The first key to writing is… to write, not to think! – Forrester in Finding Forrester
I’m trying to figure out how to make myself a better writer, and for me one of the big challenges is to turn off my “inner editor” so that I just put words on paper first, and go back to edit them later. Writing and editing are two separate processes, yet it is so easy for me to judge what I’ve just written and to attempt to clean it up immediately rather than leaving it for later. As a result I write more slowly than I want to, than I feel I am capable of.
“But,” you might say, “writing is not a race! It’s not about who gets there first or puts out the most words, but rather who writes the BEST words!”
Well haven’t your heard? “Quantity has a quality of its own.” By writing more words quickly you have more opportunities to learn from your mistakes, and in the end learning to be a better writer is what it’s all about.
To this end I need to learn to disconnect my typing from my editing process, to get the thoughts out and not to worry about how I may have misspelled something, or to clean up the flow of my thoughts, or even to debate within myself whether I really want to say that at all. I need to write, not to think. Thinking comes later.
This is a great challenge for me, yet I sense I’m not alone. I’ve been participating in the NaNoWriMo challenges for the last several years, and a common theme I’ve seen in the discussion forums is this need to “silence my inner editor.” It’s such a big deal that many participants have gone so far as to describe this need to correct and self-criticize as an entirely separate person living inside their head, with separate moods and even styles of dress. Clearly this need to correct what you’re writing while you type is a common problem.
(By the way, my first draft of this piece I’m trying to type while staring at a car in the parking lot rather than looking at either my fingers or the screen. And about half of what you see above is the result of my second pass edit as well as my original thoughts.)
I am an engineer at heart and by training, and so I tend to think in terms of technical solutions to problems. My thought for this problem is I need some software. I need a Speed Writing app. One that encourages me to type the words first without editing them. Let the editing come later.
Here are the requirements I’ve dreamed up:
Speed — The goal of this program is to increase the user’s ability to write more in a given period of time, so logically you, the user, should be able to set how long you want to write. Set it for anything from a minute to an hour and go! It shuts you off at the end of the time period, and then gives you feedback to tell you how well you did.
Writing — This is about your ability to get thoughts to flow through your fingers, and not about copying verbiage from an outside source into your work, so disable the paste function. Copy-paste is for editing, not for writing. Besides, it is too easy to inflate your word counts by pasting in chunks of text from other sources, or even to paste your own words in over and over again. Don’t cheat!
Focus — There should be some option for turning off the display, or blanking it or something. Maybe show the words you just typed for just a second of so. I’m not insisting that you not look at your fingers while you type (I’ll leave that for the typing tutors) but you need to focus on the current word, not something you wrote in the past. Sometimes it’s better to just stare at that car in the parking lot than to look at the words you’ve just written. (Oh, darn! I just came up with the great idea of taking a picture of that car for this post, and it’s driving away!)
Quality — There should be a way to judge the quality of your work as well as just the quantity. I suggest a “percent right” calculator that compares what you’ve written to a dictionary and tells you what percentage of the words you’ve written were found there. Eventually you want to get past the typos and down to where you’re editing for word choice and not spelling errors, so this should help you learn to type. Also it should minimize the ‘asdf’ sort of cheating.
(Yes, I use the term ‘cheating’ here. I want to discourage the user from trying to fool the software into coming up with results that aren’t truly indicative of your achievements. In truth the only person you’re cheating is yourself, but let’s not make it easy!)
Progress — The geeky side of me likes numbers — session length, words typed, percent right, and so on. I can see all that going into a scattergram that helps you find your writing “sweet spot,” that writing session in which you’re most productive (and after which you’re better off taking a break!) and how your rough draft ability has improved over time. But there will also be times when you want to keep what you’ve worked on, even if it was only meant to be practice, so having the ability to save and export your work into a “real” editor is necessary. Besides, typing the first really rough draft is just part of the process. This tool should help you learn the whole workflow. And it could be useful to compare how you’ve done this time with earlier attempts, simply to reinforce how much you’ve improved.
Oh, and I suppose someone smarter than I am might have a way to analyze these sessions and identify your common typing mistakes so you can correct them independently from this program. (A smart typing tutor?)
Sharing — One of the things I’ve learned is that writing is really a social process, in spite of its image to the contrary. A writer needs to have readers, at a minimum, and being able to compare your writing with the efforts of others is the quickest and best way to improve. And some people, even some writers, are motivated by competition.
To that end I’d like the program be able to share results somehow, so that a group of writers could challenge and encourage one another. I can picture something like the “word wars” in NaNoWriMo being validated via this program, and perhaps small prizes being awarded (other than just bragging rights.)
Can you think of anything else?
(By the way, I had mixed results with staring at that car. I think it helped, but there’s no way I would ever show anyone how terrible my typing actually is! Oh, and it came back, so I was able to take its picture.)