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Someone asked this question in another forum, and I thought I'd bounce it around in here to see what kind of responses we get. If you are working on writing a new book, is it better to just write all the way through to the end on your first draft, or should you periodically stop and go back to edit? If you edit as you go, will it help reduce the amount of deviation your story takes, or will it lessen the number of changes you end up making on the second draft? Is there a clear advantage to editing as you go?

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Somewhat related (although only on editing typos): Correct spelling errors while writing or after you've finished? –  justkt Aug 3 '11 at 15:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

At the risk of trying to answer the unanswerable I will share with you something I have discovered over the course of my various writings.

Writing is a bit like building a bridge from one side of a chasm or other deep precipice to the other. By yourself.

For this reason beginnings are tricky, middles have their ups and downs and ends are hard.

You can plan as much as you like but when you get about halfway out over the precipice the fact remains that all you will have is a long jetty that is halfway to being a bridge. Building the second half of the bridge, in the first instance, is always going to be a matter of compromise rather than perfect design.

Part of the reason for this is down to the fact that until you've got some way into the project you won't know for certain that you started in the right place. The chronology could be out. Characters could react to events, say things or take actions that, in retrospect, don't seem to be quite right.

Many of these matters may appear to be trifles but trifles accumulate into a cruft of creativity killing conceptual gunk. Most times when a writer becomes "stuck" it is exactly this kind of knot that has them in a bind.

The insidious thing is that no one of these little items looks too terribly out of place by itself. It's a cumulative effect. Often there will be one key error or slip from which the others arise.

I have often heard the advice to a mired writer that they should "plug on through". I have done it myself and it is possible. It's the equivalent of doing some long, tedious and only barely productive work on the bridge until suddenly that part is done and the next major step may be taken towards completion.

The only problem with this approach is that the bridge, upon completion, is even more the product of compromise than it would otherwise have been. It also has a tendency to be almost impossible to fundamentally alter because the fruits of the "plug on through" toil tend to make the prospect of serious focus shifts or re-edits seem unpalatable because then the very worst bits will have to be completely redone to nearly the point where it might seem that you were writing a whole new novel from scratch.

So you get editor's block as a replacement for author's block. Not a great trade.

I find when I get mired it's a sign. My instincts are telling me something is wrong. I might not be sharp enough to know exactly what it is, I just know it's there, somewhere, in what's already been written.

The time you get stuck while writing is a time to look at what you've already written and ask some questions.

  • Does the story start too late (i.e. there are things you haven't explained that need to be explained in scenes that precede the current start point) or too early (i.e. are some of your early chapters strictly speaking unnecessary)?
  • Do your characters all behave "properly" no one does anything out of character or act in a way that could be interpreted contrary to your intentions?
  • Are all the events that have occurred so far relevant to your intended storyline? Are there any extraneous events that could be reworked or cut out completely?

The answer to one or two of these will probably clue you in as to what needs to change before progress onwards can be smooth and natural.

I don't personally believe this to be a matter of debate. It's not about "editing" per se, it's about shaping as you go. The dichotomy between adding and subtracting material is a false one.

Inevitably upon first attaining the other side of the chasm your work will necessarily be lopsided. Once you have a whole bridge you can go back, take some of the scaffold off the front and beef up the end. Only with a complete work can you appreciate the whole thing. Just because that is a stage in the process doesn't mean that along the way you won't have cause to switch things around as you go.

Of course one of the things that makes this possible is electronic word processing software, which is still relatively new. My father used to refer to the word processor as "the padder's dream" and many early adopter authors did, in fact, treat it this way.

The real advantage of Word Processors is that they give you an unprecedented amount of control over the whole thing all the way along. Only someone with rocks in their head would fail to develop a nimble and dynamic crafting style to exploit their new advantages.

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You do not have to write novels to write about novels. Almost tl;dr but I build my bridge through your text ;) +1 –  John Smithers Aug 3 '11 at 10:45
    
@John: It's a complex question, with a lot of bases to cover. Although I suppose I could have just written "edit as you go, it's better." I think some of the nuance may have been lost ;) –  One Monkey Aug 3 '11 at 10:52
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I admit, I skimmed parts. The internet has broken my brain. But I think one more term that makes this question hard to answer is what it means to 'edit'. You acknowledge that what you're talking about isn't 'editing per se'; I would say that you're just talking about intelligent writing. I mean, to write something in which the characters don't 'all behave properly', or to write without considering whether that's happening just seems like careless writing. For your other two questions, I think they are often hard to answer until the first draft is finished. –  Kate Sherwood Aug 3 '11 at 11:37
    
@Kate sometimes you can't see your characters are doing something that, in retrospect, you realise was "improper". One time a case of writer's block went poof when I talked over a problem with a friend and they pointed out that two characters who were involved in the stock genre fiction romance (tm) were moving too fast in their relationship bearing in mind my stated character history. I slowed the relationship down a little and it all came right. Other outside observers would have seen nothing amiss. –  One Monkey Aug 3 '11 at 11:54
    
Several excellent points here. I like the bridge metaphor, and how it illustrates how hard re-editing later is. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 3 '11 at 12:09

I've been thinking about this site lately, and I think this question is one of the ones that illustrates why the site isn't totally satisfying to me. Because the answer to this question, as to so many other questions, is:

It depends. What works for you?

I really don't think that writing, at least fiction writing, is a science. It's a craft for some, an art for others, but it doesn't have the firm, straightforward rules that would make it a science.

If you find that you do well if you edit as you go, edit as you go. If you find you have better results by spitting everything out in the manner it occurs to you and then refining later, do that. There are just too many variables to be able to have firm right/wrong answer (a weakness, obviously, for a 'stack' type website).

But, trying to be concrete: How about a compromise? I read and revise the previous day's work before I start on the current day's writing. It allows me to get back into the style of the project and be clear of where I am, and I catch lots of little problems. Then when I'm done, I go back over the whole project and make changes as needed. It works for me. Does it work for you?

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Agreed. This is entirely individual, and there's really not much to say to this beyond "see what works best for you." –  Standback Aug 3 '11 at 7:26
    
What there is to say is what effect doing one or the other has had for you, or for other authors you know, and why. –  justkt Aug 3 '11 at 15:15

You are going to have to edit at some point. That editing may mean taking out huge chunks of text, entire plot lines, entire characters. If it's easier for you to do that early on, edit as you go. If you can't determine what needs to be removed until the whole thing is on the page, write it all down first.

As Kate and many of us say: whatever works for you. Writing is a process. Everyone has his/her own.

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Just for reference, JRR Tolkien wrote straight through. Took him forever (yea he was also a procrastinator) but he created... so much more than a masterwork.

So to each his own really. Depends on your goals. I'm not published so take it with a grain of salt.

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