“I read your edit post,” said my friend. “I hated it.”
She was referring to last week’s article, Self-Editing: Four Questions You Need to Ask.
Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing I like to hear about my work, but I know my friend well. She’s not the type to cast aspersions without a good reason. “Oh?” said I. “Why the hate?”
She was kind enough to backpedal a bit: “Not because it wasn’t well written or full of useful advice.” (Erm… Thanks?) Then she went on to explain: “Intentional editing is the worst thing I can do to my writing. I have to be sneaky about revision or I ruin the whole piece. I equate intentional editing with my aversion to anything that resembles ‘work.’ If I just ‘revisit’ a piece, edits happen. I tried to actually edit my story and I’m so angry with the result that I almost cried. Established editing protocol can go to the devil. So yes, I hated your piece.”
She wasn’t the first writer I’d heard say such a thing, but it did get me to thinking. We might none of us be Mozart, dashing off the perfect overture to Don Giovanni on the morning of its premiere, but had I assumed too much? Must we write the whole ugly first draft and then edit, or is it possible to edit as you go?
Indeed, when should you revise your draft?
Ask seven authors, and you might well get eight different answers. Some (like me) insist that you write the whole draft through without looking back, and others advise that you revise as you go along. So what to do?
You can’t edit what ain’t writ
As I’ve stated over and over on this blog and elsewhere, the first and most important objective is to get your novel written. If you don’t, you have nothing with which to work.
So I prefer to plow straight through and clean up the mess later.
Consider it this way. By not backtracking each day, you’re always moving forward, getting closer and closer to the last page where you finally type “end.” The beauty of this approach is that because you have a full manuscript, you can print it and begin to edit, research, and build structural continuity into your novel as a whole, rather than piecemeal. If you had edited as you went along, you might still be stuck on page fifty.
This was me, for many years. I couldn’t get the internal editor off my shoulder and kept polishing the first three chapters—but I never finished the work. For me, the first draft is pure creative stuff that comes spilling out, often as a surprise. I look back on it and mumble, “Wow, I wrote that!” And sometimes, “Wow, what ham-fisted jackass wrote that?” But I let the stream of consciousness flow, the words appear on the monitor, and I’m often amazed at how damn good they actually are, and encouraged by how much better they will be under the careful attention of a bright red pen.
But while to me this seems like a sensible way to write, let’s take a moment and consider the view from the other camp.
Edit as you go
It’s a wonderful, triumphant feeling when you get that page or chapter for the day complete, print it, and then reread your creations later that afternoon or in the evening before you go to bed. You can jot down some edits, form new ideas, or discover opportunities for character development. If something stops you as you write or proofread, it’s likely going to stop your reader. So that means revision, editing, tightening, deleting.
Another advantage to editing on the fly is that daily you reinforce exactly what is happening in your story. You keep focused on the story. Whatever you’re writing, even if its dialogue, it has to move the story forward. If it doesn’t do that, you have more work to do. So when you begin writing the next day, you’ll know exactly where you left off yesterday and maybe have a better idea of where the story is going and what more work needs to be done. Maybe you’ll even head off a few plot glitches before they happen.
One writer I know who practices this method rewrites so much that he loses track of how many drafts it takes to finish a book—it might be four or five, maybe more, by his count.
Ask for Feedback
Whether you edit as you go or write it all in one marathon draft, once it’s done to your own satisfaction, you need to make sure it satisfies your customers.
“Mike, did you say customers? Don’t you mean ‘readers?'”
No, I meant customers. When it comes to writing a novel, you sometimes have to look at your work as a business, and in this business, your customers are your readers.
If your business is like most businesses, you’re going to need help running it. You might need help with research, grammar, plot structure, dialogue—whatever it takes to do the job efficiently. And that means you’ll need to ask for feedback. You need to know what it is about your business that satisfies your customers, and more importantly, what leaves them cold.
You’ll find that most friends and colleagues want to help you with your book if they can, so if help is offered and you can use it, take it. One way your friends and family may be especially eager to help is to review your book for you before it goes off to your agent or your editor. Ask for feedback from people you respect who are willing to give it freely.
You needn’t have a formal critique group, or even another writer unless it suits your own method. But it’s important to get feedback. A trusted critic who will read your work objectively and critically and tell you the hard truth is worth her weight in royalties. Nurture and love her and buy her chocolates. You have to hear the echo from the other end of this twin-cans-and-a-string contraption we call writing. Your work comes from within yourself, you create a certain reality in your writing, but you have no idea what reality you’ve created until someone else echoes it back to you. You might hear back a “clink” when you thought you’d sent out a “clank.”
Agents and editors might be good for this, but they have their own tastes and (more importantly) their own concerns, which might not be your readers’ concerns. Your readers, in the end, will decide if you live or die as a writer.
But be wary of soliciting feedback too soon. Early critique can kill your momentum. Though my own friends might clamor to see my latest work-in-progress, I don’t share it until the first draft (and probably a first rewrite) are done. It’s not that I don’t respect them or value their input, but while I’m in the process of creating my book’s world, I might be too easily detoured from the path I’m trying to create if I entertain opinions or ideas from others before I’m ready.
So What to Do?
In the end, whether you edit or not on a daily basis will be up to you. Before you decide, consider which approach is more likely to get you to finish your first draft. Then try both ways and see which is most comfortable for you. So long as you get to the end with a marketable manuscript, there’s really no wrong answer.
But whatever you do, learn to ask for feedback. Positive feedback won’t make you a better writer, but it can give you the strength to get to the end. And trusted critical advice can give you valuable insight into what your wider readership will appreciate, and what might make them turn away. Just be sure you’re ready to eat the crunchy with the smooth.
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I am currently publishing a serialized fantasy novella, Hedge King in Winter, on Wattpad. I also have a full-length heroic fantasy novel currently on offer to publishers, tentatively entitled Heron Cry.