How to write and edit well: Keep the two separate

When you’re writing a first draft, it’s important to avoid getting bogged down in details.

Which brings us to my next tip for excellent editing: Save it for later.

No, I’m not telling you to procrastinate! I’m saying that, in your early writing stage, it’s important to get the words down, not get them right.

Keep your writing phase and your editing phase separate.

Save your editing until you have a full first draft.

Until then, concentrate on putting down all the information you want to share or the story you want to tell. Add all the quotes and sources you want to use. Getting it all down on a page (or document file) is more important than accuracy or flow—at first.

Avoid doing too much editing as you go. While it seems like it would save time, it may actually lengthen the writing and editing process.

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Worrying about details too early can be distracting, sending you off on rabbit trails of research and nitpicking while you look for the perfect word or agonize over a grammar rule. You might make changes as you go, only to get to a full draft and realize some changes were unnecessary.

Once you have a full first draft, then you can go back and remove, reword, or rearrange it. You can check your facts, quotes, and sources.

Don’t ruin your writing with fallacies

Psychology actually backs me up here. Like other people, writers are vulnerable to the “sunk cost fallacy.” This logical fallacy, according to The Decision Lab, is “our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.”

A lot of editing is deleting (and we’ll go into this in a later post). Once you have a full draft written, you’ll find that some words, sentences, and whole paragraphs are unnecessary and can be deleted from the final version.

But hitting that “delete” key might be much more difficult if you already spent a lot of time editing your writing. If you put too much work into your writing, you might be tempted to keep something in that does not benefit the piece.

For example, let’s say you include a Benjamin Franklin quote in your introduction. Then (in an effort to follow my previous editing advice), you scoured the internet to make sure it was actually an accurate quote. You searched page after page, and eventually found out that the quote was accurate. Or, perhaps you find that the quote was spoken by someone else, so you change the person it’s attributed to (and maybe skim their Wikipedia page).

Let’s say that, after all that work, you finish your first draft. And you realize that the quote itself was not necessary. It does not actually benefit the message you are trying to send.

After all that time spent on researching it, now you’re just going to delete it?

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When you avoid editing as you go, and focus on just completing a rough draft, you could save yourself a lot of time, and possibly avoid the sunk cost fallacy.

Make a “note to self”

I will admit, “Save editing until later” is a rule I struggle to keep. I’m always tempted to do a lot of as-I-go editing when I’m writing something new.

Something that helps me is adding reminders, as I write, to portions of my draft that I can go back and edit later. For example:

  • If you want to use a different word from the one you used, but can’t think of it at that moment, put the word in brackets, or underline it. Use the “Find” function to look for those brackets later.
  • Need to double-check the spelling of a person’s name? Write their name in all CAPS to make it stand out so you can go back and check it afterward.
  • Use the highlighting feature of your word processor to distinguish whole sections that may need further editing.

However you postpone your editing, it’s important to do so until you have the “big picture.” That way, you’ll understand better how the details of your writing fit into that picture.

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