One thing I think all writers struggle with is the impulse to stop in the middle of writing a draft, chapter, or scene, in order to reread and to edit some portion of the material. This is definitely something I discuss in my writer’s handbook, “Writing for You,” but as I work on preparing second editions of my Herezoth trilogy, I have been doing some heavy editing, and I feel inclined to write about this topic here on the blog.
Now, we will all (to some extent) fix things, change things, correct things, and “edit” while we write a first draft. It is just human nature, and the impulse can be healthy and productive: when kept in check. That is the key.
Here are five reasons it can help you not to stop to edit while you’re composing a first draft.
1. THE IMPULSE TO EDIT IS HARD TO KEEP AT BAY.
Assuming that you share my perfectionistic tendencies—and that IS a vast assumption, though I think most writers tend to be perfectionists to a greater or lesser extent—stopping to edit “one paragraph” or “one scene” is a slippery slope.
Editing, correcting—“perfecting”—can become a bit like a drug. A bit like an addiction. You get to the point where you write a scene, and you can’t bring yourself to move forward unless you’ve edited it. Fixed it.
This is a huge problem and a huge waste of time. You know why? Generally, a read-through of the first draft comes after a first draft. And during that read-through, you realize you have a lot of fluff thrown in your novel. Sometimes entire scenes you can easily delete, and your novel will be better for the cut.
Do you really want to have to talk to yourself into making that cut, which will only be harder because you’ve taken unnecessary time to edit the passage? Because you’ve invested more into it than you needed to?
2. EDIT REQUIRES READING YOUR WORK. AND THAT ALWAYS MEANS OPENING A CAN OF WORMS.
I’m talking a huge can of slimy, confidence-sucking, doubt-inducing worms. And who needs that? It’s necessary, of course, to confront and strengthen the weaknesses of your style and fix things that need correcting in your story. But the middle of composing your first draft isn’t the moment. That’s because….
3. WRITING AND EDITING ARE, AT HEART, CONFLICTING AND OPPOSED PROCESSES.
Composition, as the very word implies, is creative and constructive. It involves building up. Crafting new things, new characters, new worlds. It requires an expansive view, a focus on story, on the “big picture.”
Editing is destructive. It involves deletion and erasure. It means breaking your story down into its component parts to figure out if you could maybe arrange things in a better way. It means focusing on minute detail and on the “little things,” often at the expense of maintaining a panoramic view.
This contrast between how you approach your work while editing and writing means it is insanely easy to lose momentum and focus when you shift between the two rapidly and consistently during the act of writing a first draft.
4. EDITING WHILE YOU WRITE MAKES YOU LESS PRODUCTIVE
Now, I’ve never focused too much on my daily word count. And I’ve written an entire post about why that it is. I don’t think it’s overly healthy, stimulating or encouraging to obsess about “how many words I wrote today” or “how many words I NEED to get down on the page before I do this or that.”
That said, what is going to make you feel more confident, accomplished, and productive at the end of day:
- realizing you wrote three thousand words, words that you got really caught up in and enthralled with, even if you know some of the scene could be tighter
- realizing that three or four hours of toiling yielded you only a thousand words you still aren’t sure you like, because you tinkered with them four or five different times and arranged things four or five different ways and nothing feels quite right
The second option, right? Yeah…. I didn’t think so.
That’s not to say you can’t ever edit as you write, or that there aren’t some writers who find success and feel fulfilled with a personal process that combines writing and editing to a great extent: or at least a larger extent than what I propose and what works for me.
If you are one of those writers, more power to you! My point is simply that, for most people, separating the writing and editing processes makes more sense than trying to do too much at once.
That leads to frustration, doubt, and definitely headaches. Oh, the headaches….
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
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