Separate Writing from Editing

Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Whip cream and, well, anything! Some things are just meant to go together. Plenty of other things should stay separate. Oil and water. Donald Trump and a microphone. You just shouldn’t mix some things– don’t do it! Unfortunately, many writers and especially graduate students make the mistake of mixing writing and editing. In today’s post, I will share why it is so important to separate writing from editing.

Photo credit: Flickr Anne

On the surface, it seems like it makes sense to combine writing and editing. Instead of trying to do the two processes separately, why don’t I combine them so that the words flow perfectly onto the page? As soon as I’m done writing, I’m done with the manuscript.

However, the truth is that editing while writing is one of the most unproductive techniques used in writing. You slow yourself down by trying to combine the two and you dramatically restrict the flow of ideas.

Writing and editing use two different halves of our brains. The creative (right) half is needed to come up with and develop our ideas. Writing is a fundamentally right brain activity.

Editing uses the rational (left) half to critically respond to what we’ve written, improve grammar, and edit the manuscript.

Many of us in higher education have been able to get away for years with not separating these two processes.

For graduate students and faculty, academic success often comes fairly easily and did not force good habits. However, the demands of academic writing at the graduate level and beyond taxes our old processes.

Early in our academic careers, we could sit down and write/edit well enough to get good grades.

The mistake is in thinking we got good grades because of the write/edit process.

The truth is we got good grades in spite of combining writing and editing.

Academic writing requires a different level of creativity and intellectual engagement than many of our past educational experiences.

One way to think about this is that you were only using 50% of you intellectual ability to write an undergraduate paper. You used the other 50% to edit simultaneously.

For serious academic writing, you will need 90% of your intellectual energy leaving only 10% for editing. This simply doesn’t leave enough mental capacity for editing.

What many writers do is slow down and alternate from spending 90% on intellectual and 10% on editing to 10% of intellectual and 90% on editing.

This mental tennis match forces us to slow down, restrict our creative ideas (there isn’t mental energy available), and increases self-critical thinking (as a result of mental fatigue).

By breaking writing and editing into two separate stages, you are able to give you full attention to each processes. The result is that you are able to complete the project faster and with better ideas.

If you have never tried to separate writing from editing, I encourage you to try it on your next writing activity. I believe you will be surprised at the results. It takes time to stop yourself from editing as you write (just like any new skill), but I would argue there may be no other skill that can make your writing faster and better.


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