Should you edit your writing as you go along? Or should you write a first draft and then edit once you’ve finished?
I once visited a wonderful friend who was a successful writer (DF – it was you!).
At the time, I was struggling to complete my first novel.
When she suggested we go for brunch at her local cafe to read the New York Times and the Washington Post, I was delighted. As I waited to go out, I glanced at her writing desk, filled with admiration for her hard work and achievement.
On the desk was a book about writing technique. Intrigued that she, a well-known author, should need such advice, I leafed through it. A sentence leapt out at me.
You can see the results of all this in my Berlin thriller Blood Summit
“Don’t keep writing and re-writing the same chapter or the opening to your book,” the guide said. “Doing that risks preventing you from completing the task. You must keep moving forward.”
At that point my friend was ready and we went out for a terrific brunch in Alexandria.
But I never forgot that sentence. I have found it invaluable in helping me to complete many novels.
“Wait!” I hear you cry. “Surely I shouldn’t write a first draft of a novel from beginning to end, before looking at it? That sounds like a recipe for bad writing.”
I agree. But I think the guide raises two great points. First, you should beware rewriting too much as you go along, or you’ll never get anywhere. Second, you need a balance between editing existing material, and writing new stuff.
Of course everyone is different. Some people (like Anthony Trollope, one of my favourite authors) can write a whole novel at a rate of 3-4,000 words a day and then hand the result to their publisher before starting on the next novel, sometimes the same day as they finished the last one. But most of us will want at least to review what they have written a bit before they move on to write some new material.
Here is my recipe for how to balance writing new material with ensuring old material is in good shape, in two easy stages which anyone can use.
(i) Let’s say I sit down to work on my novel or “work in progress” (WIP). Before I write anything new, I will work carefully through what I wrote last time, with a view to editing it up to a higher standard. Occasionally I will scrap that new material altogether. More often, I will cut bits out and add in new bits. It is often at this point – what I call my first edit – when I am fresh and focused, that I put in my best jokes, most startling twists, or other elements with which I hope to make my writing stand out. This may take a quarter, a half, or three-quarters of the time I have set aside for writing on this occasion.
(ii) once I have finished my first edit, I am immersed in my WIP and it is easier to move ahead with writing new text than it would be if I had started writing new text as soon as I sat down. I write as much as I can, until exhaustion forces me to stop. Next time I sit down to write, I go back to stage (i) and repeat the cycle.
I said that anyone can use the two-stage process above because I myself usually use a three-stage process which may not suit everyone. The difference is that, as mentioned in an earlier blog, I usually write my fiction in longhand, using an A4 notepad and a pen. The three stages look like this:
(i) As above, I sit down with my pen and paper to work on my WIP. But to work through the manuscript I wrote last time in my A4 notepad, I choose a different-coloured (in the US, a different-colored) pen to the one I used last time. I go carefully through what I wrote last time, giving it my first edit with the different-coloured pen. This makes it easy to see any changes.
(ii) When I have finished the first edit, I begin writing new material, again in longhand. As before, I find it easy to move ahead with new text because I have immersed myself in what I wrote last time. With luck, I will write some good new stuff.
(iii) The additional, third stage, for those who write their initial text and do their first edit with a pen and paper, is to enter the result onto my computer. I will only type up text which has already gone through the first edit. As I enter edited material onto the computer, I will try to read it critically and edit it further as I type. By the time the new material is on the computer, therefore, it has already gone through two edits. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is “final” or doesn’t need further editing, but it is no longer a raw draft.
The end result of either of these techniques should be to enable you to keep up forward momentum on your WIP, while also ensuring that your work is up to reasonable standard. Once you have finished the book, you can start thinking about how to polish it some more. I’ll write about that another time.
Next step: read my sequel post: 7 ways to improve your manuscript (“How to edit your novel part 2”).
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P.S. If you are interested in writing technique, have a look under the writing: about writing category on this site, or try this post on How to write gripping fiction: scenes, sequels and cliff-hangers.