I'm Matthew Setter. I'm a security researcher, privacy advocate, and software engineer and teaching people all that I know.
Write First, Edit Later - a Recipe for a Rewarding Writing Experience
If you’re having trouble writing well perhaps, it’s not your inability to express yourself, or your command of English that’s the problem. Perhaps it’s your approach to writing that’s at fault.
Let me explain. For quite some time, I had a rather playful, rather romantic, approach to writing. When I first started out as a technical writer, I tried to do everything all at once; that is, writing and editing.
I’d try to get all my thoughts down, as quickly as I could, so that nothing was forgotten. At the same time, I was trying to edit those thoughts into a cohesive whole, all the while trying to keep the flow of consciousness.
While I enjoyed the process, it was very laborious and time intensive. I persisted at this for at least two years, before eventually raising the white flag of defeat.
I came to the realisation that, unless you’re a savant, or at least significantly more gifted than I am, writing can’t be done this way. The trouble was, I didn’t know any other way.
Luckily, it was around this time that a good friend pulled me aside and gave me the simple advice of Write First, Edit Later. Given my sense of frustration, I was willing to listen.
I pondered on what she’d said for some time, and each time appreciated that it made a lot of sense.
Think about it; getting thoughts out of your brain, and cleaning up those thoughts, are two distinctly separate activities. I’ve not done research into it. But I’d suggest that we would find that different parts of the brain are required for each activity. Consequently, it’s nigh on impossible to combine the two.
You can think of consciousness as rather like a river. It’s fine so long as you leave it alone to go where it will. But once you disturb it, it can go off in many varied directions, not always where you’d either like nor expect.
Then there’s writing; writing’s a very creative, passionate, romantic, and free-form endeavour. Here, you’re trying to get anything and everything in your head about a given topic out.
That it’s a mess, a rambling mess, is not a failing, it’s how it often has to be. It’s the nature of the beast.
Editing, however, is creative, yet from a different perspective. Here, you’re working with existing raw material. You’re removing segments that either doesn't make sense or are irrelevant to the greater whole.
You’re transforming a seeming miasma of ideas into a clear, coherent, cohesive, and flowing whole; one that anyone else can understand and follow, without having to inhabit your thoughts.
While it is very creative in its own right, it’s also very logical, very clinical, very practical and rational. So to expect to be able to perform both functions at the same time isn’t realistic.
It was no wonder that the work I produced was not to the level of quality I expected and was very time-consuming.
What Is Writing Like for You?
Do you find yourself trying to do both? Do you spend inordinate amounts of time trying to say what you want to say, only to end up with a work which isn’t what you want?
Is the quality of your work less than professional? Are you frustrated by writing, and see it as a chore, instead of something which can be quite fulfilling?
If so, stop for a moment and see if you’re trying to do everything at once. If you are, for the next few days try to write and edit separately.
Yes, it takes practice; especially the longer you’ve sought to do both at once. But this one change may be the difference between frustrating and rewarding experiences; between average and high-quality work.
Give it a try and share your experiences with me.
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