James Hayton

Is “Just Get Words Down” Good Advice When You’re Struggling to Write?

When you’re struggling to get an essay written, should you just write whatever comes into your head? Does the advice to write first and think later really help?

James Hayton isn’t a fan.

My main issue with chucking out words in a rush is when there is a lack of context. Freedom to write anything in a quick burst has a time and a place.

When you’re faced with a blank page, you may be tempted to start writing, no matter what the outcome.

Free writing can work out, but there are caveats:

  • It depends on what you do before and after the free writing – Just like an all-nighter only allows a single draft with simultaneous editing (if you have the time for that at all!), rattling off an essay in a flash without giving it much further attention is a mistake. Rapid writing of a first draft (or any piece of text) should only ever be considered a rough start. If you lose the drive to work with the text after your initial approach, rapid writing is not for you.
  • If you don’t have enough understanding or knowledge beforehand, the rapid writing won’t help – You need to be clued up on the subject you’re writing about. A lack of plan means a lack of content, no matter how quickly or slowly you choose to write.
    If I had to write an essay on the fifteen century, or astrophysics, or igneous rocks, or symbolism in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I would be crazy to blast off some random text in hope that something may work. I don’t know about these topics enough just to start writing. In fact, I’d be unhappy writing an academic text in any field straight away, even if I knew a lot about it. At best, I’d make a few brief notes on what I aim to argue alongside the points I wish to make to support the argument as well as discussion of counter arguments and potential issues that arise.
  • The individual isn’t equipped (for whatever reason) to edit the content once it’s written – This can pose a problem when half the material is rubbish or guesswork or errors or a combination of all these things. Without a clear grasp of how and why you need to edit, a bunch of text spewed out as quickly as possible is not a good place to begin.
  • Should you be writing down whatever comes to your head, or making brief notes and outlines based on what you wish to include in the work? – Preparation is key. The advice to ‘just write’ is problematic because people can assume it means to write stuff without a plan. Even a bare minimum can make a huge impact. Think before you type.

I see no problem with getting the words written down when you are confident that you have editing capabilities (and are not just looking to hit a certain number of words). Likewise, it’s no big deal when you already have a clear idea of what you want to say. As Hayton explains, the writing needs to be tight. Just one misplaced observation or assumption can drastically alter the tone, impact and clarity of your writing. However, the first draft doesn’t have to be a place for that.

Any piece of advice, no matter how popular, is not going to work for everyone. And just because ‘everyone’ does something, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Getting the words down fast shouldn’t be recommended to everyone, but I’m equally sure that it is a mistake to recommend it to no one.

What do you do?

Practice or Flawless?

I like Pat Thomson’s comments on academic writing. It’s rare to think of writing as a process you practice and fine-tune before getting the best results.

Instead, you sit down and your internal editor rushes you to be instantly perfect. Sometimes a flash of brilliance comes about straight away, but not often.

Thomson says, “We all assume that we ought to be able to just do whatever writing task comes before us”. However, she continues, “we would never assume this of music for instance”.

Anyone can play guitar... Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Anyone can play guitar… Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Writing a song may start with a few random chords or a stab at some lyrics. As you go along, you get more adventurous, add better chords, change words, and pick away until you’re satisfied. On the odd occasion, a song-writer may strike up a riff out of nowhere and get a song finished in minutes. And, like with writing, that’s rare.

With music, we’re aware that you need to practice. It’s important to practice how to play an instrument and it’s important to practice as you compose new material.

Yet with writing, perfect feels possible. No, wait, perfect feels NECESSARY.


I talked about 750words a while back. 750words is one way to let a stream of writing happen without getting bogged down with the finer detail. Just get on with writing and edit later.

Writing and editing are two different things.

Writing should be practice, all the time.

Okay, it’s more difficult in an exam. But even exams are best handled with plans. Before you write your answer, it’s handy to make a few notes for preparation and getting an order.

Outside the exam setting, the writing is the practice. The editing is the crafting. The re-writing is a combination of practice and crafting.

Telling you to ‘just do it’ is useful and misleading in equal doses. Useful because you’re getting words out and the practice has started. Misleading because writing isn’t just about random words on a page.

As you practice (i.e. as you write), you should still attempt to be clear. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll only confuse yourself later.

James Hayton of 3 Month Thesis says “you aren’t doing it wrong if you’re producing work you’re happy with! You are doing it wrong if you end up with a scrambled mess of half-baked chapters to sort out later”.

The take home point is this: Just getting the words on the page is not enough. It needs to be part of your bigger picture plan. Writing is practice, and so is editing. Everything is practice until you’ve finished.

Remember, ‘finished’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’. Simply writing words doesn’t help you improve. Making use of those words and achieving clarity as you move along does.

Just write, so long as you understand why you’re writing and what you’re trying to achieve. Your inner editor will wince and scream at you, while you tell it to calm down as you’ll deal with that at a more convenient moment. That moment isn’t in a month or two, when you’ve forgotten what you were doing. However, that moment is at a different point to the writing.

Hayton calls advice to ‘just get words on the page’ as “the worst thesis writing advice ever“. That might sound harsh, but he’s right. Without context, the advice stinks. Give it context and know *why* you’re writing like that.

NOTE: I wrote this post without editing. I wanted to get the words on the page.

But…I had an idea of what I wanted to write. There was context. It may not be an academic text, but the same should apply for many types of writing. So long as there’s context!

For this post, the idea originated from reading Pat Thomson’s piece that I mentioned at the start. I considered what I wanted to talk about for a minute or two. In the process, I remembered my 750words post and looked for James Hayton’s piece on writing advice, because I thought it would fit. Thankfully, it did.

Armed with this, I started writing. It didn’t matter what words came out, because I had a purpose and I’d found enough context. The only editing was on the fly, when there was an obvious change in my head, moments after I’d typed the initial words.

I’m sure this post could be re-written and better crafted. But it took very little time and it still makes sense. That’s what I wanted to get across.

I don’t always write in this way, but it’s another way to practice. There is no single way to write and there is no perfect sentence. With that in mind, you should cut yourself some slack and enjoy the writing process. A new sense of calm may well help your writing improve. Win-win!