering about the house or standing in the shower, hoping every element of your story will magically appear in your head.

So when should you walk away from your writing and when should you stay? Try this handy checklist:

Our fear of the blank page often stops us from writing, even if the words are ready to come. Freewriting, or stream-of-consciousness writing, forces you to get words out just to get your flow started. The key is not to get caught up in perfectionism. Try literally forcing the words out, even if they’re rubbish.

Stay On Track
Sometimes a writing block is caused by an earlier wrong turn we’ve taken … perhaps a spot where we forced a character to do or say something that just didn’t fit. Read back over your manuscript to see if there was a point where your prose became labored. If you find it, try starting fresh from that point.

Character Profiling
If the words aren’t coming easily, perhaps it’s because the world of your story, or the characters who inhabit that world, are not yet well defined. Instead of trying to add to your word count, spend your writing session trying to better describe your world or interviewing a character.

Limit the Time You Stare at a Blank Page
Past a certain point, perhaps 30 minutes, simply gluing your butt to the chair just doesn’t cut it anymore. If you’ve been doing all of the above and you’re still no further along, trust me, you’re ready to walk away.

How Long Should You Leave?
Sometimes a few minutes will provide enough release to bring the rush of ideas. You might be surprised how quickly the words return.

If that doesn’t work, you may need to leave your writing for more than that … even for a day or two. I did just that, thanks to a generous invitation from my son and his family to join them in Jamaica for a week.

You may remember I’ve talked about my REICHOLD STREET sequel being stalled now for more than a month. My “thousand words a day” mantra had become hopelessly bogged down. Ideas just wouldn’t come. I tried stimulating my brain with every hackneyed piece of writing advice I’d ever heard.

Nothing worked.

So, when that generous invitation came from my son, I walked away from my writing. I even did the unthinkable: I left my laptop at home in Michigan (the craving only lasted about a day).

Great Advice
One of the surprises, at least for me, of finishing my first novel was discovering just how many of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice actually turn out to be true.

For example: nearly every author interview will include some reference to how important it is to just sit down in the chair … meaning, the best way to get writing done is simply to sit down and get it done (Hemingway famously said “There’s nothing to writing … you simply sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”)

And then there’s the best piece of writing advice I’ve actually ever received (even better than Anton Chekov’s “Show, don’t tell”). You’ve probably heard it before:

Write the book you want to read.

I know what you’re thinking … of course, that makes sense, but why bring it up? Because it’s easy to confuse this advice with a very similar, and very bad, piece of advice: Write the book you want to write.

Here’s the Important Distinction:
The book you want to write is the book that, in your fantasies, you’re autographing at your overcrowded book signings and seeing projected across the back of the stage when you win every literary prize available. That’s the book you want to write.

The book you want to read, by contrast, is the book you’d curl up with if you knew you’d be spending time in, say, some tropical island somewhere … like Jamaica. It’s the book you can lose yourself in … then stash on the shelf, dog-eared and half-destroyed, only to pull out every year to read all over again. That’s the book you want to read.

And the latter is really the book you should be striving to write. Write to entertain. Forget the awards. If your book is worthy, they’ll come. But I’d much rather have a host of happy readers.

I walked away from my writing … completely … for more than a week. Now that I’m home again, I’m delighted to also be writing again. Another 6,000 words. Good ones … all of them keepers … in the last five days.

I found the muse again by walking away, and when I’m done with One Way Street, I know it will be a book I, and hopefully others, will want to read.


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