To Write Well, Let the Keys Cool Off

One of the most important elements in good writing is exactly what’s depicted in the old Doonesbury cartoon above – letting the keys cool off. In other words, walking away from your writing, and coming back later.

Writing takes an enormous amount of concentration and focus.  Putting words together, first in your head and then on a keyboard, takes a lot of energy. You have to be completely absorbed in what you’re doing, because you’re writing each sentence in your head, then reviewing it as you put it in pixels. It’s like putting your imagination in harness and telling it to start hauling a wagon full of possible ideas. As a result of this, you necessarily lose your perspective, and your judgment. To regain it, you have to step away from your work, and look at it with fresh eyes later.

I do this all day long. It’s kind of a weird dance. I’ll write 100 words, then go fold laundry. Or do the dishes. Or run some kind of little errand. Or mess around on social media. This happens over and over, all day long. Write, step away, write, step away, write, step away. Every time I return to what I’ve written, I notice something I’d missed, or realize something new about it. I have no idea why this happens. But the guy who looks at it ten minutes later, after going out to check the mail, has a slightly different perspective than the guy who wrote it, and that makes a huge difference.

These are the daily short-term stepaways. The same thing happens over longer periods of time. When something’s “finished” I’ll name it, close it, leave my desk and then open it back up in the morning. The same thing happens. Because I haven’t been thinking about it for a day, I notice all kinds of things I’d missed. These can be anything from little grammatical errors to a broader sense that the entire piece is sort of misconceived, or not in an authentic voice.

I wish I could figure out why this happens. I wish I could just sit down and pound out copy without having to stop and walk away. But I can’t. I can just report on this part of the process, which is kind of mysterious in the end. All I know is that like relationships, the process of writing needs space and distance, and adding them to your process will make the end result a lot better. Plus, the keys cool off.