Should You Edit As You Go?

Should You Edit As You Go?

Authors are passionately divided on the subject of editing as you go.

Should you write your first draft as fast as possible, dumping your creativity on the page while it’s still smoking hot, never stopping to tweak so much as a misspelled word until you’ve got it all safely down on paper?

Or should you write a little more thoughtfully, taking the time to craft your words and ideas as you go, stopping to fix problems whenever you realize something isn’t working?

Secret Miracle Novelist's HandbookThese are tough questions, and the answers, frankly, aren’t much easier. In his review (The Writer, August 2010) of The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook, Chuck Leddy presents a neat summary of the opposing views on the subject:

On the … difficult question of whether you should polish (i.e., revise) your sentences as you go along or wait until after the first draft is finished, we seem to get a different answer from each author.

Irish novelist Anne Enright says, “I work the sentences and the rhythms all the time. I can’t move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road.”

Curtis Sittenfield (Prep), however, completely disagrees: “I strongly feel that trying, in a first draft, to make every sentence shine and be perfect before moving on to the next one is a recipe for never finishing a novel.”

How to Decide if Editing as You Go Is Right for You

As with so much of writing, the answer to this little conundrum is largely dependent upon each writer’s personality and preferred working methods.

Perfectionism can be an easy trap to fall into, and far too many writers have choked themselves up—sometimes fatally—by obsessing about the mistakes in already-written chapters, instead of pushing ahead to write new material.

On the other hand, writers like Enright (and myself) get more than a little crazy if we know there’s a problem with that previous scene and we can’t go back to fix it. It’s like a splinter under a fingernail—painfully niggling until we finally pay attention to it.

The Pros and Cons of Editing As You Go

So how do you decide which tactic is best for you? Following are some pros and cons.

The Pros of Editing As You Go

Pro: Much cleaner first drafts.

Pro: A confident sense of cohesion as each piece settles into place.

The Cons of Editing As You Go

Con: Time-intensive first drafts.

Con: Sand traps of perfectionism and doubt that never allow you to move on.

The Pros and Cons of Editing After the First Draft

The Pros of Editing After the First Draft

Pro: Fast and furious first drafts.

Pro: An unfettered rush of subconscious-level creativity.

The Cons of Editing After the First Draft

Con: Messy first drafts.

Con: Uncertainty and insecurity over the worth of the storm of words on the pages behind you.

In order to decide whether you should edit as you go or not, evaluate your writing methods and decide whether perfectionism is likely to slow you down to the point your first draft will never get written.

If you can resist the siren song of obsessive perfectionism, editing as you go can allow you to spend the time to craft a cohesive and solid first draft.

However, if you feel early editing is likely to discourage your progress, ruthlessly put it off until the end of the first draft.

Either way, the happy conclusion is that whether you edit in the middle of a project or at its end is ultimately irrelevant to the quality of your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you edit as you go? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’ve been editing as I go, but I always end up getting bogged down in the details and giving up. The furtherest I’ve gotten in a first draft up until now is 54 pages.

    I recently decided to revive that one, and I’m trying not to edit as I go. I’m roughly 15 pages in and completely divergent from my outline of the original. BUT, I like this version more. It makes more sense and the action doesn’t feel rushed, the romance isn’t forced. It’s evolving much more organically and making me happy.

    I do allow myself to go back and finish misspellings, but that’s it. Anything else I spot gets marked with curly braces {} for future examination/editing/fixing.

    I’ve never edited short stories as I write, and it works for those. So far so good on a longer piece. ^_^

    <3,
    TL

  2. I tend to do some of both, depending on the story I’m writing. Often, I’ll do one edit on the material I’ve written the previous day before moving on to today’s writing. I think the key is to keep that creative energy flowing in whatever draft you are in b/c. I often end up writing new (1st draft-like) material throughout the process of writing and revising.

  3. Kinda hard to decide. I look back at my writing methods, and I’m still trying to get into my own little niche.

    At this time, I’m putting a microscope to my OUTLINE!!
    I want major problems worked out as much as possible before I start the first draft.
    Well, okay, so the third first draft…lol

    With this one, there’s so many snags! But instead of being in a sagging middle and finding it out, I’m going through all the scenarios I can think of beforehand.

    My last manuscript was a bear! I still have major disconnects in there…but had I really sat and planned, my first draft would have been much different.

    On the revising as I go? All I know is I can’t stand to see the bright, ugly red underlining beneath a word I can’t remember how to spell. I can’t stand that the person’s eyes were really blue, but I forgot…so let me just go back and change it.

    So by the way THAT sounds, I believe I’d rather fix it as I go before I end up with another bear.

    🙂

  4. @Tura: Sounds like you’ve found the method that works for you. Keep on keeping on!

    @Paul: Ultimately, the story always has to dictate the process. Some stories demand complete deviations from our normal working habits.

    @Kelly: That’s why I love outlines so much. I’d much rather have my creative writing time free to *write*, rather than fussing over story details and plot holes.

  5. I’ve found I generally write a chapter, read back and edit it where needed. it has also led to a lot of interesting character developments so far, so I’m keeping it =P

  6. I don’t generally divide my work into chapters until after the first draft is finished. My editing process tends to go: every paragraph (unless I’m really on a roll), every page, every fifty pages.

  7. Nice. Totally agree.

    I’ve found that even journaling about it helps me work out plot issues and confusing lines.

    I’m slowly transferring from a pantser to a plotter…not so bad, considering I had more trouble writing w/o a plotted plan, we’ll see pretty soon, I hope, how different things are with a plan underway.

  8. Journaling has become a permanent part of my pre-writing routine. Explaining to myself what I need to focus on in the upcoming writing session is a marvelous way to get myself focused, so that when the time comes to write, I can just write.

  9. Great rundown of both sides. I think, like you said, it comes down to that particular writer’s style.

    I have to edit as I go. As much as I’d love to bang out a draft in a month or two, I’m just not built that way. So I write slower and deal with my perfectionistic tendencies.

    So for the last book, it took me six months to finish the rough draft. But I only had to do one round of revisions before querying. It got me an agent, so I guess it worked! ALthough now I’m knee deep in the agent’s requested revisions, lol.

  10. Research and outlines aside, it usually takes me at least a year to finish that first draft. But it’s time well spent!

  11. I can’t leave a word misspelled. I do my first draft on a NEO ALPHASMART. I try to correct the spelling as I go. When I load it into my PC, I have other editing issues to deal with.

    Even if I start something on PC, I still correct the misspellings in the first draft.

    The further polishing comes later.

  12. I can’t leave a word misspelled. I do my first draft on a NEO ALPHASMART. I try to correct the spelling as I go. When I load it into my PC, I have other editing issues to deal with.

    Even if I start something on PC, I still correct the misspellings in the first draft.

    The further polishing comes later.

  13. I’ve heard good things about the NEO. Don’t know that it would be good for me, but I really like the idea of it.

  14. Pay attention to what garidon said.

  15. Yep, good advice.

  16. These days I write in longhand, partly because of a technique I’ve developed that really only works on paper. If I’m not certain about a sentence, I scribble alternate ways to phrase it in parentheses above it, leave myself a brief note to choose synonyms later on, or draw a maze of arrows and squiggles indicating how the words should be rearranged. (You can guess what some of my first drafts look like!) For bigger things I write myself notes in the margins like “More dialogue here” or “Add bit about [such and such].”

    Of course it depends on what I’m working on too. Some of my stories don’t change much between the longhand draft and the typed version, while with others, I know as I’m writing that most of it is going to be changed at some point! 🙂

  17. During the rough and ready creative stages (which, for me, take the form of an outline), I prefer the sloppy freedom of longhand writing. But when I get down to business in the first draft, I like the neatness and ease of typing directly into the computer.

  18. I work by the process of ‘Editing after Writing’. It kinda works for me. At first I wasn’t all sure of this, but now thanks to you Weliand, I’ve decided that I was correct. Thanks!

  19. I used to always edit as I went. My first drafts came out as crisp as a second or third draft. Then I met NaNoWriMo. I can’t reach that kind of goal if I stop to edit, so I rush on.

    I hate it.

    Plowing through a scene I’m not satisfied with, but can’t even stop long enough to evaluate WHY it isn’t working makes me doubt the whole direction of the novel. And passing over SPaG errors tortures my perfectionism more than just fixing the silly thing. Yes, “vomit draft” gets the words on the page, but if I toss half of them later, what good is it?

    On the other hand, NaNoWriMo does push me to keep writing, so there is that. And in the end half of 50k is still 25k words I may not have written anyway.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m a big fan of the many good things NaNo encourages writers to do, but, yes, you’ve basically just summed up why I’ve never tackled it myself. :p

  20. I have to blurt it all out first. However, the more one writes and edits, the better the next first draft becomes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true. In general, I have less to edit now than when I first started writing.

  21. Jess Elliott says

    I’m a perfectionist, not obsessively so, but enough that I have to correct typos the moment they’re made. But I save heavy rewrites and edits for after the first draft is done. The only exception to that is if I have an unexpected twist that affects previous scenes. Then I’ll go back and tidy those up before continuing forward. It’s never slowed me down, but I can see where for some it would.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, typos drive me nuts. And I have to right-click on made-up words and tell the program to “learn” them. :p

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