Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 8, 2020

In Defense of Editing as You Go

byJulie Glover

Writing process is a topic of ongoing conversation among writers, whether just starting or multi-published. Plenty of books and articles have been written and workshops and webinars held to suggest this writing process or that one, claiming it’s The Way It’s Done.

While savvy writers out there reject the one-size-fits-all message, we still have certain presumptions that we mostly swallow. One of these can be summarized as…

Write First, Edit Later

There’s no end to the advice to simply turn off your inner editor and vomit words onto the page. Just get the story down!

Consider these quotes from some truly great authors:

"Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down." ~ John Steinbeck

"Don't cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it.) Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don't even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.) Lose control. Don't think. Don't get logical. Go for the jugular." ~ Natalie Goldberg

"Simply refuse to look at anything you have written until the last page is done. Period." ~ James Frey

"Don’t get it right, just get it written." ~ James Thurber

"Write the first draft as if you’re out for a spontaneous night with a devastatingly handsome man you met abroad. Run wild, take chances, and don’t even consider the possibility that you’re making the wrong choice. Just go for it." ~ Christine J. Schmidt

Obviously, this works for many, or even most, writers. Too often, we don’t know enough about our plot and characters, and the first draft is our opportunity to discover, explore, learn, and hone our story.

If that process works for you, embrace it.

But Is It True for Everyone?

W. Somerset Maugham presumably said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

We don’t all write the same, and a process that turns out one writer’s best work could be the death of another’s work. Let’s look at four reasons why editing as you go is a terrific idea for some authors.

1. Get the Foundation Solid

You may be writing along and reach a point in the novel where you feel unmotivated, stuck, or that something’s just off. Perhaps you can’t put your finger on it, but something isn’t working the way it should.

We talk about story structure because we understand that a novel needs a decent foundation to hold up well. That includes a plot without holes, a strong character arc, a compelling antagonist, and much more. But whether you plotted or pantsed this far, you might have a kink in your structure and continuing to write scenes would be like adding more stories onto a tilted house.

Going back and fixing the problem, or editing as you go, could keep your story from needing a total renovation later.

2. Close the Pop-up Window

“Turn off your inner editor,” they say. But what if you realize something should be fixed in the last act, the last scene, or the last page and not doing so means your inner editor keeps reminding you?

Your “I need to fix that” may not go away with a note in the margin. Rather, for some it's like a pop-up window on a website that you can't get to close. It just keeps popping up.

However, if you went back and edited in the moment, your mind could settle, your inner editor could chill, and you could write forward more effectively.

3. Revise While You Reorient

Not everyone remembers where they left off writing. Some writers read what they wrote the day before, or longer, to reorient themselves. And it can be efficient to revise right then what needs changing.

Of course you don’t want to perfectly polish words that won’t end up in the final draft. But you might add setting, viscerals, character details, etc. as you go over your previous scenes and prepare for your next writing session.

4. Fix It Before You Forget It

What happens when a fresh idea comes to you about a scene you’ve already written? In the “write now, edit later” paradigm, you'd jot a note somewhere and add it in the second draft. But if you're me, you'll have forgotten just what you were thinking by the time you read that rough note.

Rather than writing a long note your forgetful self will later understand, you may as well just fix the scene. If you wait too long, you could lose that brilliant thread and be unable to weave it into the story.

Should You Edit as You Go?

I don’t know if it’s better for you to plunge straight through a first draft or edit as you go. But I previously wasted time trying to use a writing process that didn’t work for me, and I want other writers to feel free to do what works for them.

Moreover, some successful authors do edit as they go! Here are a few more quotes to consider:

“It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and write it sentence by sentence—no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I can change seven.” ~ Dorothy Parker

“I’ve been a rolling-reviser since my earliest writing, back in the Jurassic Era before computers and word processors….It is part of my process because my backbrain simply will not cooperate if it isn’t really, really sure that what I have already written is a solid foundation for whatever is currently at the leading edge of the story.”  ~ Patricia C. Wrede

“Before I start to write, the night before—I mean, when I finish work at the end of the day, I go over the pages, the page that I’ve done that day, and I mark it up. And I mark it up and leave it until the morning, and then I make the corrections in the morning, which gives me a way to start the day…” ~ Joan Didion

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times.” ~ Roald Dahl

Whatever process you adopt, you should get the book done. This post does not give you permission to spend fifteen years piddling, polishing, and perfecting a novel when you know you need to finish already. But I remain in defense of editing as you go as a perfectly acceptable process and truly valuable for many writers.

Do you write first and edit later, or do you edit as you go? Why or why not?

* * * * * *

About Julie

Julie Glover writes mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart® and is now on sale! When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


48 comments on “In Defense of Editing as You Go”

  1. I say, the only way to write a book is how YOU do it! I have a theory (unproven) that our brains already know our process, but sits giggling while we wander around, trying to figure it out.

    I'm the second type of editor. I use editing the day before's work to settle me into the story again, and then I move forward. LOVE that part of my process.

    Don't feel quite the same about the Pit of Despair (the middle) I fall into, Every. Single. Time.

    1. What Laura said...I'm right in the middle (Pit of despair) of writing my third novel. Been stuck for a while for various reasons. But trying to pull out of it.

    2. Does anyone think, "Oh, my Pit of Despair is great"? I would hope not! But I do agree that's often part of the process. At least once in every book, I feel like a complete hack who should stop writing this story. But then, it gets better, and a book emerges, and there you go.

      As for you, I know your books are awesome! ♥

  2. I like this. Seems we writers have so many "rules," and if you don't follow those rules, you're made to feel you're doing something wrong. I'd rather see them as "guidelines" and do what works for me!
    Write, revise, edit whatever is working for you on any particular day or hour or minute!

    1. Yes, I'm a firm believer in guidelines! There are a lot of great ideas out there on how to write, but ultimately it's up to the author to figure out which "rules" work for them.

  3. I feel as Laura Drake does, that different authors have different processes—and probably different books have different processes, and maybe even different sections of a book! In the book I'm just now wrapping up, for example, there were scenes that appeared to me almost "camera ready," while there were others I had to agonize and agonize over. I think we have to trust our instinct to know when we need to move on, aware that we'll have to cycle back later to a particular scene or passage that just isn't what it needs to be. I remember Kristin Hannah telling us, in a workshop, that she sometimes writes a "dummy scene" as a placeholder so she can keep the forward momentum. That said, even the ones that came easily will still need refinement ... but as Julie says so wisely, there's no iron-clad rule.

    1. Thanks, Barbara! And good point about the process changing even from book to book or scene to scene. It's okay to break even your own "rules" if it works for you!

  4. I like the process of re-reading the work done the last session before moving on. It gets the juices flowing, and I can catch errors or inconsistencies as I go. My problem is that I'm constantly stopping to do research. I have to be sure that the details I'm using really existed in the historical time period I'm writing about. And research can be an enticing labyrinth...and distraction!

    1. I love me some research too! I do have to limit how much deep-diving I do, because it can get very interesting. But sometimes it's necessary to get the scene right to stop and research a bit.

  5. I print the scene or chapter I've finished and read it in bed, making minor markups. Transcribing and fixing will be the first writing task the next day. I worry if I find something I need to fix or change I'll miss some of the related parts if I wait until the whole book is done. If I decide my character has three sisters, not one brother, I have to go back and adjust for that as soon as I've decided. I find the first full read-through after I'm done is cleaner, and it's an easier edit. Not to say there aren't days where my "fixes" are written as reminders on sticky notes on my idea board. Depends on the kind of momentum I have that session.

    1. Terry, I totally agree on having to make an adjustment, like additional siblings, sooner rather than later. Some decisions really can change the trajectory of the story for me, so I simply cannot wait. Great point!

  6. For years, I tried to force myself into writing my first draft straight through, no editing, just get the words down. But now, on this fourth one (my current WIP) I am accepting whatever I do, however I do it, and that happens to be the way it feels most natural to me, which is to edit as I go. I have much less stress in writing this story, and I'm writing faster and better than ever before. I do insist on getting words on paper everyday, I just don't feel guilty about editing those words right away.

    1. Good for you figuring that out! And I also tried to put my circle self into the square straight-through-draft hole, and it didn't fit. I was thrilled to discover successful authors write in all kinds of ways!

  7. It has helped me to be an editor for 20 years before I wrote and published my first book. I'm comfortable wearing an editor hat for "zero drafts," and can be just as tough on myself as I was on the authors I worked with. After each chunk of copy--sometimes daily, sometimes weekly--I'm able to ridicule and fix the worst of what I've done. After I finish the entire manuscript I'm able to give it a second run-through, knowing that I'll see everything slightly differently yet a third or fourth time around. By definition, early drafts get the most thorough overhauls: Organizational and other substantive problems have to be solved first. That last time through I'm a copy editor and proofreader--no less important, and the fixes are easier. Biggest downer: After finishing the print version of my first self-published book last year, l still saw changes I wanted to make. Yes, perfection had eluded me one more time!

    1. Bob, I'm also one of those who could keep editing a book for years, finding little fixes to get me closer to perfection. But of course, there's a point when it's good enough. Sounds like you have a smooth rhythm for getting your books in great shape!

  8. I have a writing partner. We meet once a month or oftener to read, edit an critique each other’s work. It’s a huge help in the writing process. When the work is finished we go over it again for a final edit. We’ve been working together for several years and it’s a huge benefit to both of us.

    1. I also have a writing partner for some of my books, and that's been a wonderful process for us to edit each other. I agree it's a huge help. There's a lot of trust involved with that, but a good partnership can turn out great books!

  9. I'd be interested to know if other memorists or personal essayists have a strong preference. I tend to "pause to reflect deeply" as I go, so I guess I'm editing before I even get words on the page! Then, every once in a while, I do a free write to see what comes up. As most of us seem to have agreed--you do you and I'll do me.

    1. "You do you"—I love that. Probably because my grown son is always saying it. ? And yes, some people do edit in their heads before the words hit the page. Which is also why a crappy first draft isn't necessarily a given either (something often heard from writers).

  10. I'm just a glutton for punishment, Julie. I do both. Editing as I go takes care of word choice, snappy dialogue, etc. Editing the whole helps with cohesion character arcs, motivation, and pacing.

  11. My brain is like a strand of individually twinkling Christmas lights. If I had just one light bulb flashing in my head, my creative process would be so much easier. But because I wasn't wired that way, I have to capture what's flashing all along that strand when it's flashing...or it vanishes, or at least hides in the dark corners until I stumble across it.

    Again, for me, with each flash of light, the story gets better. The characters become more dimensional. The dialogue speaks more clearly.

    As just about everyone ahead of me on this string has said, do what works for you so long as the result is a finished story...a story that still has plenty of tinkering ahead of it. For me, writing is one thing. Tinkering is another. God bless those authors who can do it all in one whack. I don't even strive for that. Well, maybe. Just a little.

    1. Oh, I still edit later too. But I have to edit as I write as well, so I can keep the story on track. But it sounds like you know your own path (love that twinkling lights analogy!), and it's going well for you.

  12. I'm lucky if I can keep a whole scene in my brain as I write. I work by the lapidary method: the whole necklace, beginning to end, is laid out with spacing and rough stones, to make sure it works as a whole. Then I go to each scene at a time, in order, and turn it into what it's going to be. I don't move on until it's as perfect as I can make it, and that includes a final editing pass through AutoCrit, which I use to catch my habit of using the same word or phrase too many times.

    When I'm finished with a scene, and then a chapter, it goes off to my lovely beta reader. If she suggests a change or asks a question, there may be a tiny correction somewhere.

    And that's it.

    And yes, I know most writers don't work that way.

    1. That is an interesting process! Not one I've heard many use, but one other excellent writer I personally know does. It definitely works for some, and I'm glad it works for you!

      1. I also plot with Dramatica. Few novelists do, and none that I know of (it's a major screenwriting tool).

        I find the RESULTS from considering everything you can consider in Dramatica utterly amazing in what it brings out in my plotting AND characterization - and it turns out to be perfect for me, because I need consider everything one piece at a time, knowing it will hang together.

  13. The best process I've found is the one that produces a novel. What matters is the ability to adapt all the advice and meld it with your own experimentation to produce what works for you. That said, I have a basic approach, but it's never exactly the same and is always evolving. It's as if each novel demands a slight tweak to my approach.

    On the surface, I'm a vomiter, moving as fast as I can to spill the story while it's still bubbling in my internal cauldron. Yet, each morning I'll back up a little to reorient myself. Too, if I realize that at point C the story started going wrong and I'm at point E I'm going to backup. If there's too much that was off in the story the ramifications could mean all that comes later will be trashed. At the least, I have to review what's there and see if the problems are minor or major. If they're minor then a quick note will do. If they're major, then I restart, though that's extremely rare since I always work off a narrative outline.

    1. Outlining in detail definitely changes how this process can work. I like that you say it's about getting the novel done. 100% true!

  14. I'm in the Joan Didion/Laura Drake camp (and with company like that, I think I'll stay :))...I can't move forward until I've reviewed and fixed what I wrote the day before. I like the term "backbrain" and from this day forward will blame it on my backbrain!

    1. Hi, Kathleen! How lovely to see you here. ♥ I remember being amazed that you HAND-wrote novels. Just wow. But again, it's about turning out one's best book, and if it works for you, do it! 🙂

  15. I can't count how many times I've been told to turn off my internal editor, but I can't--I'm just not capable of it. I reread to get back in the flow. If something isn't right, I have to correct it NOW or I can't move on. My brain won't let me. Being a pantser, I sometimes up with new twists out of nowhere that require something to be tweaked in an earlier chapter. If I don't do it right away, I fear I'll forget and end up with a plot hole, and those kinds of thoughts keep me up at night. Best to just do it now and get a good night's sleep.

    1. Yeah, I've said that my internal editor isn't that mean, just picky. So I don't really mind her showing up. I'm with you on that one then!

  16. I've tried to write with abandon, sweeping away thoughts of misspellings, dangling prepositions, odd phrasing, and the like. That doesn't work for me at all. I can write about 2000 words and then need to go back and check my work. Between character interruptions (they can be so pesky) and my occasionally faulty memory, I have to reread the previous day's chapter to remember where the story's headed.

  17. Great article that triggers my realisation of how my 'inner editor' works during first draft. She doesn't really go away during a first draft but hovers in the shadows. Although my manuscripts evolve through various drafts and edits, I'm a plotter so that part of me knows when I've taken the wrong turning - and my 'inner editor' pulls me up. Time to reflect, maybe back-track or plot a new route.

    In fact, I usually read what I wrote previously - like the day before - and fix any glaring issues. As I use Scrivener, it's simple to have the previous scene or chapter open beside the new one - or earlier ones still. If a note/reminder doesn't feel sufficient, I fix the problem - and calm my 'inner editor' down.

    But I still need more edits and revisions.

    1. I love the way you phrase that of saying that your inner editor intervenes if you take a wrong turn. I get that entirely! Great way to look at it.

  18. I feel so seen, especially point #2

    For years I've had other authors tell me to "turn off my inner editor" but that's not how my brain works, and the couple of times I've tried to "write now, edit later" were disasters. The stories veered waaay off track and made no sense at all. I ended up scrapping them completely because trying to fix them was too daunting a task.

    I edit as I go because it helps me stay on track story-wise, helps me layer in detail as I go, and by the time I'm finished the book it only needs another one or two quick pass-overs before it goes to my editor.

    1. Oh, Jennie, I too have walked away from projects that fell apart because I was determined to follow the advice to just keep writing. What a relief not to follow that anymore but do what works for us! 🙂

  19. I don't do a full edit. I will go back and check for things, and if I see something in need of editing, I will. Sometimes it's needed for continuity.


  20. I think I'm a fusion of the two. I've got over 50 published works and generally, I edit as I reorient. Also, if something gets added to the plot, I'll either note that in the margin or go back and revise. Its just easier to do it while I'm fresh. When I'm finished with the first draft, the following drafts go much faster.

    But sometimes I'm on a tight deadline or doing Nano, and I'll just toss raw words on the page then revise, but this really isn't my favorite way of writing. I like the luxury of going through the second draft and polishing, fleshing out ideas and refining the story, rather than cleaning it up. 🙂

    1. Wow, 50 published works. Awesome! And yes, sometimes you have to change your own writing process to meet a deadline or project goal. It's ideal, though, to get to do it in the way that works best for you.

  21. Great post, Julie! I'm an edit as I go - I re-read the scene from the day before, make tweaks, and it seems (most times) to grease the wheels so I can plow on with the next scene. I definitely find editing rather than first-drafting easier, so this helps give me some confidence and momentum. I try not to re-read too far back, though, because I've learned that (for me) it's an avoidance tactic in place of writing fresh words.

    Nice to know I'm not alone!

    Hope you're doing well.

  22. Thank you for this! I recently discussed this in a writers' group, and I got back mostly "I don't know how you do it" and "But you need to learn to turn your inner editor off." This is the first thing I've ever read that validated my need to edit as I write. I struggle with diagnosed OCD, and my brain simply will not allow me to just keep going. I can spend an hour digging through a thesaurus for the perfect word, and finding it gives me a boost! But if I just jot down any ol' word, I stay fixated on it, causing anything I write after to suffer from my lack of attention to it. All I know is what I do works for me. It doesn't have to work for you, just like any other author's process doesn't have to work for me. Again, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for saying it's okay to edit as I write!

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