As a kid, writing came very easy to me. After watching some of my favorite action movies ranging from James Bond to Indiana Jones, I would want to create my own characters and adventures. Before long, I was filling spiral notebooks with vivid character descriptions, story ideas, and cringe-inducing dialogue. The words and ideas seemed to flow effortlessly from my pen to the paper. But something soon happened that made me stop writing for many years — the computer word processor.
While it may seem counter-intuitive that a word processor would stifle my desire to write, it did. Other than taking on life’s other interests (skateboarding, garage jam sessions, and [ahem] girls), this new writing technology seemed dead set on condemning my every word. Red and green squiggly lines under words sapped the joy I felt from composing. While I didn’t grow frustrated, writing just didn’t seem as fun anymore for a reason I couldn’t pinpoint.
A decade or so later, I rediscovered my love for writing in the form of blogging. Blogging didn’t require the use of a separate word processor, instead letting words flow as naturally as they did when I was a wee lad with a composition notebook. I also knew that no one would be “grading” my blog posts, so I was free to write unencumbered. What started as a hobby became a profession. The rest is history.
Even after I had taken a job as a professional copywriter, I still avoided word processors whenever possible. Instead, I would use note-taking applications such as Evernote in order to avoid judgemental squiggly lines or smug animated paperclips. Still, with the advent of the grammar and spell-check tool Grammarly, it felt like there was no avoiding these systems. I noticed that I was spell checking and fixing highlighted grammatical errors as I’d write — a series of brain shifts that would frequently derail my thought process. While I considered the use of distraction-eliminating word processors, I was also under the notion that the “edit-as-I-write” process was an efficient content writing process. It wasn’t until I learned more about my own mind that I changed it.
Editing-As-You-Go is Multitasking
Even though correcting a highlighted misspelled word or grammatical error while you write just feels part of the composition process, it’s actually not. Composing and editing are two vastly different tasks — which is one of the reasons why the job of Editor exists. Whenever you attempt to do two jobs simultaneously, the quality of both suffers. Why? Because multitasking is an inefficient use of our minds.
Multitasking is Inefficient
You’ve probably read several other pieces on how multitasking is inefficient. You may be telling yourself, “I’ve heard that, but it works for me.” The truth is that you’re probably not being as honest with yourself as you think. Sure, you can complete mindless tasks such as folding laundry, doing dishes, or even cooking dinner while maintaining a discussion with someone on a particular issue. The brain is designed to be able to do this. Still, think about how much more meaningful the conversation could be if you allotted your complete focus to it. Even despite being more significant, when your full concentration is focused on the discussion, you will likely come to a solution in less time than you could while even mildly distracted.
The Time Between the Shift
There is a good reason why a Tesla electric car can beat many other vehicles in a drag race — Teslas don’t shift. The typical gas-powered dragster still has a series of gears it has to go through to achieve its top speed. Between accessed gears, the engine is receiving no power. A Tesla motor, on the other hand, has one speed. There is no shifting. There is never a time when the motor is without power. This is why it is easy to find videos all over the internet of Tesla cars beating high-performance sports cars in the quarter-mile.
When you shift your focus between composing and editing, there is space between these mental shifts. Even though they seem insignificant, these spaces add up. Your focus on the subject at hand is more easily fractured when your mind is forced to continually shift. Even the most underpowered subcompact car could beat a high-performance Lamborghini in a drag race if the latter were constantly shifting gears. While the Lamborghini will eventually make it across the finish line, it will fall behind and will have endured much more wear on the clutch. When you focus on composing instead of also editing as you go, your mind acts like the one-geared Tesla — never having to shift to regain power.
The Importance of Decoupling Writing & Editing
In a time when even closing out unrelated browser tabs while composing a paper for a college course goes against the norm, disconnecting the composition and editing process can seem downright extreme. This can be done by completely turning off all spellcheck or autocorrect features and just writing — hardly ever touching your backspace key. To those accustomed to simultaneously composing and editing, this will feel strange. Your inner perfectionist will feel locked in the trunk. You may even feel embarrassed to be leaving blatant mistakes on the page as you go. There are two important truths to remember to help you through this process:
1. Nobody ever has to see the first draft.
Some edit-as-they-go writers may do so for fear of someone coming across unfinished work and questioning their abilities. For these people, keep your first draft private — almost like a diary. No one ever needs to see it. It will be our little secret.
2. The mistakes will still be there for the edit.
Leaving a mistake behind and continuing can feel like leaving a faulty product on a fast-moving assembly line. It’s important to remember that you’ll be able to return to fix the mistake. In the editing process, you can fix the word, delete the sentence, or even scrap the entire paragraph (which I find myself frequently doing). For more on what Arthur Quiller-Couch called “murdering your darlings,” I also wrote a piece on how to say more with less content.
How to Uncouple Composition & Editing
- Turn off all spell-check programs. Modern word processors have made it especially tricky to avoid spellcheck and auto-correct features. If you can turn them completely off, do so. Problem solved.
- Use a distraction-free word processor. There are many distraction-removing word processors available for very little or even at no charge. Some are browser-based, while others are programs you can download. I’m currently writing this piece using Calmly Writer, but there are many others. LifeHacker published a piece outlining their favorite distraction-free word processors. Update: I'm currently using an open-source program called FocusWriter by Gott Code and absolutely loving it.
- Write in full-screen mode. I’m becoming more of an advocate of doing as many tasks as you can in full-screen mode. When you’re watching a video in full-screen mode, you are completely engrossed in the content you’re consuming. The same idea goes for writing in a distraction-free writing tool in full-screen mode. When your writing dominates your entire screen, you’re much less likely to be drawn away by browser tabs, notifications, and even editing tools.
- Leave time between composing and editing. Even if you’re on a tight deadline, resist the urge to jump straight from composing to editing. Instead, take a short break. Get a drink of water. Go for a short walk to stretch your legs and clear your head. When you put time between composing and editing, you’re training your mind to be able to make the shift from creating to fixing. Over time, you’ll find yourself not struggling so much to keep your perfectionist locked in the trunk while you compose.
In this piece, we covered how:
- Editing as you go is multitasking
- Multitasking is inefficient
- Constantly shifting your mind slows you down
- Uncoupling composing and editing
I hope that this article has been helpful to you. Feel free to share this with someone that you feel could benefit from this information. I’d love to hear your thoughts about your own writing process.
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