5 reasons to spend less time writing

Thomas Wolfe notoriously relied on Maxwell Perkins to untangle his knotted prose. Here’s why you should unleash your inner Perkins rather than try for perfection in your first draft.

You’ve probably never heard of burning mouth syndrome. Unless you suffer from it, as I did for almost eight years.

How to describe it?

It made me feel as though I had just eaten a particularly peppery radish. The sensation affected my tongue and the roof of my mouth, and it never started before noon and didn’t appear every day. But sometimes it showed up relentlessly, day after day, week after week—like a thoroughly unwelcome and belligerent houseguest.

In my case, doctors suspect it was caused by a root canal although burning mouth doesn’t always have such a definitive source. I saw a multitude of dentists and oral medicine specialists, followed all of their suggestions—from dietary, to herbal remedies to drugs—and nothing worked.

Until late last year. I had a new dentist and he sent me to a different specialist. And what did this guy suggest? To put a couple of drops of Tabasco sauce in a cup of water and swish my mouth with it three times each day. It sounded CRAZY to me—like an old wives’ tale—but I really respected the doctor so I decided to give it a try.

Guess what. It worked. The theory is that the sudden influx of heat from the Tabasco overwhelms your neurological system and short-circuits the “burning” sensation. (We accomplish the same thing when we rub our arm after banging our elbow on something.)

Believe it or not, we can do something similar with writing too.

Here’s my strange, counterintuitive recommendation: Spend less time writing.

When I tell people they should spend LESS time writing, they frequently look at me as though I’ve grown two heads. But here’s why this makes sense:

1. Writing always expands to fulfill available time. Also known as Parkinson’s Law, this principle means that if you give yourself a large amount of time for writing you will need all of it. Conversely, if you challenge yourself to write in a shorter amount of time – taking great care NOT to edit while you write—you’ll likely get it done in the abbreviated time frame. (Think for example, about how much work you can achieve when you’re focused on getting ready to go on holiday.

2. Spending too much time on writing takes away time to do the other things that feed your work. Writing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It comes from your life. If you don’t have the time to read books, see movies, listen to music, go for walks, get exercise, visit with friends, then you won’t have the raw material you need for any sort of writing, even non-fiction.

3. The creative part of our brain is reluctant and easily tired. When you write, you want to use your creative brain, not your linear, logical one. But here’s the deal: your creative brain is a shy cousin who needs to feel incredibly welcomed and comfortable before she’s willing to play. And even then, she can play for only a short time before she becomes tired and needs a rest. Don’t expect your creative brain to be available for long.

4. Spending more time writing makes writing painful. And who wants to do something that hurts? If you can develop the habit of spewing out your crappy first draft as quickly as possible, you won’t be stopping to correct grammar, fix spelling and find missing bits of info with more research. But if you write slowly, doing all of those things will become irresistible. Before you know it, you’ll convince yourself that a crappy first draft isn’t such a good idea after all.

Spending more time writing sounds like a strategy that should always pay off. Instead, it only works for editing. It’s completely ineffective for writing and is far more likely to lead to failure.

Instead of being profligate with your writing time, safeguard it and spend it only in small, regular amounts. The secret is to do it daily so that writing becomes no big deal, just something you do without thinking about it, like making your bed or brushing your teeth.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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