Composing and Revising – The Two Modes of Writing

Since I recently released the Word Counter for Mac, I have given more thought to the process of writing itself, especially since your comments on writing vs editing started to pour in. I count my words to increase my productivity as a writer. “But!”, people exclaimed, “How do you account for rewrites, deletions, and correcting grammar?” By dividing composing from revising.

All this is a natural part of finishing a text. We don’t use the perfect words in a perfect matter – instead, we humans are messy and make mistakes all the time, so we need to clean up afterwards.

I think we should aim for a clean distinction of “adding new words to a text” and “making an existing draft better”, both conceptually and pragmatically. Computer writing tends to be a very fragmented process, and getting the best of composing and revising will increase our overall productivity. This “best of both” consists in consciously choosing one or the other at any given point in time, sticking to a schedule, and getting faster at composing. In short, we need to get out of the messy working habits computer writing seems to impose on us. With some conscious effort, we can get faster at “writing as composing” and thus increase our productivity, and do the “writing as revising” later, when our focus wanes.

I can’t say anything about writing fiction, so I’ll stick to non-fiction and assume you’re a knowledge worker.

Writing on a Computer Affects the Way You Work

Are you happy with your focus when you write?

There’s a study by Luuk Van Waes and Peter Jan Schellens1 comparing writing texts using a pen with writing texts on a computer. Obviously, there’s a huge difference when it comes to editing: pen writers need to add correction marks during revisions, while computer writers can delete and rewrite what they wrote. Pen writers have to be more careful.

According to Van Waes/Schellens, computer writers tend to do a lot of their editing (80%) before they finish their first draft, but they still finish their drafts pretty fast. Per writers, on the other hand, try to finish a draft first and revise later. They need about twice the amount of time to finish their revised text compared to computer writers. I don’t know if it suffices to make corrections in the draft to call it “revised”, or if they had to put a second, clean draft on paper, based on their initial take and the revision notes. The latter would be very expensive, time-wise.

We can interpret these findings ourselves already and try to make some sense of it.

  • You could conclude that computer writing opens up the possibility to revise more easily, since it’s cheap to delete and insert words, and that we save a lot of time and money this way. That’s useful for sure.
  • You could also conclude that computer writers are suffering from a lack of focus: the study found computer writers tend to stop mid-sentence and stop more often, while pen writers finish a sentence first but pause longer.

Is it too far a stretch to say that pen writers are focussing more before they write, planning ahead and giving more thought to their words?

It doesn’t pay off to speculate whether computer writers lack focus and if a pen writers really is a better person. But if that were the case, why would so many pen writers change their mode of work when you put them in front of a computer?

So before you rush and buy a fountain pen to seemingly become more proficient at thinking and writing, try a different angle and take a pragmatic stance: is the current situation desirable? What are the tradeoffs?

Instead of jumping to universal conclusions about computer writing, think about your own writing process first and foremost:

  • Would you like to change pace and write more slowly? Or rather faster?
  • Would you like to change the way you think while writing?
  • Are you happy with your focus while you write?

I bet most of us would like more focus. In part, it’s because of the question: like most people would say “Yes” to “Would you like to be happier in life?”, most will happily accept a boost in focus. The opposite doesn’t make a lot of sense: no one wishes for her life to be worse, and no one wishes for work to be hard and messy.

If we take for granted that you and I look for a way to perform better and be more productive, how can we keep using a computer and still change the way we think and work?

The tool seems to dictate the mode of work. Knowing that, we now can consciously chose what we want to achieve.

  • We can pick a different tool for a different job: try to draft an important e-mail with pen and paper for a change of perspective, for example.
  • We can use a bit of conscious effort to change our working habits. Given computer writing is fragmenting the process of writing (and, thereby, the process thinking), it may be useful to make a habit of sticking to composing first and revising later.

When we focus on composing, we can get faster and write more. With practice, we will become better writers. Also, we’ll achieve flow more easily, thus increasing both our productivity and well-being, since the state of flow in very rewarding.

Disjoin Composing From Revising

picture of brahma
Brahma, the Hindu god associated with creation. Photo Credit: Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons. cc

Finishing a writing project isn’t just about the typing. There is composing, and there is editing. I understand composing to be additive, that is, whenever you compose, you add new stuff to your text. Editing is mostly subtractive, though. You either move existing words around or remove clutter. You re-write, but you don’t add a lot of new things.

Now we found that computer writers mix both activities a lot more than pen writers do. They do both things at the same time, and thereby waste mental energy. They switch between creative and corrective work, like switching gears. This way, they lose momentum and exhaust themselves. That’s why I recommended to Prepare Research First, Compile a Draft Second.

If I was under a tight schedule or adhere to office hours and wouldn’t be able to lock the door, I’d allocate two to three hours each day to focussed writing in general to complete my projects. I’d try to compose during the earlier hours and revise during the rest of the time available. Since editing takes so much time, I may sometimes need all three hours to make progress on a revision. That’s just the course of things. I truly hope you don’t have to struggle with too limited a time frame if you really are into writing.

Now if you have the luxury of allocating a lot of time to writing, though, find out when you are most in the mood of sitting down and typing away. Find your best composing time. In my case, this is during the morning hours. Judging from other people’s reports, it is likely that you, too, will prefer writing in the morning to writing in the early afternoon.

Today, after my usual morning routine, I sat down and began to write on this post at about 8:00 a.m. I haven’t given much thought about the happenings in the rest of the world, yet, so my mind is clear and I always seem to have fresh ideas in the morning. That’s making it easier to focus on the topic and write. After waking up, I may not the fastest thinker or worker, but I can concentrate well and dig deep.

In the evenings, I think I’m quicker than during morning hours, but I get distracted more easily or my thoughts wander off at times.

Let me eat my own dog-food: with the Word Counter I developed, I can do experiments with my writing time. I can measure how many words I can get out per hour and compare how happy I am with the resulting texts and then plan accordingly.

I like to do editing in the evening, though. I’m still well-rested but maybe feeling less creative. Also, a few hours will have passed since morning so I have a distance to the stuff I wrote earlier in the day. That way, I can do a better revision with a fresh point of view. This is how I write most of the articles on this website: compose in the mornings, and revise in one or two sittings in the evening.

In short, I suggest you think about a split schedule. Find out when you are performing best at composing to work on texts during that time, and then find out how to get better at revising so you get quicker.

I still have to collect evidence on this, but here’s my assumption: with practice, you can write crappy first drafts a lot faster without worrying about the quality at first because you know you’ll put in time for a revision later. This way, you’ll write more first drafts in less time. That’s the first 80% to finishing a text, taking only 20% of the time.

But what about the remaining 80% of time reserved for revisions? Won’t this split of activities create additional work only since the backlog of unrevised texts grows?

I have no clue how long it will take you to finish a revised text in total once you get used to the process, and whether that’s more or less than before. I bet you’ll get better at editing once you do it en bloc, but I can’t promise anything, really. I am positive, though, that you’ll write more and more, because you use your most precious writing hours for composing only.

What’s having a lot of crappy texts good for?

For one, these crappy first drafts will have helped you form thoughts clearly, since writing is necessary to thinking coherently. If you let this writing energy feed back into your Zettelkasten, you’ll end up having learned a lot of new stuff and stored it in external long-term memory, that is, your note archive. Since your Zettel notes are meant for your eyes only, it doesn’t matter if they aren’t very well-crafted.

That said, I like to keep up a certain level of quality in my notes. It’s quicker to clean up and make sense of a couple of 300 to 800 word note than to revise a single text worth thousands of words, probably because you don’t have to keep as much context in the back of your head.

Since your notes may be part of the outline of a future text, putting in at least some effort to clean up now may save you time later. If you re-use your notes quite a lot, having clean notes at hand instead of mere thought fragments without any order pays off easily.


If you sell your stuff, you can sell only what’s truly finished. It doesn’t make sense to glue together a crappy first draft and leave it that way. But there’s always the option to spend some time for content revisions only, and hire someone else to proof-read the remainder. This way, an author with 10 first drafts in the drawer and someone to help revising the text can advance far more quickly than someone doing it all by herself. It may not be an option for everyone, but delegating revising the language and grammar to someone else can pay off if you make a living off of your writing: getting the next draft done will be doing more good to you than spell-checking another text yourself.

I have worked with Jason Rehmus at SweatingCommas.com in the past and found his rates reasonable.

Writing is made up of composing and revising (and thinking, of course). Splitting these two activities may change the way you work. You’ll get into writer’s flow more easily and compose more texts because your mind is at rest: you know you will worry about editing later. Planning activities this way is the opposite of deferring until procrastination. It makes your work easier.

You will need a good system to accommodate. A Zettelkasten is a good fit: you can think and compose Zettel notes, thereby working on text fragments for your draft. Your activities can be less fragmented because you draft in a flexible way.

In the end, you can only count the amount of words you write. Composing is measurable, and tools can help you accomplish more. In the aforementioned comments, I suggested tracking “revised sections vs. sections left” to get a feel for the progress, taking into account the amount of time it took to complete each section. This could give you a very rough estimate of the total workload still ahead. I have yet to test this myself and evaluate, but I’ll keep you posted.

  1. Luuk Van Waes and Peter Jan Schellens (2003): Writing profiles. the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers, Journal of Pragmatics 6, 2003, Vol. 35, S. 829 - 853. Also see “Typing vs. Longhand: Does it Affect Your Writing?”