02 July 2016

Edit As You Go?

As I mentioned in my column on defining mysteries a couple of weeks ago, there are a lot of questions that always come up when writers get together--and some of the answers depend not so much on knowledge or experience but on the individual quirks of individual writers. Some of our methods and practices seem to be done or not done simply because that's the way our brains are wired, like whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube or the middle, or whether we're always early to appointments or always late, or whether we prefer to unroll the T.P. from the front of the roll or from the back. For writers, one of those questions is do you edit as you go. or do you edit only after the first draft?

Some authors feel it's necessary to make each page (or each paragraph) as perfect as it can possibly be before proceeding to the next; others don't worry much about rewriting or refining until the entire piece is complete, whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel. (NOTE: I'll concentrate mostly on shorts here because that's mostly what I write, but the process can apply to longer works as well.)

For the record, I fall into the second group. My first drafts of a project are not only first drafts, they're rough drafts. And I mean really rough. In my first drafts, I don't worry about style (grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, spelling, capitalization, word choice, word usage) at all. I just write down a stream-of-consciousness summary of the story, sometimes plugging in place-holders like D for detective, K for killer, V1 for first victim, LND for lady next door, etc., and laying out the plot from start to finish. Then I go back and start rewriting and polishing and assigning names and personalities. I've often said that if I'm run over by a truck, anybody who later finds one of my first drafts would think I'd lost my mind, because those yet-to-be-edited works-in-process are truly unreadable to anyone but me.

Again, though, many writers I know choose not to postpone the task of editing. They go ahead and edit their current output, whether it's a hundred words or five thousand, in order to be ready for the next day's work. Some even edit their sentences and paragraphs as they create them. One writer friend of mine is so efficient at doing that, she says that when she's completed editing the final page of her book, she's done. There's no need to do any more editing on anything. I can only imagine that, and in fact I'm in awe of those who can do it. And--for most of us at least--I'm not sure that's the best approach.

My reason is simple. If I did that, if I studied and corrected the words or pages I've completed today
and kept on editing until they're as perfect as I can make them before proceeding, and if I continued to do that day after day . . . what would happen if I suddenly decided, later on in the project, that I need to add something to the plotline, or take something out, or otherwise change the flow of the narrative? I'll tell you what would happen: I'd have to go back and rewrite what I've already rewritten. And I'd wind up wasting a great deal of time. (I should mention here that I use the same edit-only-after-the-first-draft process for nonfiction pieces as well; in fact that's the way I wrote this column. I typed some overall points I wanted to make, all the way to the end, and when all that was finished I went back and tried to fine-tune everything until (hopefully) it made sense.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I know because if you were telling me this, it's what I would be thinking. I would be thinking, If you find you're having to go back into the story and correct so many things, structurewise, maybe you should plan a little more carefully before you start, and then you wouldn't have to backtrack and change things so much. And that'd be good advice, if it worked. For me it doesn't always work. I do plan, and pretty carefully, before I start. Matter of fact, as I've said before at this blog, I'm an outliner rather than a seat-of-the-pantser. I try to map things out all the way from the opening to the ending, at least in my head, before I begin writing. But (which might mean I'm not very good at it) I do often find, during the heat of battle, that I want to improve something or introduce another character, or maybe even change the POV--and when that happens I go back into the story and insert, remove, or rearrange words, phrases, paragraphs, or pages. And when I do that, I don't want to have already edited that part of the story to the degree that I'm satisfied with it. I want instead to plug in the new material and/or remove the old and only then do my final editing. But that's just me.

My edit-as-you-go pals tell me there are several advantages to their way of doing things. One is the fact that (as I've already mentioned) when you're done, you're done. If you're finished, and you've competently edited your work after each page all along the way, let's say, then your story is now complete--no extensive rewriting is required. Another advantage is that you might feel a little more enthused about starting the next day's writing if the previous day's is already edited and near-perfect. And a third reason, I guess, is that if you are constantly editing, improving, and correcting, nonstop, then maybe you're staying sharp(er) and consistently doing what will turn out to be a better job in the end.

I can see that. I can understand those reasons. But I still can't, and won't, do it that way. To me, the advantage of first putting the entire rough story down on paper (or onto your hard drive) is that when that's been accomplished, the hard, creative, most important work is already done. All that's left is the playing around and the polishing, and I'm one of those weird purple who actually likes to rewrite. I like to adjust and refine and tweak a story and try to make it shine--and I'm not at all put off or bored by that process, or by doing it all at one swoop. But I can see that some writers are. To each his own.

A couple more opinions. In a review published in The Writer several years ago, Chuck Leddy wrote: "Irish novelist Anne Enright says, 'I work the sentences and the rhythms all the time. I can't move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road.' Curtis Sittenfield, however, completely disagrees: 'I strongly feel that trying, in a first draft, to make every sentence shine and be perfect before moving on to the next one is a recipe for never finishing a novel.'"

Which brings up the inevitable questions: Do you prefer to edit your manuscripts as you go? Or do you like to write it all down first, warts and all, and then do the editing? Does it depend on the category (or the length) of the manuscript--short/long, fiction/non? Do you see a distinct advantage to either approach? Do you think the preference is by choice, or that it's already ingrained in our DNA?

And the best question of all: If the final product is good . . . does it really matter?


  1. I'm a pantster, John. My early drafts are very rough and I do very little editing as I go along. If I did I'd be stuck on one page -- or one sentence -- for the rest of my life. I try to get a finished draft, no matter how rough, and then go back and hone and hone and hone.

  2. I think the best choice is what works for you.

    I edit as I go but that doesn't mean I don't sometimes have to chuck the first half dozen pages and do major rewrites.

  3. I edit as I go, too, but that doesn't mean I haven't had to start all over again. And I think you should do whatever works for you. Period. About just about everything.

  4. I'm a "middle-of-the-roader". I usually edit as I go, but sometimes (far too often) I realize I have started to "drill down into" a specific paragraph in a way that's bordering on compulsive. When that happens, I throw the editing aside and just let fly for as many pages as I can. That seems to break things up and restore a better balance. But, you know, maybe I just have a neurological glitch. :-)

  5. It does matter to an individual writer, but not in the sense of a universal rule. As you might guess from my background, I’m a planner but I think of myself as a fast writer but a slow (re)editor. I’ll write as words pour out and only occasionally when a nagging error pops into my consciousness will I edit it. Normally I get the story down and then comb and recomb it for errors.

    Mickey Spillane claims to have written perfect final drafts every time. I suspect there’s a hand behind the curtain we don’t see.

    I hadn’t heard of the V1/LND (SOB?) approach, but obviously it works well for you. Maybe it’s a raw draft instead of a rough draft, but it’s a marvelous style for you.

  6. Thanks, all, for your comments. We just arrived home from a week-long out-of-town trip and I'm only just checking in, but I appreciate your views.

    Paul and Leigh, it sounds as if your approaches come closest to my own. And again, I don't do it that way because I think it's the best way--I do it because it's the only way that seems to work for me.

    Leigh, I too have trouble believing Spillane's claim. If it's true, though, more power to him.

    Janice and Eve, I admire you both for being able to edit as you proceed through the story--I wish I were able to do it that way. I also agree with you both in that whatever works, works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    Anonymous, it sounds as if you're able to use the best parts of both methods. And as writers, I think all of us have neurological glitches. To put it mildly.

  7. I enjoyed your post, John. Like you, I usually plan a lot--my notes about a story often end up being longer than the story itself. And I try not to edit as I go, but sometimes I just have to. There's still too much of the English teacher in me to let a truly ghastly sentence stand--I love Anne Enright's simile. And if I realize the plot's going to take an unexpected turn, I have to go back and make the necessary changes before I can go forward. But I don't try to make everything perfect while I'm drafting (at least, I try not to try), and I enjoy revising and editing once the first draft is done. I also use something similar to your system of using letters before you've settled on characters' names: Killers tend to be named Kevin or Kathy in my first drafts, and victims tend to be named Vince or Vicky. In the end, we'd probably all agree that there's no one right way, and writers have to do whatever works for them.

  8. I'm a seat of a pants writer. But often at the end of the writing time I'll print out a page and do a bit of editing. Not necessarily making each paragraph perfect. Just a go-over and change a word or delete a paragraph. Then when the story or novel is finished I edit and rewrite and polish. And it definately has to be what works for you, Bob Crais says for a novel he writes a 60 to 70 page outline, then writes the book. If I do that or if I write a long synopsis or even a short one then I can't write the book or story. It's like I've told myself the story and now its over and done. AND the same thing happens if I talk too much to others about the story.
    I don't know the truth about Mjckey Spilane but I know what Isaac Asimov said about himself. That he makes each page perfect before he goes on and that he never does rewrites. But many people claim that he has a basement full of minkeys on typewriters churning out books and storues for him,he was so profilic.

    1. Got in to big a hurry and the last sentence needs editing.** basement full of monkeys
      **books and stories for him, he was so prolific.

  9. Thanks for your views, Bonnie. If I were better at coming up with good character names, I probably wouldn't have to use those "place-holders" instead, but it comes in handy for me. Afterward, I try hard to create names that really "work" for those characters. In any of this, as you said, we have to use whatever process makes us feel comfortable.

  10. Jan, I hope that IS true, of both Spillane and Asimov, because I like to believe there are writers who can do that kind of thing. I know I couldn't.

    I am definitely not a seat-of-the-pantser. As mentioned, I have to (like Leigh) plan everything out beforehand, and strangely enough, that doesn't diminish the fun (for me) of then putting the story on paper. I agree with you on one thing, though: I do NOT like to talk with anyone about a story before it's complete. I never, ever, do that.

    It is indeed a crazy occupation.

  11. Jan, I was wondering if I needed to get a basement full of those minkeys. I need all the help I can get.

  12. My approach varies between genres. Genres in which I am comfortable--confessions, for example--tend to be one draft, a proofread, and done.

    Crime fiction and other genres where clues and/or intricate plots must be worked out tend to involve more effort. The first draft is as clean as I can make it, but I may have to go back and rearrange scenes, add scenes, improve clarity, etc., so that everything makes sense.

    Fantasy, which I've been trying to write again after many years away from it, seems to be hardest of all. The first pass is just trying to work out all the plot points and establish the parameters of the fantasy world. The next pass involves more detailed creation of scenes, and subsequent passes (and lately there have been many subsequent passes) involve getting the right words in the right places.

    One thing that is common to most stories though, is this: I almost always write the first scene blind. That moment of--let's call it inspiration for lack of a better term--provides me with setting, characters, inciting incident, style, genre, etc. Then I stop because I often don't know what comes next. The story sits until I do. (For example, yesterday I finished a full draft of a story I started 12 years ago. i think it's clean, but won't know until I proofread it later today.)

  13. Interesting, Michael!!--especially the part about using different processes based on genre. Thanks for the insight.

    I like your method of coming up with that first scene as kind of a predecessor to the rest of the story, and letting everything originate there. And I'm glad to hear that you occasionally let a story cook awhile in your head before you proceed to putting it all down on paper--I do that as well. Sometimes for a LONG time.

    BTW, I confess that I wouldn't be able to write a confession story if I had to.


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