Write First, Edit Last

You’ve been asked to write an article on a topic that you both know and like. You sit down to write and . . . you stop. It’s not that you don’t know how to write, or even know where to begin, it’s more that you are filled with a feeling of dread. What if you forget something you wanted to say? What if you say too much? What if that first sentence isn’t compelling enough?

That’s your editor showing up. Your editor is the one who wants to format, replace, cut, polish. The editor has a critical voice and a sharp X-acto knife for a tongue.

The writer part of you wants to get out a lot of information, probably in interesting ways, maybe develop a chart or graph, maybe link to more articles. The writer is dragging in piles of information, colored pencils, games, ideas. The editor is frowning at the mess.

How can you be both a writer and editor? The skill sets are quite different, and while I often insist that one person can’t be both, in today’s world, the demand is for exactly those people who are both. How can you handle both?

By separating the fighting parties and letting each have some time to work. Let the writer come out first. Move away from the linear-structure of the computer and grab a piece of paper. A stack of index cards is better. Write one idea per card and put it in front of you. Don’t edit, don’t stop, don’t wonder where this will fit. Just keep building the stack, one idea at a time. When you run out of ideas, you will have 20 or 30 cards in front of you.

Now feel free to shuffle the cards. Sort them for relevance, for the length of the final article, for sidebars. Shuffle through them to put the most important thing first, along with examples. The final deck should be clean and logical–a story told in pieces on the cards.

The computer is now the ideal tool. Start writing, following the outline you created in a free, non-linear way using your cards. Write all the way through. You editor will show up, but assign the editor the task to go tsk-tsk at the cards you decided not to use this time around. Finish writing.

Now the creative, playful side has had a crack at the article, creating an interesting article with great story-telling and powerful examples. Now it’s time for the editor to come in and tidy up, cut out extra words and stray thoughts, sweep up the mess of wrong punctuation, put in sub-heads with keywords and create a logic thread that runs through the article. If the writer shows up with pictures, colored pencils and games, the editor has the right to ignore the writer or assign a task in another room. Turn-about is fair play.

By being the writer first, then the editor, you can benefit from the right and left sides of the brain, the fun and serious side of writing, the exploration of possibilities, and the linear implementation of logic. And you can do it all without having your head explode. A big benefit to people who must write and edit for a living.

–Image: http://www.twainquotes.com

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com She teaches people how to keep raw art journals.

3 thoughts on “Write First, Edit Last

  1. For Mac users:
    Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html) is an excellent writing tool that supports the various hats I, at least, wear when writing.

    DevonThink (http://www.devon-technologies.com/products/devonthink/) may turn out to be even more useful; just started evaluating it and I’m not sure yet.

    Evernote (http://evernote.com/) is a purely web-based tool that’s hard to describe but also pretty useful. Also it has a truly “magic” feature — when you include a photo as a note or part of a note, and there are words in the photo (a sign, for example), it…well, try it; it’s pretty stunning.

  2. I’m in the middle of this very conundrum. I’m writing a long article with many different things to cover, and couldn’t find a “way in” to the piece! So I just started writing different sections in no particular order, making sure each one got its main point across. Then I’d switch into editor mode and move the sections around into a logical order, and stitch them together with transitions. That in turn would suggest what the next unwritten section should look like, making it easier to write. It’s been like making a a word quilt.

    I’m happy to say that I have just one more “square” to write this morning (the conclusion!) and then I can put a nice border around the whole thing, fold it up, and send it in. 😀

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