Plenty of you have great memories of English class, and many more have terrible memories, memories of red corrective ink, of the asphyxiating five-paragraph essay, and of annotating Madame Bovary to the point of insanity.
These are the kind of lessons that are like eating brussel sprouts, or broccoli, or drinking kombucha. You don’t do it because you like it. You do it because it’s good for you.
When we turned in papers, we were required to submit all of our drafts and notes. These drafts were part of our grade. She wanted us to show that we didn’t throw something up on a text document the night before and call it a term paper. She didn’t grade us on the quality, and it wasn’t a huge part of our grade, but we had to have something.
Now, because I loved English class and was a huge nerd, it wasn’t hard to convince me to do that kind of work. When I started doing a crazy amount of re-writes and edits, I developed habits that follow me to this day.
But for my peers this was challenging. In high school I was in an honors program. Some of my friends had demanding extracurriculars on top of a heavy academic workload. For some of them, writing a paper at the last minute was not procrastination; it was a survival strategy.
When I talked to my partner about the topic of this post, he said that he had to do the same thing in high school. He edited as he wrote, so he made up drafts to turn in for his English class.
Edit-as-you-write is a terrible habit, but it’s so common among writers that it’s an acceptable practice. We’re not in high school anymore, and there are no English teachers to police us. We’re as busy as ever, so we think that as long as we get it done then that’s all that matters.
This is especially true for bloggers. Sometimes we just need to throw up a blog post. But if you want to be a better writer, then you have to do a lot more than that.
Yes, it’s more work, but writing and re-writing drafts benefit you in a way that the edit-as-you-go method can’t. It can teach you a myriad of lessons. Here are a few things I learned:
- Complete a draft. The first draft is always, always, always the hardest. You have a good idea, but it’s a little hazy and only vaguely resembles something. When you edit-as-you-go, you only see the idea in separate parts. But when you finish the draft, you see it’s shape as a whole.
- Complete another draft. Like moving from A to Z, each letter reveals the next one. Sometimes we find our best ideas on the fourth or fifth step, but we need the three steps that come before it to get us there
- Write imperfectly. Being really bad is a crucial step in this process. We have to be at comfortable with our awkward writing as we try to find the right words.
- Practice. A lot. You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule wherein a person has to practice for 10,000 hours to get really good at something. This applies to writing. With the edit-as-you-go method, you cut so many corners that you maybe clock in 2,000 hours. You’ll get to the 10,000 hour mark, but it will take you a lot longer. When you write drafts over and over again, you get the benefit of seeing your progress. You watch a piece of writing evolve from the ugly duckling first draft to the elegant swan of the fifth draft.
- Come back with a fresh pair of eyes. It is universally known that walking away from writing and coming back to it makes it infinitely better. Those edits your making will be a lot better if you sleep on them first.
- Keep moving. There are some species of sharks that have to constantly move. If they stop moving, then they stop breathing and they die. When you don’t edit-as-you-go, it keeps the blood moving.
- Identify redundant language. One of my editing techniques is to circle words that I frequently use. It gives me a visual of when I use certain words or phrases too often. It then challenges me to write something different.
- Be your best. If you don’t care what anyone thinks, then you can write anything you want and call it a day. But if you want to be truly proficient, then you have to do more than get by.
It’s more work, but we don’t do it because it’s easy. Like anything else – marathon training or playing the piano – you have to practice writing to get good at it. Maybe you could get away with cutting corners when all you had to do was the pass your English class. But if you really want to be good at it, this is what it takes.
Completion is critical. When you complete drafts before editing them, you get the benefit of seeing who you are as a writer. You see your ideas and your language through each stage of the process. You make all these wonderful mistakes, and then you learn from them.