Sunday, November 27, 2011

Writing Advice 23—Editing

I was recently asked if a writer should edit as they go or just write the novel and then go back. I think the generally held wisdom is not to look back and just plow through to the end, but I don't entirely agree. I also don't think you should edit as you go. I think you might see why I decided to write a blog post on this. A tweet won't cut it.

Should you, or should you not, edit as you go?

The pitfall of editing as you go is that you end up like a car stuck in the mud just spinning your tires. Editing is a form of quicksand. Nothing will ever be perfect, and you can edit forever. Writers can spend a year working on the first chapter. Then the realization that there are twenty more chapters in the novel can seal the fate of a career. You can also spend three times the hours writing a book only to get half done and realize the plot won't work. If you had skipped the editing, you would have saved months. And then there's the frustration of polishing prose to a fine luster only to discover you have to cut that chapter, now all that work that you made so perfect, and all that time is lost.

So why am I not against editing until the book is done?

Two reasons. The first is that invariably you will get to a point in the writing of any novel where you hit a patch of trouble. This leads to a lack of confidence, both in the work and in your own abilities as a writer. Your mind will play tricks on you, spin you into a depression and cause you to remember everything you've written up to that point as crap. It is very easy to fall into a defeated state and just give up.

The solution to this mid-book doldrums is to go back and read the first chapter again. If you did a good job on it, you'll impress yourself right back into confidence. You'll remember what was great about this idea, and why you wanted to write it in the first place. But, it has to be good.

As a result, I always polish that first chapter as a safety net. Even if I later cut it, it served it's purpose, and that is to ensure I have something in the work that I'm proud of, something that can inspire me to keep writing.

I don't edit much more...until I reach the middle of the book. Once I pass the middle point I will go back and do one light pass—a read through really, but I make corrections as I read. Why do I do this?

When I write I don't as easily commit a story to memory as when I read one. I often forget what it is I wrote until I re-read it. I also tend to forget little things that I put in and thought could be expanded later. Furthermore, in re-reading I get ideas. I see patterns emerging that I hadn't noticed while writing. I see things I want to make certain I take advantage of.

Editing at the halfway point allows me to reorient myself, reevaluate the tone, pace and feel so that as I go ahead, I can better aline myself to conclude the book with the best possible results. It is the same as reading a book and anticipating what will come next, or how it will end. The reader will do this, so I want to do this too, and then either take the book another way, or really hit that nail hard to provide the reader with the best possible reading experience. Sometimes when you re-read you can see that the obvious best ending isn't the way you are planning to go, but because you are only at the midway point, you still have time to make it happen.

The last point of divergence from the wisdom of not editing until the book is done, is that when I sit down to commence writing, I often read over and edit the last page I wrote the day before. I do this just to get myself back into the mood to write, and to get my mind back into the same mindset—to orient my thoughts to pick up where I left off.

Aside from these however, I would advise not editing until the book is done.

Nothing is ever easy...including responding to a tweet about editing.


  1. "This leads to a lack of confidence, both in the work and in your own abilities as a writer. Your mind will play tricks on you, spin you into a depression and cause you to remember everything you've written up to that point as crap."

    I'm glad I'm not the only one. You should see my long-suffering family role their eyes when I declare that I'm a terrible writer and I'm going to give up now. LOL.

    Thanks for the post. I agree with so much of it.

    1. I'm with you. I struggle with self confidence. I feel like I'm pulling my feet through the mud some times.
      We'll get there. We just have to make sure that we don't give up.

  2. I go back and read/edit/proof what I wrote yesterday to get back into the mood I had going when I stopped. This saves a lot of editing later because I find a ton of silly mistakes that way...but not all. My books have changed at the midway point each time and the original outline goes out the window. At the end, I do half a dozen re-reads before the editor or betas get it.

    Still...errors slip through the filters. They breed when no one is looking. I swear they do.

    There are also days when a wall goes up after 500 words. I have learned to pay attention to this because it means that something earlier in the story is bothering me. On those days, I do cave in and count editing/re-writing as "writing time."

    Some authors that I know write whole books and never pay attention to the red and green squiggles. They re-read nothing until the first draft is complete. It blows my mind.

    If anyone ever invents the cure for "I suck as a writer" syndrome, they will be rich!


  3. What I found from my books is that I just love to forge ahead on rough drafts. However, I invariably come up with a really significant change that I want to incorporate. Funny you should mention it, but it seems to happen about mid-story. I go back and start over, keeping that change in mind. Then I plow ahead again, hoping to get one time through.

    Something else I've noticed is that I DO tend to write the first chapter many times, but once I get it right, then I can move quickly from there. I think establishing tone and the rhythm of the language for the piece is important to me. Also, as I'm working and reworking the first chapter, in the background all kinds of possibilities are stirring.

  4. This really clicks with me. After just doing Nano I was very ready to look back a little over half way, as I forgot what all was said and going on. I needed to refresh my memory with what I had included and what was in my notes to be included. lol. I know I still missed stuff, but that is where the rewrites come into play when I sit down with it.

    Thank you for sharing!

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