So lately I’ve been seeing a lot of writing advice that seems to be suggesting that if your first draft isn’t a steaming pile of absolute crap that you wouldn’t show to your dog, you’re not doing it right. “Write with abandon!” they say. “Don’t worry about the writing quality, or whether everything makes sense, or whether your grammar is any good! Just get the words down, and you can go back and fix everything later.”
Which is great if that’s what works for you. I know a lot of people have problems with staying motivated and getting through their first draft without stopping and nitpicking forever. But the problem, for me, is that I absolutely hate having to go back and fix everything later. When I’m done a first draft, I want it to be something resembling a book. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t do developmental and line edits, because I absolutely do. But by editing as I go, I mange to reduce my line edits humongously, and bring my developmental edits down from what would be catastrophically awful need-to-rewrite-three-quarters-of-the-book edits, to oh, okay, I can change this and add this and the book will be much better kind of edits.
What I’m saying is, it is absolutely possible to edit a book as you write it, and come out with something fairly clean that you’re not incredibly ashamed of. The actual process of writing the book will be harder. It will take longer, and it will be very frustrating at times. But in return, your editing after the fact will be much diminished, and you can focus on making the book even better, instead of just focusing on making it good.
So, without further ado, here are my tips of editing as you go.
1. Set measurable goals for yourself.
Obviously the number one issue with this method is the temptation to just keep editing and picking at the first chapter forever, and never move forward with the story. I’m usually incredibly impatient to get the story down anyway (“I don’t like writing, I like having written”) so I don’t have too much of a problem with this, but I do have a wordcount that I try my hardest to achieve whenever I sit down to write. Sometimes I’ll write 800 words that don’t work for the story, and in that case, I’ll scrap them, but I’ll still count those 800 words towards my daily wordcount. And then I’ll write another 1200 words. Even if it’s two steps forward, one step back, you’re still moving.
2. Edit every session.
This one is simple. Every time you sit down to write, read through what you wrote last time. Fix any grammar mistakes, awkward phrasing, etc that you see as you’re reading. Try to get a feel for how the story is flowing, what kind of pace it’s moving at, what direction it’s going, and what your instincts and/or outline (don’t be afraid to pit those two against each other either) tell you should be happening next. Then start writing, and keep going until you hit your wordcount.
3. Develop your ability to sense when something isn’t working.
I’m still working on this myself. Sometimes I’ll write up to 2000 words, the whole time completely ignoring that little nagging voice in my head that’s telling me: This isn’t right. This isn’t how the story is supposed to go. Then I’ll finish and wonder why I’m not satisfied with the day’s writing. For me, it’s essential that I listen to that voice. If I don’t, everything I write after that will be flawed. Pushing on with the knowledge that that one scene is wrong will colour everything else in the story, and when I do have to inevitably go back and fix it during edits, there will be a million other little things in the story that I’ll have to fix in order for everything to line up. Sometimes it will have changed the whole course of the story! Instead, I prefer to stop and rewrite before continuing, so that my path is clear. Unfortunately, this requires you to be really in tune with your story. It also requires a lot of patience, and a touch of perfectionism. But if you can do it, you’re saving yourself a lot of time and frustration later.
4. Don’t think this gets you out of editing later.
I know, I said it already, but I mean it. Writing like this will keep you from having to spend too much time getting your story submission-ready after you’ve finished the first draft. But you should be prepared and willing to make it even better with the help of a professional editor. And that’s a good thing. Having a professional editor is a great privilege, and listening to them and being willing to rip your book apart and put it back together for the sake of the story is incredibly rewarding. Going through and fixing all the typos and grammar mistakes you made the first time around? Not so much.
So there you have it, a peek into my writing/editing style. Let me know in the comments if you write like this too. Or if you’re the type to write without doing any editing until after, let me know how that works for you! It’s fascinating how different writing styles can be, and what works for some authors and doesn’t for others.
Thanks for reading! Oh, and have a picture of my cat. She loves to sit like this. It’s the weirdest thing.
6 thoughts on “Editing As You Write”
Oh I have to do this too. That’s why I don’t think I’d ever make it through NaNoWriMo. I need to edit as I go. Mostly because I hate the idea of the big edit, it’s overwhelming to me and if you have a huge plot issue you may end up scrapping thousands of words. No thank you. But that’s just me.
I definitely agree, I tried to do NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago, and the edits I had to go through afterwards pretty much cemented for me that I was never going to write anything so messy ever again. XD
But yeah, I can see how it could be frustrating for others to have to stop and fix things when you’re on a roll. Just my perfectionism coming into play, I suppose. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!
Haha, I have an editing post scheduled for tomorrow. Great minds think alike! As for editing as you go, I think I’ve started doing this automatically – just for line editing stuff though. Probably why my drafts are pretty clean in that regard. Editing, editing, editing.
Your first drafts are always very clean! Mine are a lot better than they used to be, mostly because my understanding of grammar has increased dramatically over the last few years. >-< But I always make dumb mistakes when I'm writing quickly, so I like to reread a lot.
Up until my latest project, I adopted the ‘muscle through the first draft, then realize that Everything Is Wrong at the end’ method. Then I started writing a romance novella – a big change of pace for me – that I wanted to submit somewhere when I was finished. That, and not having a NaNo deadline to spur me on, made me a lot more attuned to when something was going wrong, and my writing process changed. It’s been hard – the first time I rewrote during the process, I had to throw out 15k, and the second time I went wrong 5k – but I feel a lot happier with the product as a whole. Now I try to be very aware of when it seems something is going wrong, and when it is I sit down and try to pinpoint it and then outline what DOES need to happen.
I was afraid I was the only writer who did this, and that I was a freak who was Doing It Wrong.
This morning I looked back at two of my WIPs and realized I need to cut a lot of excess verbiage. One of them is complete and in the editing phase; the other is only a few pages in.
I’m glad I realized this before I got any farther on the second one.