Here’s the one crucial thing you must do before you write

It’s not sharpening your pencils, nor changing the typewriter ribbon, nor even cleaning pretzel crumbs off your keyboard. Hint: It could involve taking a walk or, possibly, grooming Fido.


Here are the mistakes most writers make:

  • They use passive voice too much, hiding the “actor” of the sentence. (For example, “Mistakes were made.”)
  • They feel guilty if they don’t spend at least three hours a day writing.
  • They believe they can’t accomplish any writing in 15 minutes.
  • They figure out what they want to say by writing.

Each of those mistakes deserves its own column, but today let’s talk about the downside of the last one—writing to figure out what you want to say. Here’s why it’s a bad idea: Thinking while you write creates too much work.

Of course, we all need to think—a little bit—while we write, otherwise, how would we get any words down on paper (or the screen)? However, starting to write before you spend some dedicated time thinking is only going to create way too much work for you.

Crunching the numbers

If you’re working on a paper (or a book chapter) of 8,000 words and you write at a rate of 300 words an hour—which is what many academic clients tell me is their speed—it will take you almost 27 hours to write the first draft.

Let’s imagine you don’t know what you want to say. Instead, your plan is to start writing and figure it out as you go. The inevitable result? You’ll probably have to write 2,000 words (or perhaps even more) to figure out your point. That’s an addition of almost seven hours of writing time alone. Who would sign up for seven unnecessary hours of work?

Even worse, however, is the mindset you’ll have to adopt for this sort of writing.

Picture yourself staring at your blank computer screen until beads of blood form on your forehead. This is no way to write. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant and will only make you procrastinate in the future, costing you even more time.

What you should do instead

Instead of thinking on paper, plan some dedicated thinking time away from your desk. (You can take notes, look up references and check citations later on.) Go for a walk and think about what you’ve read and what you want to say. Your ideas are the most important part of your writing.

Our brains work better when we’re moving, which is why I write on a treadmill. Before acquiring that device, I’d go for a walk in my neighborhood before writing. Let the fresh air and scenery energize you.

If you don’t like walking, you can do something else: running, cycling, swimming, house cleaning, cooking, whatever. One client thought about her writing when she groomed her dog.

What you do doesn’t matter. Just get away from your desk.

I ponder as I wander

Removing the pressure of writing will help your brain move into its diffuse mode, a term coined by engineering professor and Coursera teacher Barbara Oakley. In this diffuse, day-dreamy mode your brain will be free to wander, to ponder, to reflect and to make new connections.

Many clients worry about losing or forgetting their best ideas if they’re away from their desks.

If your idea is groundbreaking, you’re not going to forget it—especially if you get it down in writing right after your walk.

Still worried? Bring along your cell phone, so you can record a reminder.

Do one thing at a time. When you are researching, research. When you are thinking, think. And when you are writing, write.

Here is what writer Michael Harris, author of “Solitude,” has to say about what happens when we try to avoid the single-tasking approach: “We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But, in reality, we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.”

A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach.

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