It is the law of creative expression that all artists must critique — and often modify — their own work.
For many writers, self-editing feels like absolute torture. But maybe that’s because plenty of us have never been taught how and when to self-edit — and when to leave the editing for later.
The truth is, if you aren’t careful, editing can kill your productivity. And that’s, as you may have guessed, bad.
These are the rules I follow to make sure I don’t slow down my writing productivity by focusing on the wrong things. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
1. Don’t reread an unfinished product.
The one habit I’ve found that slows me down the most is wanting to reread what I have already written. While I might skim a few paragraphs ahead of where I’m about to jump back into the story — a nice, quick mental refresher helps — I never spend more than 30 seconds on what’s already been written. Anything more than that isn’t worth my time. I’ve specifically blocked out these minutes for writing, not reading.
But it’s FUN to reread what you’ve already written! I know. And maybe you do it because it makes you feel good, and makes you feel confident. “Look, I wrote that and it wasn’t so bad, so I can keep going.” That’s fair. But I would not recommend giving yourself that small ego boost during your actual writing time.
Instead, sit down 10 to 15 minutes before you’re “scheduled” to start writing. Use that time to reread some of yesterday’s work. Use your writing time for writing, and nothing else.
Another tip: Don’t read what you’ve just written as soon as you’re finished writing it. Tack on that last punctuation mark, close it out, and come back to it tomorrow. Whether you feel good about what you’ve just finished or not, you’ll have a much better experience reviewing it once it’s had time to settle.
2. Dare to make mistakes.
Lately, I’ve been trying this new thing where I let the most bizarre version of a scenario play out on the page in front of me. I’m talking big, like reality TV kind of dramatic. It’s over the top. Most of it probably won’t make it into the final product. But do you know what I’m learning? Some of it DOES make it into the final product, and it never would have if I’d forced myself to hold my creative energy back.
I’d dare to call many of these risks “mistakes.” But I’m not ashamed of any of them. I’m a better writer because I’ve stopped worrying so much about whether or not what I’m writing is going to “make the cut.”
When you’re working on a first draft, the only thing you need to worry about is getting something on paper you consider the best you could have done in a first draft. You’re going to cut a lot of it out, add new things, change a lot. That’s the nature of the creative process. If you mess up, it’s okay. It’s just a draft.
3. Keep making words, no matter what.
I’m just as prone to productivity derailment as any creative human. In the middle of writing my book earlier this year, I realized there was a major flaw in the plot that was going to take a ton of effort to fix and change. It wasn’t going to ruin the whole story — I wasn’t going to have to start over or anything — but it WAS going to take a lot of work to fix, and that worried me.
For a while, I could barely even work on the book because I was so worried about this issue I needed to fix. I kept wondering if I should try to fix it now or wait until later.
Eventually, I realized worrying about this wasn’t worth my time … yet. Before I could worry about every plot point fitting smoothly together, I needed to, you know … finish the book.
It’s extremely tempting to let the little things interrupt your writing flow. It often happens when we don’t even realize it, and before we know it it’s been two hours and we’ve all but completely given up because we got stuck for 30 seconds and now we can’t get our focus back. (That didn’t just happen to me in real time, what are you talking about?)
You can’t make improvements to something you haven’t finished yet. Before you start picking your own work apart, finish what you started.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.