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One of the most important productivity tips I’ve learned is this: draft before you edit. Don’t interrupt your flow by editing as you write. Instead, treat revision as a separate stage of the writing process that involves different, more judgmental mental processes than drafting does.
One memorable take on the “draft before editing” concept was proposed by Anne Lamott in her well-known writing guide Bird by Bird. As Lamott realized, perfectionism — a tendency that includes a desire to get everything right immediately — is a major source of writer’s block. But what matters at the drafting stage is not getting things right, but rather getting words on the page.
After you understand the main idea you are trying to convey, it’s time to write what Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.”
This is not the time to edit, wordsmith, censor yourself, or go down a rabbit-hole of legal research. Your sole task at the drafting stage is to complete a first draft — however terrible that draft may be. Do not reread or revise what you’ve written until a draft is done. Just keep writing.
This principle is implemented in the creative iPad app Flowstate. In Flowstate, you set a timer for five minutes and start writing in plain text on an empty black screen. If you stop writing, the text you’ve written so far begins to disappear. The point of the app is to encourage you to keep your cursor moving and avoid editing as you go. I find the app to be very helpful in breaking through writer’s block. (Note: I cheat the system a little by periodically copying the text I’ve written — by pressing Cmd + A to select all and then Cmd + C to copy — to ensure that the app doesn’t delete it.)
Another way to break the habit of editing as you go is to imagine that your backspace and delete keys are broken, so even if you make a mistake, you have no choice but to keep your cursor moving forward.
If you try these tips, the draft you produce may indeed be shitty, but it will be done — and that is the first step toward a piece of writing that you can be proud of.
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Ryan McCarl teaches Advanced Legal Writing and researches artificial intelligence law and policy at the UCLA School of Law. He is also a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter as well as his personal blog.