The Delete Key Is Killing Your Magic

Draft first, edit later!

Stock photo model is neither drafting nor editing, simply hovering.

I’m going to write this post without hitting my good old friend backspace (expect for typos, I need that key for typos). And I’m absolutely not allowed to use the delete key at all while I’m in the drafting process. Because I’m fully convinced as of today that the delete key is the reason I’m not writing. Or, I should say, why I haven’t been writing.

Today I wrote my first new poem since May. I wrote it simply because I refused to allow the deletion of ideas. It started out as a blog post about small talk. It ended as a poem about climate change. Normally, I would have edited while typing my first draft, immediately erasing any bits of writing that cropped up as weird and wrong and misdirected.

(I think here the modifier I was actually searching for wasn’t “weird,” “wrong,” or “misdirected,” but rather “off-topic.” And now I see that “off-topic” to me stirs up words with connotations much closer to guilt and shame. This slip is my point.)

Lightbulb moment: I’m really judgy when I draft, and that’s not fair to the writing my writing could be.

Hitting delete for me is in some ways an admission of shame for the writing I’ve just written. Oh god how did that possibly come out of my brain and fingers make it stop, says the backspace. What if someone see this what if these words are the only words I have what if that idea is stupid or old or what if I just find the perfect word instead yeah I’ll bet I know the perfect word I just need to stop until it comes to me. Sound familiar?

When you start writing, you don’t yet know what you’re writing. You might know where you’d like to go. You might even know stops you’d like to make on the way. But you can really only know what you’ve started to write.

Stock photo model writes, “I will not delete while writing,” endlessly in notebook. Allegedly.

The delete key (or lack thereof) is why writing in a notebook can be so successful. Crossing out your garbage words in a notebook doesn’t truly erase them. It just blocks them from sight for a little bit. You can always dig back through the discarded language and thoughts to better understand your process and intentions. You might even salvage a few treasures.

But every backspace is an interruption of your flow and a permanent step away from a tangent your brain wanted to access. By deliberately avoiding real-time editing of first drafts, you can achieve notebook-quality drafts on a keyboard.

Picture this angry octagon the next time your finger creeps toward the delete key on a first draft. STOP!

I’m not saying, “Never hit delete while drafting,” and I’m definitely not saying, “Don’t edit.” (Edit. Please, edit.) But if you’re having trouble producing a first draft, now is a great chance to remind yourself that a first draft is just that — the first. There will be others. Many others. Those are the ones that help your fingers wear down the letters on that delete key.

For now, just open up a blank document and hit any key but delete.