Edit as you go: good or bad idea?

May 16, 2014 Writing musings 6

I recently stumbled across this blogpost by fantasy writer Victoria Grefer, which explains in very logical detail why it’s a bad idea to edit while in the middle of writing the first draft. It makes total sense: the first draft is the time to get stuff down on paper (metaphorically) while not worrying too much about whether it’s tight enough or has the emotional impact you want. The editing phase is the proper time to reread what you wrote and polish it into shape. Write it first, rewrite it later. Good advice.

Except that I do the exact opposite. Every day when I settle down for a writing session, I reread what I wrote the day before and – yes, I edit it. I tighten, I smooth, I polish, from the level of removing or rejigging entire paragraphs to changing words here and there and fixing typos. Then, when I start on the new writing, I’m quite happy to go back and rewrite an earlier section if I feel it needs doing. Need a new character three quarters of the way through the story? I’ll go back and add her into earlier chapters. Need some foreshadowing? Yep, I’ll add that in too. Need a McGuffin to get me out of a plotting hole? Back to chapter 1 and pop it into my main character’s luggage right from the start. A major confrontation not working? Scatter the seeds of it all the way through to make it inevitable.

I’m not alone in this. Mark Lawrence, author of the Broken Empire series (starting with ‘Prince of Thorns’), famously writes only one draft. He then rereads it, fixing typos and changing the odd adjective, but nothing more drastic. Then he sends it to his publisher. There will still be some rewriting to do later, driven by the publisher’s editor, but the author himself is a single-draft man.

I’m not quite at that point. My first draft isn’t so polished that I can get away with that light a revision process. With ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, I went through it once myself, then I let the good folks of Scribophile (my online critique group) loose on it, which led to major changes to the first half dozen chapters. The first chapter was rewritten from the ground up at least four times. The later chapters – not so much.

I recently dug out the first draft of my second completed novel, ‘The Fire Mages’, which has been brewing in a quiet corner of my hard drive for six months now. I had a long weekend away in the campervan, so I loaded it onto my Kindle, and read it through from start to finish. You know what? It held up pretty well. I made a short list of changes – just three logic issues which needed to be addressed, and the inevitable typos (I’m overfond of capitalising, which I then remove by a universal find-and-replace, so there are numerous oddities left behind), but there was very little to be addressed, and nothing major. One of the logic issues is only required to tie into the book I’m currently writing, and isn’t incorrect in itself.

And I really enjoyed reading it. The old adage is: write what you yourself would like to read, and I certainly seemed to have achieved that, because I found it more fun than anything else I’ve read lately. I liked the characters, the plot made sense (to me, at least!) and I laughed at my own jokes. Of course, it’s not perfect. I’m too inexperienced a writer to get it right first time. In a little while, I’ll post it to Scribophile and let the critical minds there find the real holes in it. I fully expect to rewrite the first few chapters in a major way, and the rest will need a bit of work too. But my edit-as-I-go process means that the first draft is at least readable, and hopefully won’t need a major rebuild.

I’m not saying this because I feel my way is best. For a lot of writers, particularly early in their career, the advice to get the first draft down and worry about editing later is good advice. Editing as you go is no use if it causes the entire writing process to slow down to glacial levels, or stop it altogether. Getting that book finished, in some shape or other, is the first priority. But for me, at least, editing as I go along is a positive strategy, and gives me a good, clean first draft, which only needs light revision later.

That’s the process that works for me. It won’t necessarily work for anyone else. Every author has to find their own way to get from ‘Chapter 1’ to ‘The end’, and this is a point that Victoria Grefer also makes in her blogpost. No one way is right, and for anyone who’s struggling to finish that first draft at all, the advice to hold off on the editing is solid. If you see a problem, make a note about it and then forget about it until later. But if, like me, you just can’t bear an untidy manuscript, it’s also possible to edit as you go. Whatever works.

6 Responses to “Edit as you go: good or bad idea?”

  1. Nathan Fierro

    I do the same thing, but I think it depends on writing process. For people who make a skeleton and then flesh it out, starting with an outline and elaborating on it iteratively, “don’t edit first pass” makes sense. For people who write front to back, with a clear idea of where they want to go and what they want to do but discover as they go what the path is, you need to edit as you go. Because every change alters your trajectory.

    • PaulineMRoss

      That is an excellent point. I’m a front to back discovery writer, so edit-as-you-go makes sense for me. But I can see that for anyone following an outline, it makes sense to leave it until the end.

  2. HAnthe

    I can’t remember how I wrote my first two books anymore, but for the third, I tried to write it all before doing too much editing. However, changes came as I worked on it, so now and then I paused in the forward-progress to do something like flip the point-of-view of a section or go back and add a new section earlier.

    Overall, though, I write in the morning/early afternoon, ruminate over it for several hours (usually while at the Day Job), then edit in the evening if I came up with any necessary tweaks through my ruminating. Now, having finished the full first draft, I’m doing the same thing on the rewrite — but this time I’ve unbraided the three strands of story and am r/w’ing them each separately to make sure things stay consistent.

    Then again, this is a rather large and complicated book, so if it wasn’t, I’m confident I could write and edit it at the same time.

    • PaulineMRoss

      ‘A rather large and complicated book’? Slight understatement there, no? 🙂 I’m glad I don’t write anything that complex.

      • HAnthe

        I probably have to cut 100+ pages from my text file in order to make it fit CreateSpace’s physical publishing parameters. Oh the pain and suffering… But I did it to myself. Hopefully the second half of the series won’t be as insane.

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