How to Stop Making Yourself Crazy
with Self-Editing

stressed out man

Write. Edit. Write. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Write.

Does this sound familiar? If it doesn’t then you’re probably from Mars, because most of us drive ourselves crazy with self-editing when we write.

And it’s not only when writing.

We self-edit when we’re walking. When you walk on gravel, you walk differently than when you walk on grass.

We self-edit when we’re talking. We choose different words and sentence structure, create different tones, and make different sounds depending on who we’re speaking to.

So self-editing is a very natural part of human behavior. There’s one difference when we self-edit as writers, though.

When we write, self-correction drives us bananas

Writing articles drives us crazy. Our natural tendency to self-edit gets out of hand. We can’t seem to put it on hold, even for a few minutes.

And the reason for that is our lack of competency.

Competency is a state of mind you reach when you’ve made enough mistakes that your brain can now move on.

That’s right. It’s not about getting things right in your brain — it’s about getting things wrong. The brain has to make hundreds, even thousands of mistakes — and overcome those mistakes — to be able to reach a level of competency.

Once it reaches competency, it self-edits on the fly

You can see this for yourself by spending time with a two-year-old.

Get the child to walk on grass, and then on gravel. He’ll struggle, and he may fall.

Get the child to say a sentence, and he’ll struggle to find the right words in the right order.

And yes, you may say that a child’s brain is not fully developed. But in fact, the brains of two-year-old children have more neural connections than at any other point in their lives. As they grow older, they lose many of those neural connections. Technically speaking at least, the child is in the best possible situation to learn — and learn quickly.

Yet they struggle

And that’s because the child hasn’t made enough mistakes yet. His brain is still working on finding and correcting them.

Once the brain makes enough mistakes — and corrects them — it now has a database of information that it can call upon at any time. Your brain has now reached its level of competency in that field, be it walking, talking or writing.

Your brain can now self-edit on the fly.

This is what great athletes do

And great writers.

And great singers.

And great speakers.

They’re still constantly self-editing, but they’ve reached such a high level of competency that they’ve moved into the realm of ‘fluency.’

Fluency is when self-editing happens so quickly that we can’t see it

It seems magical. And when things seem magical, we call it ‘talent.’

But what we call talent is just an advanced level of self-editing. Over and over and over again, until it’s second-nature.

Until your article writing looks like this:

Write. Write. Write. Edit. Write. Write. Write. Write. Edit.

P.S. I edited that article twice after drafting it in one sweep. My total writing time was less than 25 minutes from concept to final edit.

P.P.S. I started out writing fewer than 10 articles a year (if I was lucky). Each calendar year, I now write between 300-500 articles, write 2-3 books, and create huge amounts of original content for web sites. I’ve posted more than 15,000 posts in forums in the last five years. If you told me that I was going to do any of this back in the year 2002, I’d have called you a dreamer.

And yet, anyone can do it. Truly, anyone. It’s a matter of competency, then fluency.

Don’t forget to make thousands of mistakes along the way.

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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  1. When we were at school, we were taught that mistakes were BAD. No wonder we fear them so much!

    But mistakes are truly GOOD, because as you say, it’s the way the brain learns. In fact, I’d say that the more mistakes a person makes in life, the better they become at something.

    Mistakes are brain food. And your point about competency is spot on. 25 minutes? Wow. You’re a machine!

  2. This was reassuring, thanks. Unfortunately, my pattern is more like:

    write. write. edit. edit. edit. check email. edit. check headlines. write. edit. write. email. headlines. edit. edit. go to work.

    sigh.

  3. This article was just what I needed today! I’ve quieted that self-critical voice and I’m back to writing! Mistakes, here I come! Thanks for permission, even encouragement to make them.

  4. I’ve gotten used to not to editing my copy on the fly, it drove me nuts training my brain, and in some instances, it leaves for a more complicated version than what I started out with. Instead, I’ll write my original draft and let it sit for an hour or two while I write, or do, something else.

    I’ll return to the draft after I’m done with a few other things in order to iron out any rough edits and polish things up. I’ll repeat this process about 2-3 additional times until I have a final (IMHO) version.

    When posting on blogs, forums or repsonding to others, I’ll edit on the fly (this post included) and then I’ll save it to my drafts and post it later after I’ve ironed out the quirks until i’m satisfied. This post was submitted after 2 drafts and 20 minutes.

    While I’m not writing 500 various items a year, I’m quite satisfied with being in the 250 range.

    Through the years, I have found myself doing less revisions as i’ve discovered my own neural nuances in relation to my writing styles for different topics.

    It is good to know that I wasn’t alone in training the brain.

  5. And I thought I was a fast writer. I bow to you.

    One more tip: the better you plan what you’re going to write, the less editing later.

    One caveat: while speed is a benefit of competence, most writers don’t want to settle for that. Every time I try to improve my writing or tackle a new kind of writing, I make new mistakes–and learn from them. Complacency is a foe.

  6. “Your brain can now self-edit on the fly.”

    Not until people LOVE the whole craft and whole process of writing (and stop seeing edit as a dirty word).

    Write. Write. Write. Polish. Admire. Write. Write. Write. Write. Polish. Admire.

  7. Great advice. Mistakes are fun. If you get it right the first time, you didn’t set out to do something different enough. You definitely learn more from failing than success.

    Also, Fuel Your Writing wrote about editing your writing this morning. I compared the two posts here: http://bit.ly/mdo9H

  8. You state: “Fluency is when self-editing happens so quickly that we can’t see it.”

    I state: “Fluency is when you can write quality work while enjoying a few cocktails.”

    I think we’re both saying the same thing! :)

    Seriously though, great article and a good explanation for WHY this happens to so many writers.

  9. Thanks for reinforcing the Principles we stress on the Focus >a href=”http://focussociety.com”>Society of Overachievers Podcasts

    Don’t worry about getting it Right , Just get it Going

    We can always go back and Change, and make better with EXPERIENCE

  10. Sorry link was wrong.. old age fumble fingers

  11. Yes, fluency! Fluency is the key to more confident writing. I appreciate your straight forward writing style and always, useful tips.

    I’m off to work on my “fluency!”

  12. I heard Joyce Maynard speak at a conference in July. She talked about how her parents trained her to be a writer from pretty much the time she could speak. They edited her early school reports, her attempts at short stories…she spent her childhood being edited to the point where her self-editing skills are honed to perfection. She told us that skill is what allowed her to write her latest novel “Labor Day” in ten days (she was at a retreat and had no interruptions but still – TEN days!)

  13. I guess this goes along with the idea that you learn more from what you do wrong than what you do right.
    The simple take home point of this whole article is to not get discouraged with all the self editing and eventually we, as writers, will (need to) edit our writing less?

  14. Yay for misktaes! Fluency I think comes not just from practice but from being unafraid to make those mistakes. Just like you say, children aren’t afraid they just struggle and learn and become better. Good post to remind us writers of that.

  15. Writing on the web is full of pressures, especially since competency is expected and, of course, desired. Unfortunately, we all are forced to reach a level of competence in the public eye, which can only inspire fear.

    It is nice to remember that mistakes are the necessary building blocks.

  16. Shane, you nailed it with “Write. Write. Write. Polish. Admire. Write. Write. Write. Write. Polish. Admire.” To be a good writer, you need to love it. You won’t love it till you love your work. The only thing I might add to that is “Pat yourself on the back.” Because there usually is no one else in the room to do that for you!

  17. Bravo. Very nice post.

    You were bang on. This article made perfect sense. Do you have your background in psychology? When I read it, I felt as Steven Pinker and Dan Gilbert is speaking inside my mind. I am, immediately, going to subscribe to your newsletter. Hope you send equally good stuff.
    Congratulations

  18. Great article! I’m taking less time to write my articles now compared to a few months ago.

    At first I thought the quality of my writing must be dropping, since I’m taking less time to write, but you gave a great reason that it is not so.

    Thanks!

  19. Thanks for the permission to make mistakes. I give myself that permission, but it’s always nice to get it from outside as well.My main problem is trying to do too many things during the same time period, because my time is limited, but that actually results in wasted time.

    Time management is where I need to focus.

  20. “The brain has to make hundreds, even thousands of mistakes — and overcome those mistakes — to be able to reach a level of competency.”–i needed to hear this.

    Thanks:)

  21. 15,000 forum posts! Wow! Just the right article for someone trying to make sense of the 1,000 words he needs per week!

  22. Dear Mr. D’Souza:

    I have been teaching legal writing to paralegals and attorneys since 1999. While I agree with your assertions inasmuch as they depend upon the concept of “competency then fluency,” competency as a writer requires the ability to communicate accurately, including employing a language’s technicalities (grammar, spelling, etc.) One problem I see is that too many “writers” on the Internet seem unfamiliar with basic principles of spelling or even the spell check option.

    I hope that readers do not take from your article any suggestion that they should not edit their writing vigorously for technical errors. Admittedly, this task is becoming more difficult as the speed of information sharing increases, and this creates much physical and psychological pressure on writers who write on the Internet. Nevertheless, writers cannot move into the realm of fluency if their writing remains riddled with grammatical mistakes and typographical errors. All the “polishing” in the world will not save a writer who did not first get some mastery of the technique of writing.

  23. I believe at times we are too much inclined to be a perfectionist with whatever we do. At times all we need to do is to cross check once and hit publish. Thats when we achieve perfection

  24. It’s all about practice. The more you write, the better you get.

    Another important concept is to outline what to write about. A lot of the edit cycle can be eliminated if your topic is well thought out ahead of writing.

  25. Self-editing and editing for errors are two completely different things. Self-editing is the stop-start-stop-start process that completely kills your momentum.

    Editing for errors is quite a different thing.

    Grammar has bearing on style, packaging and comprehension. An article with the wrong grammar can be misconstrued. But most people don’t really have a problem with grammar. They have a problem getting the darned article out of the door in the first place.

    The key point of this article is: Make mistakes. Make lots of mistakes. Make mistakes till your brain is able to eliminate the mistakes on the fly. If you don’t or can’t make mistakes, then moving forward is quite impossible. Most people think that they can learn from another person’s mistake. And while some learning is possible, the main learning comes from making your own mistakes.

    So while I’m not condoning grammar, etc., it’s a completely different topic.

    P.S. One of the best examples of this mistake making is in the song by Billy Joel. It’s a song called ‘Second Wind.’ And it talks about making mistakes. Towards the end of the song, he has a bit of a hiccup and wanted to correct the mistake. His wife at the time, Christie Brinkley told him to keep the mistake in the song. Listen to the song. It’s nice to see the mistake :) Or rather hear it. :)

    One problem I see is that too many “writers” on the Internet seem unfamiliar with basic principles of spelling or even the spell check option.

    I hope that readers do not take from your article any suggestion that they should not edit their writing vigorously for technical errors. Admittedly, this task is becoming more difficult as the speed of information sharing increases, and this creates much physical and psychological pressure on writers who write on the Internet. Nevertheless, writers cannot move into the realm of fluency if their writing remains riddled with grammatical mistakes and typographical errors. All the “polishing” in the world will not save a writer who did not first get some mastery of the technique of writing.

  26. Sean – Great article.

    Can I ask, are you or have you recently read the book by Daniel Coyle “The Talent Code?” This post feels like a very good creative adaptation of the research, observations and lessons from that book.

    The “Write. Edit. Write. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Write.” developing into “Write. Write. Write. Edit. Write. Write. Write. Write. Edit.” sounds a lot like Clarissa’s story.

    Your P.P.S is evidence of the deep practice you’ve done to gain fluency/competency in the skill of writing.

  27. And as you can see from the previous post, I made a mistake using quote marks, so that your post (Eric Young’s post) became part of my post. And I’ll no doubt learn how to use ‘quote’ marks better in my future posts.

    :)

  28. Way to make me feel incompetent lol. Amazing post. I am definitely not at any kind of level of competency when it comes to writing. I don’t always self-edit because I think I made a mistake though, but because I thought of a better way to word something. Idk if that’s considered making a mistake, or not.

    btw, I self-edited this post about 10 times in that short paragraph. :P

  29. A few of you have mentioned outlines. Yes, that’s correct—outlines do help in structuring the article. And yet they don’t if you have a habit of wanting to make your article perfect as you keep writing. I know of many, many folks who outline perfectly yet still get stuck.

    I would say you’re wasting your time if you outline, but you also are wasting your time if you self-edit. It’s best to go back later and edit. An edit is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. But it needs to be done at the end (preferably).

    I can’t say I don’t self-edit. In fact I do. But it’s a far cry from when I was struggling to write one article in two days. :(

  30. Oops, I meant to say: I “wouldn’t” say you’re wasting your time if you edit.

    Ugh. Another mistake. But life goes on :)

  31. The first short story I ever submitted to a magazine returned to me covered in red marks. They claimed I had used far too many words — unnecessary words.

    It was probably the best thing that ever happened to my writing.

    Within a few months, I started to naturally drop the words I would have previously included. I get better at this every day.

    ” … what we call talent is just an advanced level of self-editing.” Agreed.

  32. Using an outline isn’t a waste of time if you use it properly. It’s like driving at 100 mph using a road map. Whenever you reach an intersection, stop and check the map to see where you’re going. Once you know where you’re headed, make your turn and accelerate back to 100 mph. This will tend to make your writing more structured and easier to edit the second time around.

  33. Reaching fluency would be nice but it hasn’t happened yet for me. I still need to review what I write several times to get out all the errors.

  34. Great read. I guess we have to have the skills to self edit. How many of us really have that?

  35. Brian gave some really good advice on achieving fluency in this CB post some time ago: http://www.copyblogger.com/become-a-better-writer/

  36. I edit constantly and even after finishing, publishing and waiting for reviews, comments, etc. I still often see something I could have done better….some little glitch in the way a worded something. Hopefully with time and improvement that will definitely occur less and less

  37. wow- you really hit the spot on the nose- or bullseye- you get the picture. writing, like art is never fully finished, but the message can be communicated effectively, i guess thats the point. thanks for great blog!

  38. Hm, should anyone read my mistakes? Oo

    I edit each sentence many times, play with words and phrases and replace my mistakes with each other. Yep, Germans are careless with the sentence structure. But my problem at the moment: Where should I put the comma?

    EX: “Hang him not pardon him.”

    Please help and be careful with the comma! :)

  39. But I do feel that after certain level … you knows and acquire good experience about your visitors. Hence you write according to their demand.

    So this is really tough for begining and you will laugh when you will read your earlier post but after that everything will be smooth.

  40. Really insightful post that all of us can relate to. When I saw the title I knew it was something that I was familiar with. I am an awful self editor but you’re right in what you say; to get things right, make mistakes. I guess the thing with writing is, you’re never going to please everybody, but good writing comes with experience.

  41. I have forwarded this post on to all the blog contributors at deBugged – the pest control blog. Many of the writers are new and worry about content going online and I feel this post hits the nail on the head. Excellent advice for both new and established writers alike.

  42. Write. Edit. Write …… Edit. Edit. Write.
    In fact, I write an article per day and I think it just a wonderful experience.
    As is said, The more you write, the better you get.

  43. wow! I came on here and read this great article that kind of opened my eyes a bit. And continued to learn from the great people making comments here. Awesome.

    I usually write a draft, then go back over and edit then. I find myself editing on the fly at times though. Still doesn’t hurt to go back over it afterwards though. Thanks!

  44. The best part of your post was the p.p.s. It was inspiring to a wannabe writer, like me. Thank you.

  45. I know exactly what you are talking about. Review-mania is a serious bloggers disease. Fortunately, it can be self-diagnosed, and it is also treatable without professional help.

    Bat out your posts as fast as you can. Don’t worry about reviewing them until several hours later, then review them the next day. In this way, you plan for a maximum of three edits, no more.

    In this way you will not succumb to the mind-numbing, time-sucking disease known as review-mania.

    Good Luck in your web site promotion efforts !

  46. WoW. I think this is great. I definitely spend more time editing than I do writing. But I find that the fluency is getting better. Sometimes it is good to see this is normal. I was beginning to think I would never get to where I want to be. Thanks for the great post

  47. Don’t worry. I overuse ‘quote’ marks as well. And then, I prefer the British use of quotation marks (the single), rather than the accepted American use (the double).

    As for self-editing, when I’m writing, I recently started a new helpful habit. I put a delineation line at the bottom of where I’m writing. When I decide to cut something out, I cut it and paste it below the line. Basically, I’ve created a ‘cutting room floor’. It’s worked great, and has helped me shuffle things a lot better.

  48. Full disclosure: the guy I’m about to recommend is a client. Jonathan Clark gives great advice in his business writing course: separate writing and editing. He calls it free writing. Just write. Blurt it out. When you’re done writing, THEN go back and edit. Writing is right-brain. Editing is left-brain. You would be amazed how much this opens up your writing. And saves time.

  49. I almost missed a key point. Practice makes perfect or in this case practice brings Fluency. I just read a book about the origins of talent and the author made a persuasive argument that the most talented are also fanatic practicers.

    The goal, I believe is not to simply write 500 articles a year but to practice the craft of writing content continuously.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  50. Hahah, catchy article. Well that is something that I’m trying to work out.

  51. Yes, we aim for “WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, edit.”
    Loved the rhythm of your writing in this article.

  52. It is my first time @ this blog and I really enjoyed your articles, great work :)

  53. Great post, loved it.

    When I started out writing and blogging, I didn’t even re-read my posts once before publishing.

    Now I re-read at least 3 times with dozens of edits along the way.

    Igor

  54. I totally agree. Thanks for sharing gr8 posts @ CopyBlogger.

  55. Love the tenor of this post. As we say in Australia ‘ Have a go mate!’. Too often we’re terrorised by making mistakes and then get locked in a box of complete inaction.

  56. That’s why I have my very own personal editor, PR Manager and copywriter…just kidding…I wish I could afford all that…will take the work and drama out of everything.

  57. I like your style Sean, thanks for sharing

    I’ve grasped several useful things for myself.

    Cheers,
    Togrul