Should You Edit As You Write?

by John Soares on October 31, 2011

Should you edit as you write? It’s a question every freelance writer must ask, and there is no set answer. It truly is a personal preference — you just must do what works best for you.

All Writers Are Editors

You don’t have to be a perfect editor, but you can’t count on others to fix all of your mistakes and make your writing better — you need to do that yourself. You can edit when you write and you can edit after you write, or you can do a mix of both. Just make sure you do it.

I Edit As I Write

Could just be the way my brain works and the nature of my personal psychological make-up, but I edit big-time as I’m clicking the keys. I’ll stop in mid-sentence to use a better word, add a phrase, or tighten a phrase. I’ll stop to add something five paragraphs back. I’ll stop to shuffle paragraphs, or add something to my outline. I’ll even stop to fix a typos.

Why? I do it because I’m concerned I may not catch that mistake on a later read-through, or that I may not remember that better word or phrase or sentence.

It works for me.

And I Edit After I Write

I always give anything I write a second reading, even if it’s a quick e-mail or a blog comment. For my professional freelance writing and for my posts here and on my other blogs, I do one thorough reading, editing as necessary, followed by at least one more go-through, even if it’s a quick one.

Your Take: Do You Edit As You Write?

What about you? Do you edit as you write or do you go back and do it later, or do a mix like me?

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    { 57 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Emily Suess October 31, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    Twitter: @EmilySuess

    I do a mix too. I can’t help but edit as I write, because a large part of my writing process involves reading the last few lines for momentum and continuity as I rush into the next part of the piece. I always catch stuff doing this, and I let myself fix it, because, like you mention, what if I don’t see it again later?

    Still everything needs one last look before I send it off. Preferably after I’ve given the document some time to rest.
    Emily Suess recently posted…No NaNoWriMo Here

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    2 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    I always do a final edit. And like you, I think it’s best to let the writing sit for at least a few hours, and overnight is even better.
    John Soares recently posted…Why Writers Must Avoid Perfectionism

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    3 Ivan Walsh October 31, 2011 at 8:58 AM

    Twitter: @ivanwalsh

    I try not to and get the main text down on the page.

    Then I start at the end, yes the end, and work backwards checking as I go.

    I know :)
    Ivan Walsh recently posted…Operations Plan: The Definitive Guide

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    4 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 7:29 AM

    That’s an interesting technique Ivan! I know you’re a technical writer, so the bottom-up approach may work well.

    I took a course in differential equations and linear algebra in college, and I remember checking my work by starting with my answer and going backwards step by step.
    John Soares recently posted…Writing Ergonomics: Top Tips for Proper Posture, Alignment, and Movement

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    5 Ivan Walsh November 1, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    Twitter: @ivanwalsh

    That’s very interesting.

    I have to confess that when I’m very tired I use a wooden ruler and place it under each line as I’m reading.

    It forces me to read what’s in front of me and not skip ahead, which can happen very easily….
    Ivan Walsh recently posted…10 Ways to Write B2B White Papers That Generate Leads

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    6 Wade Finnegan October 31, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Twitter: @qualitywriting

    John, I’m like you, I edit as I write. I can’t stop myself and I have tried. I agree it is just the way my brain works. If I don’t fix something, then I can’t move on. There isn’t a “correct” way to get the writing done, as long as you get it done.

    Reply

    7 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    Wade, I’ve also tried to force myself to keep going, but I just can’t. I gotta fix things now!
    John Soares recently posted…Seven Key Steps for Finding, Evaluating, and Implementing Good Ideas

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    8 Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog October 31, 2011 at 10:01 AM

    Twitter: @rzive

    I edit as I write. But sometimes, it becomes a procrastination tactic. There is a point at which I feel as though I am over editing, just to avoid writing. I have to really discipline myself along these lines and be conscious of the distinction between constructive edits and extraneous edits.

    Posts like these are good reminders!
    Ruth – The Freelance Writing Blog recently posted…Come Check Out My Shiny New Blogging Award….NOT!

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    9 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    It can be a procrastination tactic. If I can’t fix it quickly, I do move on.

    Discipline is crucial!
    John Soares recently posted…How to Minimize Interruptions So You Can Get Your Writing Done

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    10 Nicky Parry October 31, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    Twitter: @BioScientific

    Yes, John, I mix it up too. Sometimes my “editing on the go” is my Achilles heel though, I can occasionally become so wrapped up in searching for the best word or construction that I freeze for a few moments. Sometimes I catch myself & just move on & revisit later, but I’m my own biggest problem at times!
    Nicky Parry recently posted…Don’t Be Tricked By Your Treats!

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    11 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    Nicky, if I truly get stuck in a sentence, I’ll write something like EDIT at the the end of it so I know I have to fix it later.
    John Soares recently posted…Writing Ergonomics: Top Tips for Proper Posture, Alignment, and Movement

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    12 Harleena Singh@Freelance Writer October 31, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    Twitter: @harleenas

    Interesting topic John!

    I also do both, in-fact I prefer editing after every 1-2 sentences, and thereafter once the whole article is complete! It has always worked for me, though I have read in most places that we should not edit while writing and should carry on in the flow. However, I get distracted if I see some mistakes and don’t check them out and continue writing further.

    I guess it depends on every individual and what suits them best. Thanks for sharing and wishing you a great Halloween as well :)
    Harleena Singh@Freelance Writer recently posted…Throwing a Teen Party for Halloween

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    13 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Harleena, I’ve also heard and read from many sources that writers should plow through that first draft and worry about editing later. I’m sure it works for many people, but I’m not one of them.
    John Soares recently posted…Seven Key Steps for Finding, Evaluating, and Implementing Good Ideas

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    14 Sharon Hurley Hall October 31, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    Twitter: @shurleyhall

    My process is pretty much like yours, John. Occasionally I’ll be in the grip of inspiration and will blast right through, but often I can pause to tweak as I go along without losing the thread.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted…My Top Writing Tools – October 2011

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    15 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 11:22 AM

    Sharon, so far we all edit to some extent as we go along. I wonder if we’ll hear from someone who just writes straight through.
    John Soares recently posted…Top Speed Reading Techniques to Boost Your Productivity

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    16 Sharon Hurley Hall October 31, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    Twitter: @shurleyhall

    That would be interesting, John. There’s also a question of how long to leave it before editing. I like to let things sit for a couple of days so I can approach them fresh, but if deadlines are tight, then a day or even a couple of hours will do – what about you?
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted…How To Get Your Writer Marketing Done In An Hour A Week

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    17 John Soares October 31, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    I always want to give it a day, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

    At a minimum I get up and go for short walk or do some tai chi or yoga — even 10 minutes can make a big difference in developing a fresh perspective.
    John Soares recently posted…Top Speed Reading Techniques to Boost Your Productivity

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    18 Lori October 31, 2011 at 12:33 PM

    Twitter: @LoriWidmer

    Always. Can’t help it. But it makes the editors happy, so I must be doing something right!

    Reply

    19 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    The key point is creating high-quality writing as efficiently as possible, and that includes making editors happy.
    John Soares recently posted…Why Writers Must Avoid Perfectionism

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    20 Anne Wayman October 31, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    Twitter: @annewayman

    I don’t know how to keep from editing as I write, which can be a problem in terms of getting things done. Once in a while I’ll force myself not to edit while I write – usually to get over some sort of hump or problem I’m having.

    And yes I edit after I write, and sometimes after it’s published if it’s a blog – otherwise I blush.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…5 Steps To Solving Freelance Writing’s Uncertain Income

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    21 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    Anne, I’d say at least half the time I edit some part of a blog post after I’ve published it, sometimes to add more info, but usually because I see a more elegant way to say something.
    John Soares recently posted…How to Minimize Interruptions So You Can Get Your Writing Done

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    22 Jeanna November 27, 2011 at 8:17 PM

    Twitter: @jdrutledge

    Anne, I am the same way. I try not to edit as I go, but sometimes it seems I can’t move forward until I fix whatever it is that’s not working. And like you and John, I also edit from time to time after I’ve published if necessary.

    Reply

    23 Dave Doolin November 27, 2011 at 9:14 PM

    Twitter: @doolin

    Timely.

    I’m stuck right now, at this very moment on a technical paper which just won’t ship. I started out writing one thing, and once I got started, I found out I was really writing about something else. So the current structure won’t support what the paper is really about.

    So I’m taking a break and writing some code for one of my tiny stealth sites. Letting it stew for a while.

    The alternative is wordsmithing it for hours, and from experience, I know that will just dig a deeper hole.
    Dave Doolin recently posted…10 Tips for Blogging Productivity (when you have other things to do)

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    24 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 10:05 AM

    Dave, you’re smart to take a break. That’s always what I do when I know I’m definitely off track and I’m not sure how to get back on track.
    John Soares recently posted…Why Freelance Writers Must Be On LinkedIn

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    25 Cathy Miller October 31, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    Twitter: @Cathy Miller, Business Writer/Consultant

    John-I am so glad to read that you edit as you write. Makes me feel better about me doing it. I always hear how non-productive it is, but with my boomer brain, I’m afraid (like you) that I’ll forget my brilliant editing. :-0

    I do think you can overdo it until it becomes less productive. I’ve gotten better at the self-editing. When I tend to do it is when I go back and read a section that I’ve written.

    I always do a final editing and like to have my writing sit at least overnight (or more if I can afford the time) and then edit with a fresh eye.

    Now, I have to go back and read everyone’s comments here. :-)
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Number 1 Video Tip for Overcoming the Fear

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    26 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 7:11 AM

    Cathy, I wonder if there is a correlation between being older and editing as you write. My brain is still quite sharp, and in some ways works better than when I was in my 20s, but my short-term memory is definitely not as good as it used to be.
    John Soares recently posted…My Interview With Carol Tice About Freelance Writing

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    27 Cathy Miller November 1, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    Twitter: @Cathy Miller, Business Writer/Consultant

    My memory is definitely worse. I used to have a phenomenal memory. I mean scary good. It took me a while to be okay with the loss of it. :-)

    I try to discipline myself to jot short notes to go back to edit everything at once (I especially do that on blog posts) so I am not stopping and changing every typo right then and there. But, it’s really bad when you look at your notes and don’t remember what you meant. LOL! :-D
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Health Care Tuesday Reviews Mid-Level Providers

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    28 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    My memory is still fairly good, but I don’t rely on it. I have a daily planner that I use extensively, and I have a digital voice recorder that’s always in my pocket so I can capture ideas and to-do’s.
    John Soares recently posted…Why Writers Must Avoid Perfectionism

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    29 Dave Doolin October 31, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    Twitter: @doolin

    Both, depending on what I’m writing.

    I make a distinction between “editing” and “wordsmithing” though, which I believe is really important (at least to me).

    Editing deals with grammar, punctuation, gross style and structure, and I can often handle this as I write. If I’m on a roll, I might postpone it until the writing simply won’t flow.

    Wordsmithing is different. Wordsmithing is sweating the details which really matter in the long term. The details of taking a so-so piece to a good piece, a good piece to a great piece… or knocking that great piece out of the park.

    Whenever I find myself wordsmithing _before_ I’ve finished the entire piece, I typically have to walk away from it for a while, then finish as soon as possible. After that, it’s a matter of gestation. The really good pieces need to sit for a while so I can edit and wordsmith without attachment.

    This is relevant as I’m working on a long piece which I can already tell need to be split in half. I started writing about one aspect of development, and I’ve switched to another aspect half way through.

    No matter. I’ll keep writing until I have 2 or 3 pieces, then put them all aside for a bit. You will see them on the blog in a few weeks or so.
    Dave Doolin recently posted…Content Curation is it Real or Just Another Sleazy Marketing Ploy?

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    30 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 7:18 AM

    Dave, I appreciate your distinction between editing and “word-smithing.” They can definitely be distinguished from each other, and sometimes when I’m writing the word-smithing does not go very well, even though the actual sentences are technically correct.

    For me, though, I correct everything as I go along, including the word-smithing.
    John Soares recently posted…How to Minimize Interruptions So You Can Get Your Writing Done

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    31 Dave Doolin November 1, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Twitter: @doolin

    I envy your ability there. I have been making more of an effort to write in a single draft when it’s necessary (or desirable) to just get it done and shipped. Blog posts are especially good practice.

    Reply

    32 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 11:05 AM

    You, my brother Eric, and my tai chi teacher Gene are similar in that get-er-done attitude. Perhaps I should see if I can make myself do it…
    John Soares recently posted…Top Speed Reading Techniques to Boost Your Productivity

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    33 Gene Burnett October 31, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    For me it depends on what kind of writing I’m doing. If I’m feeling inspired and on a roll, I don’t even bother with paragraph breaks, misspellings or even quotation marks. I just shoot from the hip until the wave has passed. If I’m working something out and developing an idea or line of thought, I’ll be more thoughtful and edit some as I go. But generally, I write first from a creative, free-spirited, uncensored place and then go over it afterwards to clean it up.

    This is true of everything I write, whether it be songs, blog posts, emails or website comments. I often go through several drafts before I consider it “done”.

    For instance, I might want to turn several facebook posts on a given subject into a blog post. I will have saved these posts in a folder in my computer. One night I’ll open them all up and put them in a rough working order in a Word document. Later I’ll go over it and clean up redundancies, people’s names I might have mentioned and language more suited to facebook than my blog. I might still go over the entire piece once or twice more, looking to see how it works and flows as a whole before I decide it’s ready to post.

    Other times, I’ll get an idea, do a quick rough draft, go over it once or twice to smooth it out and then go ahead and post it. So the process can take weeks or it can take minutes. But then I’m not a professional. I can see that if I was, I’d have to decide not only which style pleased me most, but which style got the job done best with the amount of energy I could give it.

    Reply

    34 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    Gene, I can definitely appreciate the “flow” approach to writing and you definitely use it to your advantage. I wish writing would frequently flow like that for me, but it rarely does.

    And I stopped mid-sentence in this comment to go back and add “frequently.”
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Way For Freelance Writers to Hold Themselves Accountable

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    35 Eric Soares November 1, 2011 at 8:07 AM

    I aim to flow in my writing and not edit on the first pass, but like you if something can be easily fixed I do it right then. If wordsmithing is required, I usually do that later, after I’ve let the cherry pie-er-writing cool down.

    Even when editing later, I am open to flow and to new creativity if it comes. The important thing is productivity and not sitting there with your fingers frozen over the keys.
    Eric Soares recently posted…Risk Assessment for Kayaking on the Exposed Coast

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    36 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    High productivity of quality writing is obviously important to me, so I do whatever it takes to achieve that. Sometimes the writing does flow and I do little or no editing until the first draft’s done, but most times that’s not the case.
    John Soares recently posted…Why Writers Must Avoid Perfectionism

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    37 Dawn Baird November 1, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    Twitter: @senseilp

    John, I edit as I write, and after too. It makes sense to me, as you say, what if you don’t remember the killer phrase that pops into your head as you’re writing?

    And, like many others here, the first paragraph informs the next, and so on.

    I do admit to a huge amount of editing when I’m done writing too.

    Since I write alot of technical information, waiting until the end is just not feasible, as otherwise I’d need to redo an installation procedure, just to get that one word right!

    Reply

    38 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    You’re definitely with the majority here Dawn. I’m guessing you write about how to use software?
    John Soares recently posted…Writing Ergonomics: Top Tips for Proper Posture, Alignment, and Movement

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    39 Emily Rose November 1, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Twitter: @emilyroseartist

    yes, I have always edited as I write and also after wards too. My reasoning sounds just like yours John :) I thought for a long time it was an OCD tendency, but I think its just how I function.
    Emily Rose recently posted…Crazy Awesome

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    40 John Soares November 1, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    Emily, most of the commenters on this post agree with you, so you — and we — are likely not OCD!
    John Soares recently posted…The Girl Effect: Why Educating Girls Is Important

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    41 Megan Harris November 3, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Twitter: @MWritesMedia

    For my freelancing work, I tend to edit as I write. I am trying to practice restraint this month when it comes to my fiction work. NaNoWriMo is a great way to practice this, as there isn’t time to edit – you simply must write your ideas down, or you’ll miss your word count goals!

    Reply

    42 John Soares November 3, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    Megan, I’m not a fiction writer, but I can see that rolling with the flow may be more important there, with the main editing coming later.

    And good for you for doing NaNoWriMo!
    John Soares recently posted…Seven Key Steps for Finding, Evaluating, and Implementing Good Ideas

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    43 Ray Anderson November 3, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    Twitter: @ray_anderson

    I don’t edit much on the first draft. I have to get it all down, and I’m afraid I’ll forget my train of thought if I slow down to edit. When I feel that I’ve “got” the piece, I’ll go back and edit several times.
    Ray Anderson recently posted…The Long Trail–Vermont

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    44 John Soares November 3, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    I hear you on the “forget my train of thought.” Curious — do you create an outline before you write? I almost always do.
    John Soares recently posted…How to Minimize Interruptions So You Can Get Your Writing Done

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    45 Shakirah Dawud November 3, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    Twitter: @shakirahdawud

    I edit as I write most of the time, and I agree with Ruth that it can turn into a point of procrastination when I’m midstream, although I have a hard time distinguishing whether I’m procrastinating or just “stuck.”
    Shakirah Dawud recently posted…“You Are Your Words,” Says American Heritage Dictionary

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    46 John Soares November 3, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Shakirah, I find that when I get stuck, going back and editing my work often gets me unstuck, usually by helping me get clarity on what I need to say next.
    John Soares recently posted…Why Writers Must Avoid Perfectionism

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    47 Ray Anderson November 3, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    Twitter: @ray_anderson

    Yes, I almost always outline. I don’t do an intricate outline, just the broad strokes.

    Reply

    48 Samantha Gluck November 10, 2011 at 8:14 AM

    Twitter: @texascopywriter

    I edit while I write and also afterward. I like to wait a day, or so, before running through my final edit, but my deadlines are often tight (more often than not), due to the nature of my business. Sometimes I have to run my final edit a half hour or less after I write and submit the story to my editor.

    When writing for clients like HealthyPlace.com or other online health care media, I do wait one or two days before looking over the submissions for the last time.

    Great topic. I’ve seen so many other posts that criticize writers who edit while writing. Reading them always made me feel like I should keep the fact that I edit while I write under wraps. Thanks for allowing me to “let it all hang out”. :-)
    Samantha Gluck recently posted…Freelance Writers – Write Headlines and Leads Like a Pro Journalist

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    49 John Soares November 11, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    Samantha, we don’t have a scientific sample in the comments here, but a large majority edits while writing.

    I also occasionally only have time to edit once right after finishing piece before sending it out. It helps to take even 5 minutes away, if possible.
    John Soares recently posted…The Power of a Small Website

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    50 Shakirah Dawud November 11, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    Twitter: @shakirahdawud

    I only just realized the question here is “Should” we edit as we write. I can’t think of a good reason why or why not, either…
    Shakirah Dawud recently posted…The Limits Of Language

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    51 Eren Mckay December 4, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    Twitter: @erenmckay

    It really depends. I don’t censor myself at all. There are times when I feel that I need to edit while I’m writing and other moments where I don’t stop for anything.
    It really depends where I’m at and where my brain is going. I try to give myself the space that I need and not create too many rules.
    I have seen writing coaches say ‘Just write and don’t stop to edit’ like it’s written in stone.
    Hey when the flow is going, sure I can do that.
    However sometimes writing absolutely requires the left brain analytical to kick in and give some kind of structure and direction to the piece. We just have to notice the right moment for each type of writing.
    I always say that writing well requires a lot of personal awareness to perceive what we need to do a great job.
    All the best,
    Eren
    Eren Mckay recently posted…How to Register a Domain with Name Cheap

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    52 edenbray March 13, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Twitter: @edenbray8

    you have to edit twice – once so you can read it back later and twice aftrr youve slept

    Reply

    53 edenbray March 13, 2012 at 8:17 AM

    Twitter: @edenbray8

    after – see what I mean – trouble is editing as you go you can lose the passion of the piece!
    edenbray recently posted…GOLDEN CHANCE FOR DI MATTEO AT ‘SEXY’ CHELSEA FC

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    54 Delena Silverfox October 15, 2012 at 8:27 PM

    Twitter: @delenasilverfox

    I’m an editing freak. I edit as I write, as I read through, in my sleep (I have been known to wake up and fly to the computer just to work on an edit that just popped into my head), and continually through every step of the process.

    Things either sound better, I’ve learned something new about the writing process, I’ve received valuable feedback, etc. Something always keeps the writing fluid. Even after publishing, I’ll read them on my Kindle and still be wincing as I think of another –better– way to write what I’m reading.
    Delena Silverfox recently posted…Six Sentence Sunday #2

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    55 John Soares November 13, 2012 at 7:58 AM

    Delena, I also edit multiple times, but it’s those edits as I’m writing that are usually the most important.
    John Soares recently posted…How the Web Changes Your Brain and Hurts Your Life

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    56 Suzanne B November 6, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    Twitter: @MediaWeasel

    Depends. What I try to do is just bash the very first draft down with no editing whatsoever, keeping the internal editor locked away and gagged. Just sit down, write, get it all down, warts and all. Then I can edit. If I have time I can leave the writing aside for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes. That’s the theory.

    Doesn’t always happen that way and I can get tangled up in style or searching for the exact word when I could just flag it up and come back to it later. Confidence, that’s what that’s about.

    Reply

    57 John Soares November 13, 2012 at 7:59 AM

    Suzanne, your method is a common one and it works for many people. It’s how I tried to do it when I first started writing, but it just isn’t me.
    John Soares recently posted…Why You Are So Slow Finishing That Freelance Writing Project

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