I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising: Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language. This is a great policy—in the abstract. If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing is it. And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.
But in reality writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the start. On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next. While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it as it poses far too many opportunities for a new writer to get stuck. Most of us grow attached to sentences we’ve polished and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded. It’s hard to fundamentally restructure an entire book or to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write when all the sentences are beautiful.
On the other extreme are blessedly sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten their prose. I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead. Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can arrive later. When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s easier to play with the large elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…
Most writers fall between these two extremes. We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices. Luckily, language is quirky; just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can also unlock material. An accurate description can reveal to the writer a character’s nature or the truth about a memory. Precision in word choice can expose new ideas worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.
We don’t always know which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing. Only much later will we discover which passages are germane—which is why it’s always wise to keep a repository for cut passages. Generally, though, staying alert to our motives keeps us on track. Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content? If so, our work with language reveals the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on. Is our struggle with language about presenting material to the reader? If so, consider tackling this work later. Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.