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?
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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.