Heinlein’s First Rule of Writing is:
Sounds simple, right? Yeah, but really, really hard to do. And to this rule, I would humbly add a corollary:
- Write, don’t edit
This is even harder. What Heinlein meant was, “Don’t just talk about writing; do it.” What I’m talking about is what that “do it” clause means.
Admittedly, for most of us, just collecting enough time, energy, and mental focus to put words on paper is a massive challenge, but once you finally start to “do it,” don’t screw it up by wasting that precious combination. Don’t edit every written word. When you stop to back up and edit your work it before it’s done, you’re interrupting the flow of the story and the flow of your creative mind. You are letting your analytical brain stand there like the TSA, holding up every word for inspection, examining each and every phrase with a critical eye, making your prose (essentially) take off its shoes and belt and stand there, hands in the air, hoping its pants won’t fall down. In this instance, your mind is your own worst enemy, with one hemisphere fighting against the other.
The logical, left hemisphere gets in the way of the creative, right hemisphere. Of course, when dealing with language and the written word, you can’t go “all right brain, all the time.” No, you need that left brain to help you turn the movie inside your head into scribbly bits on a white page. The struggle is in managing that left side; you need to rein it in until it listens to you, and no “left brain whisperer” exists. You need to use brute force, smash-down, alpha-brain techniques here. You need to squash your every left-brained impulse to edit as you right-brain write. And believe me, it’s hard.
The reason this is so difficult is because when I say “edit,” what you should read is “second-guess.” That’s really what we’re doing when we write and edit simultaneously. We’re second-guessing our every word, every phrase, every metaphor, description, scene, and chapter. And boy-o-boy does that take time away from what we really want to do: Write.
As I said before, this is my own personal bugbear, my own monster in the closet. Even writing this post, I’ve had to struggle against it. The first third of the article was written with every line written twice or three times as I went back and rehashed my prose. For the last two-thirds, I forced my editing mind into quiet submission, only giving it the occasional typo to fix as I went along. And here’s the kicker: in the same amount of time, I wrote twice as much.
There is a time to edit. Editing is an important part of the “Write” portion of Heinlein’s First Rule. But put it where it needs to be: after you finish.
Write. Finish. Then edit.