Hold That Thought

Multi taskingMulti-tasking is not a strategy for success, whether it be in life or in writing. As counterintuitive as it may sound, you will actually be more productive as a writer if you allow yourself the luxury of focusing on one task at a time.

This can be especially problematic for those who see writing as some mystical experience that happens only when we are in the flow. We are all grateful for those days when the words come thick and fast. These suggestions will help you capitalize on those moments so that you never again have that feeling that you’ve lost an important thought in the fray.

More importantly they’ll provide you with what every professional writer needs, the steady flow of language that comprises our daily bread.

1) Suspend judgment. All too often, we have an inner editor who tells us that a word, a phrase, or even a sentiment isn’t worthy of our readership, our subject matter, or ourselves – the almighty author. There’s a time and a place for that critic. But during the initial brainstorming phase, we must learn to banish him. Allow yourself the free play of ideas, no matter how silly, outrageous, or off-the-wall.

2) Find the right word (or not). When we’re writing for content, we are often still figuring out what it is we need to say. The how can come later. So if exactly the right word eludes you, allow it to do so.

Leave that space blank and mark it with some tick mark of your own devising. I use a number sign (#). Chances are, when you start the next paragraph, it will come to you. And if you dwell on it, you lose your train of thought, and in the effort to grab that one word, 20 will fall by the wayside.

Of course the opposite is true as well. Sometimes three words will come to mind, but none of them are exactly right. When that happens, I put all three in parentheses, divide them with a slash, and keep writing. Usually I have to break out a thesaurus during the revision stage. I see that as an opportunity to [learn more about my topic] and my language.

3) Work with your technology, not against it. Word’s spell check has saved my buns more often than I care to admit. It is also an endless source of amusement and irritation. I turn it off when I’m drafting, and I suggest you do the same. There is nothing more distracting while writing than wondering if you’ve spelled a word correctly. It’s one form of procrastination. Don’t allow your technology to play along.

(While you’re at it, you might consider turning off the email alerts and maybe even the wi-fi.)

4) The order of the document is not the order of the process

a) Write the introduction last. I don’t know what I’m going to say until I said it. There’s no point writing the introduction first because I’m going to stray from that pattern, especially if I’m writing a lengthy academic article (between 25 and 60 pages).

Even if you’re writing a smaller article, like a 2 or 3 page piece for a magazine or a briefing paper, consider writing the content before you write the introduction. Then it would make sense to rewrite the article matching up to the introduction. You’ll create a document that has more organic harmony and flow, and you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle.

b) Reverse outline. I have mixed feelings about outlining, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, suffice it to say that reverse outlining is a process that dramatically changed my approach to writing lengthy documents. The process is simple to explain and unbelievably difficult to do.

Essentially you create a zero draft. You might be accustomed to thinking of this as the first draft of your document, but really it’s nothing more than a set of brainstorming notes that’s really well formulated.

You then number each of the paragraphs and write out a topic sentence for each paragraph. This may or may not be the first sentence of each paragraph. You’ll be surprised to discover how often the first sentence does not encapsulate the idea expressed in that paragraph.

When you’re done, look at the topic sentences in isolation. How well do they flow? Revise them until they have a succinct, logical order that’s easy to follow. The reverse outline should serve as an abstract for your paper. Now go back and revise your paper accordingly.

c) Edit in stages. I’ve never edited a document from beginning to end. It’s pointless. You uncover too many big errors. You have too many false starts.

So the first thing to do is create an editing plan. (I’ve got one you can use for a small donation.)

Then you need to find ways to keep the document strange so that it never becomes too familiar. For that reason, I work backwards through the document the first time through. And I alternate working on a computer and working on a printout.

Finally, be sure that you make each edit a line item on an Excel spreadsheet so that you’re never editing on the fly.

I hope that you find these suggestions helpful as ways of keeping the Muse active a little longer. And if you have tips to share, please do so. We can all benefit from the wisdom of others.

Image Credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2986


  1. Very helpful! Thank you 🙂

  2. You are so right. You have gathered several well-known principles and explained them very well.

  3. Anna Biunno says

    There are so many great nuggets here, especially the one about writing the introduction last.

    The introduction is usually what sends me into procrastination; if it isn’t quite write, I continue to tweak it. But this process usually results in my losing my train of thought.

    For point no. 2 (finding the right word…), I would suggest using the Flip dictionary. Sometimes we have several words to describe something for which we have no single word. I peruse it just for the fun of it.

    I’m also curious to know what you think about outlines. For those of us who avoid them (otherwise, we break into a cold sweat), the reverse outline feels like someone just tossed us a life preserver.

    These are all suggestions that I can immediately use, and that’s what makes them relevant and useful.

    Many thanks, Michelle

    • Anna – there’s that Flip dictionary again. Ironically, I was looking for the word to describe it just the other day 🙂

      I conducted 3 reverse outlines mid-grad school. They were torture, and they taught me how to organize long documents. I hope I never get so lost as to have to use one again.

      For small pieces (under 5 pages) I pencil outline a few topics. For large projects, I use my research notes to diagram or mind-map topics. I write that in a paragraph until it makes sense. I put each phrase into a section, cut and paste my research notes accordingly, and then outline each section.

  4. I often write a first draft of a speech or poem in pencil then I’m not bothered with technology at all. I can keep up with the words better that way too. I go to the computer for the next stage.
    I give my writing students permission to just write and not worry about spelling or grammar on the first draft. There’s time for it later.

    • Hi Carolyn- and welcome to the blog! We must be kindred spirits! I draft by hand too. It slows me down, and forces me to really think about my word choices and my sentence structure. It also makes the first print out of the manuscript fresh, so I’m not revising from a familiar or worn-out page.

      I hope your students know how much invaluable practice you’re giving them. They’re learning how to be REAL writers!

  5. Great tips, for both writing and editing! Your post reminded me to be more mindful of these suggestions in my work.

    To encourage productivity, Freedom is an application that locks you away from the Internet for up to eight hours at a time (Mac or Windows). No online distractions!

    Can you elaborate a little on the technique of making each edit a line item on an Excel spreadsheet vs editing on the fly? Thanks!

    • Hello Jamie – and welcome to the blog! Thanks for the Freedom suggestion. What a great idea!

      For example, I was editing a dissertation recently, and I wasn’t sure whether APA uses the serial comma. I didn’t have an APA guide handy, so while I was reading, I circled every instance of the serial comma, and I put the question on an Excel spreadsheet. For that project, I had two columns: corrections to make in the Word document; questions for the APA guide. When I found the answer, I typed it in all caps on my spreadsheet, reviewed my document, and typed the corrections into the computer.

  6. Steve Llanso says

    Hi, Michelle. Your tips are a compendium of good practice. I (especially/particularly/most especially) # your tips on word-choice deferral.

    Oh, change # to “value”

    May I suggest reading passages aloud, even word by word. I find missing words that way. (My author grandfather used to hand his daily output to his wife for her to read aloud – which helped him hear clunkers in the text as well.)

    • Thank you Stephen – for the kind words as well as the demonstration of how to discover them!

      And you’re so right about reading out loud! I compose orally, and I treasure that connection between words and their sounds.

  7. Michelle, I think I follow your Excel idea now… You use it to track queries you might have throughout the document, not every edit, essentially developing a mini style guide as you go. Right?

    Also, I have become a big fan of online style guides (Chicago, AMA, etc.). They are searchable and, these days, nearly always accessible when I am away from my desk, which greatly expands the mobility of my office!

    Thanks again!

  8. Very informative

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