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Editing As You Go: Should You Dive In Or Hold Off?

Oh, editing! How we love you and loathe you at the same time.

Editing is a sometimes tedious, sometimes frustrating, and always crucial step in the writing process. But when should you start?

Some writers recommend waiting until you've finished the first draft of your story and to consider giving yourself a buffer of at least a few weeks before you edit. Others edit as they write the first draft.

Your approach will depend on your style as a writer and can change from one project to the next.

In the past, I've been in the mode of holding off on edits until the first draft of a new story is done. If anything, I'd leave myself a little note in the margin like "Eve needs to respond to that" or "add more bookshop descriptions" and move on. It always felt like going back to edit the chapter I'd just written instead of starting the next was slowing things down. And that can sometimes be the case. If you're really motivated or in the groove, it makes sense to carry on with the story at full-speed. This was especially true when I was primarily writing my first drafts by hand; the initial, often smaller edits happened as I typed everything up.

With A Tided Love, things have been a bit different. Between the burnout lingering from the havoc of my first NaNoWriMo and the holidays, I ended up taking a short break from the project, having written seven chapters at the time. Coming back to it was much harder than anticipated. I struggled with reorienting myself in the story from the point I left off. To complicate matters further, the original outline I'd made up during Preptober became obsolete after only a few days into NaNoWriMo. Plenty of good things came from this, like introducing Caroline's ex-mother-in-law much sooner than planned and Thomas having a pet pug, but it also meant I didn't have as clear of a direction to go in when I was ready to finally jump back in.

Around this time, I met some new writing friends on Instagram and we formed a writing group. We've also got a shared Google Drive where we're able to leave pages we'd like feedback on. I hadn't had any eyes on my writing since the first round of beta readers for Bound to the Heart about two years prior so I was eager to get some new eyes on it. But with A Tided Love in about as rough of shape as a rough draft can get, I knew I wanted to refine it quite a bit before uploading anything.

So I went ahead and did a quick round of edits, just enough for me to feel ready to share the first two chapters. And honestly? I found it super helpful in getting my back on track and rekindling my love for this story (even in spite of going back and rewriting it from square one).

That's why for this week's post, I'm looking at the pros and cons of editing a story as you're writing its first draft as opposed to shoving it in the proverbial drawer and giving it time to rest before breaking out the red pen and putting your darlings on the chopping block.

Pro - Immediate Fixes

You know how sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant story idea or the perfect way to resolve a plot hole that's been bugging you for the past week and a half? And you're so sure you'll remember it in the morning that you don't write it down? And then you can't remember any of it after all?

Yeah. We've all been there.

The same thing can happen in editing.

Editing as you're working on your story's first draft gives you the ability to make that change in the moment so you don't run the risk of not being able to recall your moment of brilliance (or find yourself editing so far down the road that you can't make sense of your note to self if you did end up writing it down).

Pro - Less To Do Later On

Similarly, some writers edit as they go because making changes now can mean fewer changes to make after the first draft is completed.

Instead of maintaining a growing to-do list or holding off on making any changes whatsoever, you may find that taking care of those things quickly can save you some time during the editing phase.

Con - In Too Deep

As we're writing a first draft, we may not be aware of structural issues or inconsistencies, and it's not until we begin edits that we catch them.

In that case, why wait? Why not edit your story as you go?

Simply put, you're potentially in too deep. Some writers, myself include, struggle with shifting gears. Editing tends to require a more critical eye, but if you're still immersed in writing, some flaws can slip under the radar.

By not only waiting until the first draft is done but also giving yourself a little time before getting started on edits, you're able to take it on with fresh—or even refreshed—eyes.

Pro - Refresh And Reconnect

While holding off on edits can allow you to come back to the project with refreshed eyes, going back to edit the part of the draft that you've already written can refresh your memory.

That was the case with A Tided Love. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I was having a difficult time reorienting myself in the story after a longer-than-expected-break from working on it.

During my preliminary edits of the few chapters I'd already written, I found that I was starting to have an easier time picking up where I left off about two months prior, which was also helpful when it came to figuring out where to take the story next.

Con - Time For One Means Time From The Other

This is one of the primary reasons I mostly wait until I've finished the first draft before diving into any major edits.

Pausing your draft to go back and revise the section you've just written can slow you down. If you're working on your WIP for four hours a week and divide that time between drafting and editing, it kind of equals out to only two hours of new progress on your draft.*

*As far as actively writing. Editing is just as important to the process.

This may cause some challenges and pressure if you're working with a looming deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.

Even though you're making progress on two separate things, it can take longer to finish both if you're jumping between them or doing them concurrently.

Meanwhile, if you spend all four of those aforementioned hours on drafting instead of splitting them between drafting and editing as you go, you're likely to have the draft done sooner.

Con - Fixating On Fixing Things

Like Terry Pratchett said, "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." A first draft's primary job is simply existing. It's getting everything down so you can sort things out or, as Shannon Hale puts it, you're "shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build castles."

For some writers, it's better to have a fully-written first draft that they can then go back and edit rather than writing and editing simultaneously. It may give them more to work with or a stronger understanding of what the story is.

You can't sculpt those fancy swirly spires if you don't have enough sand to build the castle with. And if you concentrate so hard on perfecting those spires, you may end up neglecting other sandcastle essentials like a moat and a driftwood drawbridge.

The same can be said for writing. You might not be able to foreshadow as well if you don't have a clear sense of the threat or event you're alluding if you're editing too soon. Character relationships may not be defined yet. Themes may not have come into view yet but will in another chapter or two.

Whatever the case may be, having a full first draft might give you more of a story to shape into a work of art.

Pro - Maintaining Motivation

Writing a book is a lengthy task that can feel like it's dragging on if you get stuck. Editing in long stretches can be equally tedious and tiresome if not more so.

Switching between the two rather than getting stuck in just one phase can reduce that monotony. When it's less of a slog, it's easier to do. Taking it in bite-size chunks instead of swallowing it in one big gulp.

It's also motivating in other ways!

You might find that polishing up your story in the moment and seeing small signs of that growth more often encourages you to keep going, as opposed to having to chip away at one heap of lackluster words that may lead you to doubt yourself as a storyteller. At least, that's how it's been for me since I've changed up my routine.

Waiting until you've finished writing your first draft to start editing your WIP or drafting and editing simultaneously have just as many advantages as they do drawbacks. One writer may find editing in the middle of the first draft prevents them from falling into a writing slump, whereas another writer may find it harder to concentrate and make significant progress if they're shifting between the two.

The key is—as you've seen me say on the blog frequently—figuring out what works best for you. As changes have impacted my non-writing life, I've found that changing my writing routine along with it helps me feel like a more efficient writer and like a better storyteller in time.

These days, I'm more excited about editing than ever, which is genuinely wild considering I've referred to myself as being in the "harsh throes" of edits with other projects for some time now. For the most part, I work in batches of about two chapters each with this new routine and it feels much smoother. Bear in mind, however, that what works for one story might not be as effective for another. Writing is always about evolving and being open to trying new things in order to find what suits you most.

Do you edit as you go? Or do you wait until your first draft is done? Let me know in the comments!



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