My bad: How I gave my writers “editing guilt”

I was raised a Catholic, so “guilt” is practically my middle name. But I hadn’t intended to spread it to the folks in my first 5×15 Writing Challenge. Yet there it was—what I can only call “editing guilt.” And it was all my fault.

Cue the wavy focus of a flashback, please.

I’d kicked off the challenge with a webinar packed full of what I hoped would be useful advice. “Tips for Courageous Writing,” I called them. #3 was, with apologies to Nike, “Do it.”

“Just write. Don’t edit—You can make time for that later.

Don’t judge. Don’t judge your work and don’t judge yourself.

Once you set your timer, there’s only one thing you need to do for the next 15 minutes. Write. That’s it.”

I didn't mean to induce editing guilt. Erasers can be your friends.It’s not that I didn’t want people to edit ever. I just didn’t want them to spend 10 of their 15 minutes polishing what they’d written during the first five.

I wanted them to sit the judgmental part of their minds in the corner for 15 minutes and just let the words flow. For some of them, this daily practice would be a new experience. I wanted them to see it as an opportunity to create, not a chance to criticize.

“Editing guilt” rears its ugly head

They were amazing, my Challenge participants. All but two of the writers who began the challenge finished it. That astonished me. And many of them kept writing, posting their work in our private Facebook group.

That’s when the editing guilt showed up. One of the writers posted a sheepish disclaimer. Something like, “I didn’t write today. I edited instead. I’m sorry, but it needed to be done.” To be honest, I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t.

Somehow I had put the fear of the Delete Key into these poor people. So let me set the record straight:

Every writer edits—every good writer, anyway. It’s an essential part of the creative process.

“Rewriting is what I do best as a writer.”— John Irving

But before you can rewrite, you have to write. So until you’ve got a finished first draft, be careful of how much time you spend editing. Having a perfect opening paragraph will not help you if you never write the closing one.

So edit, by all means. Just try to avoid taking one step forward and two steps back. Write, write, and write some more before you edit. I generally wait until I’ve finished the entire draft, unless I’ve decided I’m seriously off course. If you’re writing a book, you probably can’t wait that long. But finish a chapter first.

And if you want to experience the thrill of the 5-day writing challenge for yourself, you’re in luck: we’ve got another one starting January 23rd. Write for 15 minutes a day, for five days in a row, and I donate your $15 registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit, Room to Read. And this time, I promise, no guilt.

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