4 Reasons Authors Shouldn’t Edit While they Write

1151807_to_doOne 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….

RELATED POSTS

Have you ever done a “baby edit”?

Breaking down content editing

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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48 responses to “4 Reasons Authors Shouldn’t Edit While they Write

  1. When I write I first draft, aside from grammar and spelling, I don’t edit at all. I find editing afterwards is a lot easier 🙂

  2. Like everything else in life, I find that it comes down to a question of balance. Sometimes I have an itch to go back and change something I know is wrong and when that itch, itself, distracts me to the point that I find myself unable to move forward, then I just stop and scratch it – and then, relieved of the distraction, move on.

    • Fantastic point there. Yes, I totally agree. When you know something is wrong and in a big way, a way that throws off the story or just sits ill with you, it is definitely better to go and fix/change it. Like you say, it’s all about balance. 🙂

      • In my case, editing becomes like the whole potato chip thing…. you can’t eat/edit just once. One writing told a group of us…and I never forgot this; SPILL YOUR GUTS, then CLEAN IT UP. Another writer said that the thing that worked for her was to take her story, once it was done, and tuck it away for a month or so. That way, when she got back to it, it was like reading someone else’s work and there was that ‘distance’ that gave her a level of objectivity that she didn’t have when she was writing and loving certain scenes and wondering about others.

        Fortunately, I’m not as bad with editing as I used to be. When I first started writing, for fun, back in grade five, my attitude was quite haughty. “EDIT??? What’s wrong with the way it is now?!” Thankfully, that attitude is no longer an issue. 🙂

  3. I try not to edit as I go along but I do go and read something I am writing from the beginning each time I begin again (next morning or whatever). Often I’ve lain awake going over the chapter(s) in my head and suddenly something pops out so it is the first thing I do when starting work; to see if I am right and something needs to be changed/improved etc. Otherwise I just go for it and then do edits after I have finished. Very interesting posts, thanks so much.

    • Glad you liked this one, Jane! I think your approach is really cool. I wish I could work like that, hehe…. I don’t have the personality to be able to read something I’ve written without tinkering with it.

      • Oh I can stoop t that too…no worries. It is hard work whatever we do. Struggling with a story this week and a deadline is looming…but you know all about that. Have a great week 🙂

  4. Was going to write about editing tonight. Thx for this really useful post! I am hampered by my mind’s continual desire to edit. Progress on my stories is slow and painful as a result.

  5. I always just get down my first draft. I used to get so tied up in editing what I wrote the day before I lost my enthusiasm for it 😀 Great post!

  6. Not sure if it counts as editing, but I always skim through what I wrote the day before to get my head back in the story. I’m always paranoid about continuity especially with a long series. I do a little clean up here if I see something that needs tightening. Sometimes when I get in that writing zone, I don’t realize my mistakes, so it can be a slight benefit to check and avoid repeating the same error. I’m thinking of this now because I had someone use water magic to turn a moat into a flying bird yesterday. Today, I remembered there were sharks in the water and they would have been killed or hurled into the audience. Oops.

    • Ooh, that’s a great fix!!! Very fun use of magic too!!!! I wish I had the strength to reread what I’d written and not get stuck on it, but it’s awesome to hear that you and a few other people benefit from rereading what you wrote the day before. I had never really been that way 🙂 It’s SO COOL how different things work for different people.

  7. I get stuck in the muck when I edit too much as I go. Then I do lose momentum. I am learning to let go.

  8. Thanks for this tip. Im new to writing and have 2 WIP born out of a free write. My Cat Memoir yes.. its a clear somewhat chronogical orderly telling and I find myself re reading and light editing as I go. My othet WIP just started on as it was born from a prompt and just going ti push foward with free write mentality and have explosive diahrreha on paper and sort it out with first formal edit.

    • Sometimes a formal edit is needed after a first draft to sort out the chaos 🙂 The chaos isn’t bad in and of itself…. I’ve learned that over time. Glad you can recognize that easier than I first did!

  9. I think my writing took the biggest leap forward when I learned how to park the left brain editor and simply allow myself to write freely. Allowing the first-draft to pour out (without going back to edit) until the full story was told, was a powerful experience. Now that I’m on draft 2-52 (smile), my left brain editor gets to take the lead. Thanks for another great post, Victoria.

  10. Great post! I totally agree. Writing and editing are two different processes. When I draft, I might add a note to myself to look at a section later. But I try not to rewrite that section then and there. Doing so interrupts the flow of the draft.

    • I love that policy of note taking. It’s so super useful…. I use it all the time 🙂 It’ s the BEST. Like you say, you don’t lose your thoughts, but you also don’t lose concentration or your “groove”

  11. Hmm… Hmm… I beg to differ. I usually edit while I work and it doesn’t limit my productivity–far from it. In fact, an hour ago I walked down to the post office and mailed my 32nd submission–since January 6th (8 submissions per month.)
    So editing while you work limits your productivity?
    Nope.

  12. I often type little quick marks like *** or (chk), little notes that I can type quickly without interrupting my rhythm, but where I want to remind my future self there was something there that I wanted to examine (and I don’t trust my future self enough; yes, we have issues). 🙂

  13. I so needed to read this post! I seem to spend a lot of time going back and editing what I worked on the day before, which often happens to be the same piece I was working on the day before and the day before that… I’m also bad at popping back to fix inconsistencies when I change something further down the track. I am going to take on L. Marie and Charles’ tips.

  14. Gret post. I do some editing and note taking while I write. However the fun comes when I try to decipher the quickly written short hand bad handwritten notes. Lol oh well. That is what you get when you write long hand vs on a computer. Awesome blog.

  15. I have to disagree. I’ve tried it both ways, and it really depends on the writer. I’m a pantser — I don’t outline — and a lot of times the ideas don’t come to me in order. Yet, when I made notes for later, I ended up with ten times more revision trying to untangle what would have been fixed with a simple tweek.

    • That makes perfect, sense, Linda!!! There is DEFINITELY no “right” way to write. If rearranging and editing in process of writing works for you, then that is awesome 🙂 Nothing wrong with that at all!!!! I just know I could never write that way 🙂

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  17. Great post as usual, Victoria! I generally agree that the editing is better to do later, unless if the lightbulb goes off for me where I suddenly see how fixing something will make everything a lot better going forward. I like how you touched on not wasting time. There’s different types of editing, and it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time doing stylistic editing of your sentences or fixing grammar when that entire section may need to get cut later in a substantive edit. I like to work my way down from the bigger picture to the smaller sentences. And you can only do that once you’ve written a big chunk of your draft. 🙂

    • I totally agree, Sue!!! Thanks so much for taking the time to expand upon and support the major points I was trying to make. I feel you did it much clearer than I did! 🙂

  18. I edit while I write. I don’t understand the impulse to tell people not to. Everyone has a different writing approach, and editing while writing is no less valid than not editing while writing.
    I find that when I sit down to write I sometimes am not certain where the story should be going next. When that happens I usually start by editing what I wrote the last time I worked on it. This improves what I’d put down before and helps me refocus, get the story back in my head, and often to find out where I might have gone wrong with the story. In other words, editing while writing is usually how I resolve blocks.
    Telling someone to just keep pushing through when they know they’re writing crap, rather than going back and fixing the crap, isn’t good advice. It’s how YOU write, that’s all.

    • You are very right that no one style or approach is better than another. There are certainly people who work well and produce well editing while they write. And there certainly moments–like the example you give of being stuck–when I most definitely have, and would, go back and do some editing in order to help shake ideas loose. I don’t think I said, “keep writing crap, when you know it’s crap.” I would frame my argument more as, “When you can recognize that what you are writing has potential and you are on the right track, even when what you are writing isn’t in a perfect state, you don’t necessarily want to break momentum to fix things up here and now.” Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Gene!

  19. Guilty as charged! It is an addiction, just wrote my list of 5 things I’ll never do as a writer again, going on editing binges while writing the first draft is one of them. It’s just… Let me change that one sentence, just one more word and that’s it, three months later I’m still hacking away at the same chapter.

    I’ve taken on the practice of highlighting the crappy parts with red and then just moving on, perhaps leave notes on the idea I was trying to put down in words, but just couldn’t nail it at the time for a reason or another. So I have something to go on, when I get back to it. And sometimes I get stuck on the feeling of oh god this sucks, and end up having a writer’s block, which obviously makes it super hard to just keep going, and that’s when I might stop for a bit and do a little of editing to ease my pain.

    Today has been such a great day for learning, composition versus editing, thank you for pointing that out, one more thing that I now understand a little bit better, why my flow is better one day and then the next it just isn’t there anymore and writing feels like torture, it’s because I’ve made myself do two opposing processes at the same time, no wonder I’ve felt conflicted at times!

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