Friday, June 15, 2012

Draft 1 - Stop endless looping

Do you go back after you draft a page, a paragraph or a sentence and immediately begin fixing it? Even worse, do you write a little further, and then go back and do some more fixing on what you just "fixed"? I call this looping, and it is the most common impediment to productive writing among my students. It can lead to complete paralysis, and there's a reason for that -- the part of your brain that composes is not the same part that edits.

Shifting back and forth wastes time and energy. Even worse, it provides an opening for editor in your head (who hates everything) to seize control. Most productive writers separate the act of drafting and the act of editing. As Casey Wyatt says in her blog,"I can fix it later."

If you don't loop, don't start. If you have a habit of looping, it can be tough to break. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Give yourself permission to write badly. Do this every day for at least a week. Remember, it can always be fixed later on.
  • Join a writing sprint (as Casey does), race against a timer, or use a forced march program like Write or Die! Some of my students have also found it useful to shrink their text editing windows down so they can only see a line or two at a time.
  • Keep you forward momentum (and avoid distracting research) by inserting a word or symbol whenever the exactly right word, number or fact doesn't come readily to mind. For years, I have put the word "bagel" into my texts, and then searched for the bagels. (Luckily, I don't write about food.) I heard Jenna Kernan speak recently, and I was delighted to hear she uses the same technique, inserting asterisks (***).
  • Use a dictation program. I use Dragon Dictate for at least half my drafting. It works better for nonfiction than fiction, but it still is faster than typing for me. And it is almost impossible to loop when you are dictating.
 However you do it, break the habit of looping. You'll probably find that your productivity will increase significantly, even though you will be spending more time later on editing.

Do you loop? Do you have a trick to stop yourself?


  1. I'm not sure if it's the same thing, but before I can move on to a new chapter, I have to go back and read (and edit) the chapter before it. This helps me get in the groove of the story again and "warm up" for the next chapter. I don't set specific word count goals, but once I've started a new chapter, I don't stop until I get to the hook. I'm finding that this method works for me. Although it does slow down my process considerably, I'm hoping it will require less editing on the back end...hoping!

  2. What works for you, works for you. My guess is that what you're doing doesn't kill your forward momentum. It sounds like a good, balanced approach. Although I know people who have gotten stuck with your approach, it clearly separates composition from editing, and that is the most essential lesson here. Thanks!

  3. I do go back, because my first draft of a scene is so VERY rough--usually just dialogue and some action. I go back and sort of fill in setting details and things like that. But I don't try to really improve it beyond that. I've learned my lesson from years ago, when I used to write a chapter, and edit it until it was "perfect" before I moved on (heh, and then wonder why things weren't going anywhere!) Then, guess what? A few chapters later I would discover that something about the story had to change, something wasn't working, and all that work was wasted. So I learned my lesson! It's hard for me, because I fear ending up with a giant mess at the end, but I think that's just something I have to work through.

    I DO find myself stopping when I can't think of the right word and having to do research in the middle of my writing. That is one habit I have to break. I should at the very least wait until the writing session for the day is over and then go look for those words, etc.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Putting a setting in is exactly the sort of detail I will go back to. And sometimes I will have three actions in a scene I know well enough so that I can write the next scene (which is burning up inside me). In these cases, I go back, but I go back primarily to compose, to fill in something that exists as a few notes. That does not turn on my inner editor, so I avoid problems. Getting the scene perfect before you move on is, as you discovered, a trap for most people. Thanks for the comment, Melanie!

  5. Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a looper, BUT I never used to be. I wrote my first start to finish without ever goin back. It was donw in three month, but then took a year to edit.

    So, I thought if I edit along the way with my next book, then I wouldn't need so much time to edit.

    Except now I have three novels half finished, and I don't know if I will ever get them done.

    So I would say your advice is correct. My editing along the way was what killed my creativity. :(

    Thanks for putting it into terms I understand. It makes sense that editing and creativity are not on the same side of the brain. Duh.

  6. Think of it this way -- now you have good starts for your next three books! Thanks for commenting, Katy.

  7. If I can't think of the right word, I usually put in something that sounds like it (whatever popped into my head) or xxx and then highlight it and go on. When I didn't know where a scene was set yet, I just typed in a list of city names, one after the other, and went on. I have bogged down now, and that's possibly from having too many writers groups reading it, or perhaps it not being ready and I felt I had problems with transitions. I later realized that I never wrote transitions in documents I wrote (for work) until the end, once I had all the data in the right places and the flow going properly. Then I built up the transitions between the sections (settings/scenes) so that they flowed naturally. I'm way over in the editor mindset now. I've written a couple of essays I won't read to anyone yet. Not sure what I'll do with them, but at least I got them out. I need to do more tho. I am not doing long pieces, only about 1000 words at a time. Don't know how to fix that.

  8. Lots of good things going on here, Di.
    With longer pieces, outlining at the level that works for you (often after experiments). Works over 1000 words go or stop depending on structure. Working through that ahead of time usually helps to make things move more quickly. When you have the answers on structure, you are on your way.

  9. One of the reasons I loop now is that when I get stuck, rather than set the mss aside, I edit it. Sometimes something earlier in the story helps me to move on with the story. Sometimes leaving the story at a cliff hanger helps for me to get started with it again.

    But also I was forced into looping. :) My books were getting way too long for my publisher if I didn't fill in some of the editing details along the way--a little more scene description, emotions, actions--and so I had to begin to add these elements as I was going along periodically so my word count wouldn't be so high at the end of the story. :)

    On the other hand, I'm a fast writer no matter how I do it. :)

  10. Hi, Terry
    As always, what works for you is fine. If going back and editing helps you to push forward when you get stuck, that is terrific.
    I am a big fan of cliffhangers, too. Just as they get readers excited, they can energize your writing and make it so that you can't wait to get back to it.
    It is good to know that you have the discipline to make looping work for you rather than against you. And, who knows? Maybe it means that there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle for perfectionists who are paralyzed by looping.
    Thanks for commenting.