I have a magnet I keep on my desk that was a gift from a friend. It reads, “Write drunk, edit sober.” It’s a cute little spin—and a nod to my tendency to occasionally treat my writer’s block with a glass of wine—on a well-known piece of writing advice: “Write first, edit later.”
It is this piece of advice, my fellow writers, that I have failed gloriously at achieving. In all my twenty-plus years as a professional writer and editor, I have never admitted or acknowledged that I am one of those guilty people. But that changes right now.
Hello, my name is Hannah, and I edit as I write.
When National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) arrives—and with it, the invariable pressure and judgment when other writers plunk their butts in a chair and hammer out thousands upon thousands of words in just a month—part of me curls up and dies. Because when you edit as you write, you can’t just hammer out 50,000 words in a month the same way a lot of others do. Which means that every year, people like me are sitting there, and often falling behind, frustrated by our need to ensure that what we have written is written in the best possible way. Two thousand words written becomes two thousand words edited, erased, rewritten, revised, reconsidered, edited, and rearranged, and there begins the descent into madness.
This isn’t to say that everyone should write a certain way, far from it. Everyone has their own process, and for some of us, it’s easier and more manageable to edit as we write than face the entire manuscript.
But what if, for one glorious (or tortured) month a year, we stepped away from our editing brains and let our creative sides run and play without reining them in, leashing them, or scolding them whenever they got a little too exuberant?
After all, this is the core of the NaNoWriMo challenge. It’s not just about writing and completing the draft of a novel but about changing our routines and trying something new. For just one month, what if we silenced our inner editor—and what if it completely changed how we approach the way we write?
Why silence your inner editor?
“When you really get into a writing session, you enter a flow state (or as I’ve always called it, the zone),” writes Kesten Harris in “Why You Need to Stop Editing While You Write.” “This state makes it easier to write because you’re completely focused on it. You’ll write without thinking. It’s like handing your subconscious a keyboard and letting it go nuts…It sounds dangerous, but it’s actually where your best material comes from.”
One of the dangers of editing as you write, according to Kesten, is that we find ourselves fixing something that is meant to be unpolished before it’s completed. “You can’t enter this state if you’re always switching between your creative and critical side.”
When you edit as you write, you’re switching between the two parts of your brain—the creative right side and the more logical left side. The idea is that if you don’t interrupt the creative side, you’ll be able to not only write more but access that creative flow that allows your brain to run freely without constraints or constant interruptions.
“The more you focus on editing instead of writing, the more lost you get inside your own head,” points out Harris. “You can’t be creative if you’re dissecting every word you type. If you try to be, you’ll end up hating your work.”
How to ignore your editing brain
“We all have creative brains AND critical brains,” says Daphne Gray-Grant in “Seven Ways to Stop Editing While You Write.” “Think of them like siblings—ones that don’t get along very well. The creative brain is the shyer and less assertive of the two—prone to hiding under the bed whenever the critical brain looks as though it’s about to issue a punch to the nose. The critical brain is diligent and well organized but not so great at writing.”
One way to separate these two very different facets of our work is by setting limits and boundaries. Many authors and writers want to be able to unleash that creative side, but they also want to manage it somewhat. Maybe you do want your contemporary romance to suddenly transform into a tale of bi-curious space cowboys who travel the galaxy together (I am already thinking this sounds like something I want to write, so there’s proof of what your brain can do when you’re not consciously editing it). Maybe you don’t.
Or maybe letting your creativity steer the ship sounds like it might be a little too daunting. But there are a few tips and tricks we can try to keep one side of our brains from getting in the way of the other.
Create a writing plan
Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, make sure you’ve organized your notes and have at least a rough sense of what needs to happen. Add any reminders/notes from previous chapters that you need. And set yourself a goal for each writing session.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
For the uninitiated, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the go-to approaches for those who struggle with time management and/or staying focused. If you find your concentration waning, keep getting distracted, or in this case, want to shift the way you write, the Pomodoro Technique can help you. And the best part is that it’s really, really easy.
- Set a task for yourself (“start a new chapter”).
- Set an alarm to go off in 25 minutes.
- Work until the alarm goes off.
- Take a five-minute break.
- You’ve just completed one pomodoro, so try another.
Manage your environment
One of the nice things about creative writing is that it can come from anywhere. The trick is to shut off your brain and let your writing take over, and to do that, you’re going to have to give yourself permission not to overthink anything. That also means not giving yourself the opportunity to get distracted.
- Shut off all social media, and even consider turning off your phone and email notifications while you work. Alternatively, try using time-management apps or apps that restrict your access to social media. (If your brain worries about emergencies, leave your phone ringer on and shut down anything else that pings, rings, or vibrates.)
- Write in a room that allows you to close the door and shut out the noises of other family members. A DO NOT DISTURB sign wouldn’t go amiss.
- Play music that suits your work, or find some background noise that is soothing and/or fits with your writing (such as sounds of a thunderstorm or ocean waves).
- Keep your hands on the keyboard.
When all else fails, play dirty
Now we’ve exhausted all of the common-sense solutions and all the practical advice. Maybe it’s working for you and the words are flowing fast and furiously. But maybe it’s not. Our brains can be stubborn, and they certainly are loathe to give up habits—especially if you’ve been doing this a long time.
So now it’s time to try a few more extreme measures:
- Let yourself see the only last sentence or two where you left off. Once you’re done writing for the day, create a new document and paste a few lines of text from where you stopped writing (as well as any important notes you may need). The next day you'll start off without being tempted to look at the prior day’s work. It’s like mindful writing, where you must stay present at all times.
- Reward (or bribe) yourself to keep writing. Sometimes tangible incentives—a new book, takeout food, or renting a movie—can keep you motivated.
- Turn off your monitor while you write. I won’t lie; this one scares the holy hell out of me, but if you tend to be a fairly accurate typist (I am not), this might be a fascinating and game-changing experiment.
- Feeling desperate? Try the app of doom. Gray-Grant recommends Write or Die as a potential means of encouraging yourself to keep writing. If you write too slowly, you’re “punished” with sounds and changing colors. And if you’re feeling extra courageous, one setting will actually punish you by erasing your text if you stop writing for too long.
Sometimes our own habits and routines can get in the way of taking our writing to the next level. Don’t be afraid to try something new. After all, that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about.
And who knows? Shutting off your inner editor might be the creative breakthrough you’ve been waiting for.