Think back to when you first began to write: is your writing process different now from what it used to be?
Mine certainly is. In fact, I’ve been spending the last couple months trying to nail down my own personal writing process (which is definitely a post all of its own).
I’ve had the chance to know several different writers as they began writing their own stories. Something I noticed – both from my own experience from when I began as a writer and from hearing about theirs – is that new writers seem to like to edit. A lot.
As I’ve been doing a couple of posts recently with tips for newer writers, I thought that today I would tackle this question for them: is editing while writing a good way to go about writing?
And for you seasoned writers, don’t leave just yet. Believe me, this post is about to get interesting. 😉
Let me start off by saying this: I’m no saint either when it comes to not editing while I’m in the middle of writing a scene. I have quite a bit of that hidden away in my dark past.
At first, when you begin writing, you tend to just edit as you go, because you want your scene to be amazing. You just don’t want to leave it behind unless it’s the best it can be. I think this stems mostly from the misconception that all published authors just write out wonderful words every time they sit down, and their books were written in one go without any editing necessary. I know that I certainly dwelt under that impression for quite a while.
As writers grow in their craft, most generally end up on the other end of the spectrum entirely, coming to the conclusion that you shouldn’t edit while writing instead.
It’s like, for either side, it’s all-or-nothing. You either edit as you write, or you don’t at all.
I’m here today to do a little debunking of both ideas. Each is all-inclusive of of just one or the other. But there’s a little gray area in the middle there where each end of the spectrum collides. And that is what we’re going to be studying today.
First off: Scientific Stuff
In general, most people know that each side of your brain does different things. The theory is that the left side of your brain is more analytical and logical, while the right side is more artistic and creative.
While you’re writing a scene, you’re using the creative side of your brain – the right side. But when you edit, you’re using the analytical side of your brain – the left side.
When you stop in the middle of writing a scene to edit, you’re switching the sides of your brain. This can actually really mess you up when it comes to writing.
When you go back to write the scene again, you’re switching back to the right side of your brain. It can take a few minutes to get back into the flow of writing and get into a good groove where your mind is in the scene.
But if you’ve already gone back to edit once, then why not again? And again?
As you can imagine, by constantly switching back and forth, you’re never going to get into a good groove. Writing will be difficult to do, coming out stilted and clunky, especially as you constantly try to remember what you were going to say next.
So, the short answer to our question of whether or not we should edit while writing is no. You’ll never get any writing done if you edit in the middle of your scene.
But… the long answer is actually also yes.
Note: the rest of this post is going to be focusing on writing the first draft of a book. Every other draft is technically editing/rewriting, so this doesn’t apply as much there.
Exceptions to the Rule
There’s a few places where you can cheat the system a little bit.
When You’re Just Starting
Imagine that you’re sitting down to write. When you look at your document, you find that you stopped last time in the middle of a scene.
This is one point where I think you can get away with editing. A lot of the time, when I walk away from a scene I’m in the middle of, I’ll continue thinking about it. This was how I wrote out the climax of a story of mine once that I had a lot of trouble with: over the course of 2 days (started one afternoon, a full day, ended the next day in the afternoon) I wrote it out, constantly having to stop and leave it, then thinking about it and deciding on ways to improve it. When I came back, I’d make those changes, then continue writing.
A reason this can work is because you’re not really in writing mode yet. Usually, the changes you want to make will be right where you left off, so you’ll be able to hop straight into the right-sided-creative-part where you write. You’re replacing something, yes, which is editing, but you’re not looking at it analytically to decide what needs to be done, since you’ve already done that.
When it Seriously Messes Stuff up
If you’re in the middle of a scene and you suddenly realize that you messed up your story structure in some way, or that the scene you’re working on lands in the wrong place, or it really affects the way your character grows, that can be a serious problem. Personally speaking, I can’t stand it when I notice those sort of mistakes. I feel like I have to go back and fix it. It’s one of the few places where I’ll let myself go back and change things, but only because it’s such a serious problem to the whole story.
In the Same Sentence
A lot of the time, as I’m writing, I’ll think of a better way to say what I’m writing, and I’ll just quickly hit the backspace to replace it. It’s technically editing, but as it’s just all the words flowing through my head as I go, I also don’t really count it as editing? It doesn’t mess up my groove at all, if I’m in one, because my head is still in the scene.
When You Should Not
When You’re in the Middle of A Scene
If you’re in the middle of a scene and you just go off randomly to read over what you’ve already written and start changing things, that’s not going to help you in the least. Even if the scene is a mess, at the very, very, very absolute totally least, wait until you’re done the scene.
When You Wrote it Ages Ago
If you’re working on a first draft, it’s okay to read over stuff. In fact, it can help get you back into that headspace of the story. But when you go back in your draft and start changing things when you’re nowhere near that section of the story anymore, then we’ve got a problem. You really don’t need to be doing that right now. First drafts are messy, and that’s okay. Leave it for the editing phase when you’re done the entire draft if it’s that far back.
If it’s Keeping You from Moving Forward
And we reach the one that most writers do: they write a scene, then go back to read over it and fix it up. And they fix it up some more. And more. And they stay there instead of moving forward with their story.
Whatever you do, don’t do this. Seriously. It’s totally unnecessary, and keeps your story from making progress. (Yes, I know that editing can be considered progress, but if you’re in the middle of a first draft, that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing in it. It’s called writing your first draft, not editing.)
What You Can Do Instead
Here’s my advice: despite the exceptions to the rule that I named above, try to do your best to not edit at all during a first draft. The purpose of a first draft is simply for it to exist, and it 100% fulfills that purpose without you editing the crap out of the poor thing before it’s even finished.
A lot of the time, what I do instead of stopping to edit my writing is take notes.
I have an app on my computer that’s literally just called Notes. (I think most phones have it as well.) If you’re in the middle of writing, and you notice something you want to do or go back to add in (like foreshadowing something earlier in the book, researching something for the story, changing the way something played out earlier in the story) then just take note of it in the app and move on. You’ve got the thought saved, and you still stay in your groove.
And guess what? It can save you a lot of time that would’ve been otherwise wasted. I employed this tactic while working on The Storm Inside, and, thus far, I haven’t really reached the stage of rewriting those books. I have bunches of notes that I jotted down as I wrote the story, all ready to add in and be fixed – and they likely will never need to be used. 😂 All that time I might have potentially spent going back and changing things and fixing them up wasn’t wasted because I never did it. But, at the same time, I know exactly what must be changed, should I ever wish to go back and do so. Cool, right?
Here’s an example of what my own notes look like:
This list of things you want to change is helpful, because you can double check it later for what you needed (like a specific thing you need to research, or a new idea for a future scene you had) or you can just completely save those noes for the rewriting process, like I do.
So, to answer the question I put forth: should you edit while writing?
The majority of the time, no. But as there aren’t really any real rules in writing, it’s okay to bend that ‘rule’ some of the time. 😉
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When do you usually edit your stories?
Are you newer to writing?
Did you enjoy seeing editing and not-editing being pitted against each other? 😜