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Why You Should Edit As You Write Your Book.


Most writers and editors suggest that authors wait to edit their book until they finish their first draft. In last week's post, I did exactly the same, only to hypocritically turn around today and list why you shouldn't. What can I say? Writing is complicated. Editing more so.

Don't edit as you write is excellent advice. Advice that I found almost impossible to follow. And when I did follow it while writing my second book, it went very, very badly. Very.

I've tried both approaches to writing and editing. Editing, as I wrote, was an endeavor in frustration. It took forever, but it resulted in a 120 000 word manuscript that is in its final edit as we speak. And I've vomited a first draft together with only the bare minimum of editing—I couldn't resist doing SOME editing as I wrote.

Writing Is The Fun Part—For Me Anyway, Editing Kind Of Sucks

There are aspects to editing that I enjoy, the neatening and the tightening, the satisfaction that I get from turning something mediocre into something that is, dare I say, kind of good. But if you find the bulk of editing to be pure torture. If I write and edit simultaneously, I am more likely to move forward with my book. Get things done by taking the good with the bad. If I only do the fun parts, I'll never get around to doing the more difficult parts—like editing. I need to take the rough with the smooth.

Not editing as I wrote was MUCH easier. I thought it was going so much smoother because my plotline was simpler, I wasn't torturing myself with edits, and this was my second book—old hat instead of something new that I had never done before. I speed-wrote 60 000 words of a new book in a tenth of the time it took to write my first. The result of my new approach is a 60 000 word garbage pile that needs an ending and a massive amount of editing. It's been sitting in a file, moldering for months. I don't want to edit it—I'm beginning to think I never will. I recently printed it in an attempt to kick start the editing process—it turns out there is nothing more terrifying than a 300-page stack of first draft that the printing guy tells you is too thick to staple. When I finally started reading it, I found, to my horror that it is trash, hot garbage that would need a complete rehaul to be readable, let alone good. Now I'm sad.

Of course, all our brains work differently, and what works for me might leave you weeping over your keyboard. Here are the pros and cons of editing your book as you write. I'll be as objective as possible, but I'm mostly human, so there will be some bias.

1. It Can Be Depressing To Read Your (Currently) Garbage, Unedited Draft Book

Unedited writing is, by its nature, messy. It can be soul-destroying for the author to read. Sometimes reading writing that hasn't been edited and is in it's (temporarily) garbage first draft crushes motivation.

2. Leaving Major Edits Till After The First Draft Is Complete Can Result In A Snowballing Of Errors.

I can't be the only writer who needs to reread earlier chapters to inform the writing for later writing. The problem is that while I read Chapter 2 so I can write Chapter 12, I might forget that Chapter 2 requires a rewrite, a small change, or a significant change. Changes that I still need to implement. In my ignorance, I might write chapter 12 based on a shaky or flat-out wrong foundation.

If I am lucky enough to find a notation that lets me know that I intend to edit Chapter 2, it might not be all that informative. "Chapter 2 sucks, rewrite so it sucks less" will not make for a happy Chapter 12. Not all edits are minor, some are big, and they need to be written now, not later. Even more significant changes, like a POV switch from First person POV to Third Person POV, will be harder to change in the last chapter than in the first.

3. Reading An Unedited First Draft Can Hamper Writing Motivation

There are many reasons why you should revisit your writing, including reasons outside of editing. Rereading existing parts of your story can reorientate you back into the narrative, character personalities, and writing style.

Reading earlier writing that hasn't been edited can be incredibly depressing and demotivating. We want our reaction to our writing to be the positive, uplifting version of "Wow, did I write this?" Not the negative, why do I bother trying version of "Wow, did I write this?"

I could use an adverb to describe the differences between those sentences, couldn't I? See, adverbs aren't all bad.

4. Editing As You Go, Keeps Your Writing Clean And Manageable

Editing as you go helps to keep the story clean and manageable. Navigating all those words and chapters can be daunting, and the cleaner the book is, the easier it is. First drafts will be messy, but editing as you go limits some of the chaos.

5. The First Draft Editing Process Can Be Overwhelming

Leaving too many edits until the end can overwhelm the editing process. Finishing your first draft is undoubtedly an important step, but you have so much left to do after that. The stronger the first draft, the simpler the next steps will be.

6. Editing Is A Good Way To Stay Productive If You're In A Writing Slump

I like to edit when I don't have anything else to do. Maybe my writing isn't flowing smoothly today, or I'm wrestling with a plot problem. Doing some editing lets me get something done, even on bad writing days. If it's a bad writing day, I can do simple stuff like grammar, formatting, continuity, and spelling errors. If a plot problem leaves me with nothing to write, I can turn to larger edits and rewrite Chapter 2 so it sucks less.

7. Editing As You Go Gives You The Space To Course Correct Small Problems Before They Become Massive Issues

Sometimes, when we leave a scene to be improved during the first big edit, we can miss larger problems in writing, story structure, or characters. The scene might be challenging to write because it's missing the foundation to support it. It might be that it is beyond our writing capabilities. Or the writing may not work because the scene doesn't make sense in the story's larger context. This can be devasting when the problem is left to fester, only to be discovered when it's too late to fully course correct.

Sometimes our belief in our writing ability doesn't match reality (sad but true). Leaving a poorly written scene to be fixed in a later edit can exacerbate that problem. Believing that you can rewrite it better is very different from actually doing it, and sometimes larger issues can be put off until it's too late to course correct.

8. Not Editing Is An Excuse To Complete Word Count Goals

Leaving editing till last seems too often be a way of getting to 'goal word counts' with a minimum of fuss. The quality of those words becomes a secondary consideration in a quest to complete daily writing goals. The quality of the words is more important than the quantity.

9. Inspired Ideas Have A Limited Shelf Life

Keeping notes and reminders of smaller edits (like re-naming a house) is great, but it doesn't work as well with larger ideas. In my experience, excitement and inspiration have a limited shelf life. When I made a note of an idea and then tried to implement it three weeks later, the idea was dead, it bored me to tears, and I never wanted to see it again. And that wasn't because the idea was bad. It was because I had lost my enthusiasm for it. I find that even thinking about an idea too much can kill it. Talking about it out loud is a death knell. If a new idea inspires you, write it when you feel inspired.

10. Taking A Break From Writing By Editing

I find just writing to be a bit much; it's one of the reasons I draw the pictures for my blog—to give myself a break from being a full-time writer. While editing is first-cousin to writing, it is different, and it gives you a break from writing. While you engage the editing side of your brain, the creative side can figure out plot problems or take a breather.

So What's A Writer To Do? Edit As You Go, Or Leave It Till Your First Draft Is Complete? The Answer Might Be Somewhere In The Middle.

It isn't easy, and everyone is different. My advice would be to acknowledge that both paths have their difficulties and their benefits. There is no smooth path to pick from. Editing has a steep learning curve. You'll need to find what works best for you, and what works for you might not work for me. Cos we're all special snowflakes.

For myself, I think it's best to edit as you go, but keep it light, don't go into heavy line-by-line edits. Focus on the bigger picture, and leave grammar and punctuation for later. I.e., try not to waste your time. As I mentioned earlier, you might, are likely even, to delete swarths of your writing, so I recommend that you edit precisely to the point where deleting your writing would be too painful to bear. Keep your writing neat and tidy, well written enough that you can read it without cringing but don't waste your life away on editing, and don't let it get in the way of finishing your book.


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