A popular post from October 2008
by Annette Lyon
I've been having the same problem for a long time. Whenever I write a few pages, I cannot resist the urge to re-write them again and again to the point that I end up throwing them out and starting over. I know I'm not going to get anywhere with my manuscript if I keep this up, but I still can't resist doing it.
I was wondering if I could get a little advice on how to curb my desire to edit and re-edit and re-edit.
On one hand, it's not uncommon for writers to reread what they wrote yesterday, tweak it a bit, and get into the groove again before going on to the next scene. But of course, doing so is useless if you don't keep going. Getting back into the groove is a different animal from reworking chapters to death and then throwing it out and never making progress.
First and foremost, it sounds like your internal editor/censor is yelling at you all the time. If that's the case, your editor will continue to hold back your creative side. The critic isn't a good writer. It's a good editor. Your writer brain needs freedom and creativity, but it's being strangled by your critic.
You do need your critic, obviously. But at the right time, not all the time, and most definitely NOT when you're trying to get out of the gate and finish a manuscript in the first place.
Just like every writer finds their own way to get into "flow," every writer has to discover their own way to silence the critic when it's not time to edit. I wrote about the inner critic here, and that post might have some ideas to help you out.
But there are other things you can do as well. The creative brain is difficult to tame, and at times, you have to trick it to behave.
Here are a few ways to trick the critic into going back into its cave:
Give yourself permission to write garbage. In fact, make a point of writing garbage for a day or two (or a page every day), just to prove you're capable of it. This kind of exercise stumps the critic (Wait, it's supposed to be bad? Then what can I yell about?) and gets him to move aside.
Write out of order. If you have a basic idea of where your story is going, there's no reason you're obligated to write chapter one and then two and then three. Do you know what the exciting climax will be? Write it today. Have a scene you're especially excited about getting to? Put it down now. You can always bridge the scenes together later. And sure, the parts you write this way may need changing when you reach them the "real" way. But who cares? You're making progress.
This trick is another way of putting the critic off-guard. He has a hard time knowing what to do with the situation (and how to yell at you because of it), because it's not what's "supposed" to come next.
Write on a different computer than the one holding your manuscript. Walk away from your PC and borrow a laptop. Heck, use plain old notebook paper. Use whatever, just so long as it doesn't have the rest of your manuscript on it. Forcibly cut yourself off from the rest of the book so you can't keep tweaking it. Instead, you have a fresh screen or piece of paper waiting for the next part of the story. Paste the new scene/s into the file later. (Then save and close the file. Do not tweak!)
Even better, use an AlphaSmart Neo or Dana. The Neo does the same things as above (keeping you away from the rest of the file), but it has an additional perk: since you can see only a few lines of text at a time, you're less likely to go back for tweaking even during today's drafting session. As you type away, you're mostly oblivious to how many words or pages you've written, and you get lost into the story itself.
Set specific goals and attach rewards to them. It's shocking how well this works. While you do want an overall goal ("Finish this book by my birthday"), getting past the re-edit-treadmill type of block takes smaller goals. ("I'm going to write 1,000 words a day.") Reward yourself with something small and concrete whenever you reach a goal. It can be your favorite treat from Cold Stone, a DVD rental, a nap, or the latest episode of The Office. Whatever is enough of a carrot to keep you going.
Withhold something. This is the flip side of rewards. Our own Julie Wright often puts a book she's dying to read on top of her desk but doesn't let herself crack the cover until she reaches a writing goal. Once when I was bemoaning a big revision, my husband challenged me to have no chocolate until I got through a six-inch stack of manuscript critiques. That one got me moving fast! Something I'd been avoiding for weeks was suddenly done during a weekend. Motivation is an amazing thing.
Best of luck getting off the re-editing treadmill and reaching the end of your book! You can do it.
Readers: Have additional ideas? Let us know in the comments!