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YMMV: Edit As You Go

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I was critiquing the first chapter of a friend's novel-in-progress, and one piece of feedback I gave her was that it felt like it had been edited a lot. She acknowledged that it had been, and was curious how I could tell. The short version is that it felt like important bits were elided over, that the prose felt ever-so-slightly out of sync with itself. The longer version... is what we're about to get into.

Edit As You Go

If you've consumed any amount of writing advice, you've heard that an important part of writing is to "turn off your internal editor." You need to get the words on the page and worry about fixing them later. Or, more pithily, "write drunk, edit sober." This advice is lobbed towards novice writers rather frequently. The idea is that editing and writing are different skills that work at cross-purposes, so it's very easy to never finish anything because you're too distracted trying to fix it. Ergo, you should compartmentalize. When you're writing, focus on word count only, and then when you're editing, focus on fixing things.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I regularly participate in NaNoWriMo, which is all about "write now, edit later." And I agree that new writers get distracted trying to fix their prose and don't get anything finished--I mean, that's just science. But telling them not to edit is trying to solve the wrong problem. The issue that new writers face is that they have an idea and they're trying to realize it on the page and getting frustrated that they can't. They have yet to learn that no amount of polish is going to make your first novel or short story good. It's just gonna suck, because a) you don't know how to write and b) you don't know how to edit. And that's really the heart of the issue with "Get it on the page and then fix it later." It misrepresents how this process works.

Because when you edit, you're not actually fixing anything. It's not like the words are broken and you need to glue them together. Editing is a process of evaluation and refinement with an aim of conveying the author's intent as clearly and elegantly as possible to the reader. It is a skill that needs to be developed, and it has to be developed in tandem with writing, because they rely on the same underlying set of tools. In fact, I would go even farther and say that "getting words on the page" is just a matter of practice and discipline, and that you can't separate writing from editing because writing is editing. They're fundamentally the same thing. Actually, let me shout it once more for the kids in the cheap seats.

Writing. Is. Editing.

Okay, now that I've gotten that hot take out of my system, let me walk it back a little. For one thing, "editing" can encompass a pretty broad spectrum of activities: developmental editing, wordsmithing, proofing, and so forth*. Beyond that, it's useful to be able to differentiate "working on text that you've already written" from working on something net-new. So, for simplicity, I'm going to favor the term "revision" because it's a bit more specific to what we're discussing here. And even though I just said that writing and editing--er... revision--are the same thing, we're going to treat them like they're different while I make the case that you shouldn't actually separate them at all. And in furtherance of that goal, we're going to take a step back by one level of abstraction and define this formally. When we talk about revision, the only difference between that and writing is that you're also doing a critical read of the work in question. Or, in simpler terms:

Revision = writing + reading critically

So, revising. Why should you do it while you write instead of taking a separate pass afterwards? There are a few reasons I like to do this, and they fall on a spectrum that goes from "wonky behavior modeling" on one end to "Kurt's very specific quirks" on the other. Which, honestly, could be applied to this entire series, now that I think about it. So let's start on the quirks side and work our way across!

Kurt's very specific quirk #1: I hate re-writing. I hate it so hard. I have built my entire process around avoiding having to ever re-write. I am a heavy outliner because that way I never have to do a developmental edit after I've started putting prose on the page. In fact, I like having a first draft that's fairly clean. Basically, once I finish the initial writing of a story or a chapter, I want it to be in a state where I can hand it off to a reader. It won't be 100% polished, but it will be basically finished. I'll go back and do some tweaks, but the majority of my line-edits will also be finished by the time I complete the first draft.

This may sound excessive, but the rationale is pretty simple: changes ripple forward. Say you go back to the start of a chapter and realize you need to fix something. If that throws off the pacing or the tone, then you have to make adjustments throughout the draft. Each of these adjustments can also ripple forward, and then suddenly you're re-writing the last half of the piece and, you may recall, I hate re-writing. But if you're never more than a couple of paragraphs ahead of the revision, then those ripples don't happen.

Additionally, part of my pre-writing is having a target word count, and since I tend to add words during revision, it's a lot easier to hit that word count without going too far over or under if I'm not doing a lot of ballooning after the fact. A 2,500 word chapter can easily grow to 3,000 words in the edit if you find gaps that you need to fill in. Or you may find redundancies and it ends up shrinking. But if you're looking for these things as you go, then you are making those adjustments to the chapter on-the-fly and the word count target is a lot more manageable.

Now, a lot of people will tell you that editing as you write slows you down, because you're switching brain states. I do not find this to be the case at all, though. Because, as I mentioned above, writing is editing. It's the same underlying toolset; the only difference is the presence or absence of critical reading. With that framework in mind, if you find that editing as you write slows you down, then one possible cause of this is that you need to develop your ability to read critically. Problems are a lot easier to fix if you can diagnose them quickly. And, fortunately, that's a skill that can be developed! But that's a discussion for another post.

I would actually say that revising while I write speeds me up because of a little thing called Flow State. If you're not familiar, Flow State is simply the mental condition you achieve that allows you to focus on a task. You might hear it referred to as being "in the zone." It was an entire plot device in the Pixar movie Soul, where apparently it makes you kind of like being dead, or something? I'm fuzzy on the specifics. Regardless, Flow State is when you are at your most productive, and it's rather difficult to achieve--and it can be completely shattered by multitasking. Fortunately, revising as you write gives you a shortcut to getting into it.

This is a trick I picked up as part of my day job, which is software development. Programming is a lot like writing, especially when it comes to Flow State, and sometimes the hardest part of the job is just getting started. But my best friend told me about a trick he used. Programmers write Unit Tests in order to verify that their code is functioning as intended, and also to tell them if a change they made has messed something up. My friend would always leave one test failing at the end of the day. Then, the next day, when he started his work, he knew exactly what he needed to do first--fix that broken test. Once he'd started, it was very easy to just keep going.

You can do this with your writing. Sitting down to write is hard. But sitting down to edit one paragraph--that's pretty easy. So when it's time to write, you look at your last paragraph (or two or three, if you need a little more runway) and start to revise. And if your brain already thinks of writing and revising as being part of the same process, it's very easy to just keep going.

Neat, huh?

The final piece of the puzzle for me--why it's so important to finish with a clean first draft--is that editing is a destructive act.

Mull that one over for a bit, eh? For those keeping score at home, we're at "writing is editing", "editing is writing plus reading," and "editing makes writing worse." I stand by all of these, contradictions and all. I am vast, I contain multitudes. All joking aside, this is a point I want you to remember, which is why I'm belaboring it so much. The very process of going through and making changes to your work actively degrades it.

It does so for a couple of reasons. The first is just spontaneity. There's a joie de vivre to the way you tell a story when it's fresh in your head. You're making choices and getting excited about what you're doing, and that excitement is present on the page, and it's not something that can be replicated artificially. Editing ebbs away at that.

But the biggest issue with editing is that the more the story lives in your brain, the less you understand how it lives on the page. And the more you work on it, the more it lives in your brain. But your brain is not tracking your changes, it's just imagining the best possible version of the story, and every editing choice you make is colored by this. You think something is clear, because it's clear in your mind, but it's not.

I read a first chapter once that was so heavily edited that by the time I got to the end, I did not know the main character's name. I mentioned this to the author and she was flabbergasted, at least until she looked back at it. She then saw that the main character was only named once, indirectly, in the middle of a paragraph four or five pages into the chapter. And it didn't help either that name was a fairly common word, but not a common name. I skipped right over it without ever understanding what it was. But In the author's mind, it was clear what the protagonist's name was, and while smoothing out other things through revision, that very important piece of information got lost.

Now, this is an extreme example. In practice, the effect will be subtler. You'll get the piece in decent shape, and then start second-guessing yourself, and tweaking things, and then you read it over and it's not quite right, but you don't exactly know why. Maybe the pacing feels off or something doesn't quite have the impact you want it to. So you take another pass, and you read it again, and it still doesn't feel right. But... you fixed the things you were trying to fix, so it has to be an improvement, right? But something's off, so you take another pass. You're moving things around, re-writing paragraphs, excising paragraphs you suddenly feel are unnecessary, adding new things that you think might have been missing. But that sentence you moved kind of breaks the flow of the new place you put it. And that new paragraph you added doesn't quite gel with the tone of the one that preceded it. And important bits of information will get elided or just dropped completely. You end up with a chapter like the one I mentioned at the start of this post. It feels off. Nothing's bad about it, per se, but it feels out of sync with itself.

(Side note: if you ever want to see this problem at scale, watch basically any movie that has four or more credited screenwriters, and watch how the story decoheres in front of your eyes. It's educational--and fun!)

Some of these problems will be obvious to you, but many of them will not. And the more revisions you do, the more they compound. But how do you fix it? You fix it by editing, because we've been told that editing is how you fix broken prose. But at a certain point you recognize that every pass is making it worse, and you have no choice but to set it aside for six months and come back to it with fresh eyes. Which is, frankly, a waste of your gull-durn time.

But if you take the view that revision is a process of refinement that is also destructive--like, say, sanding a sculpture down to a fine polish--then the solution becomes obvious. At a certain point, the benefits of revision will no longer outweigh the costs, so you stop doing them. Even if it's not perfect, you stop. There is a finite number of positive revision passes you can make to a manuscript, and I'm here to tell you that the number is much lower than you think it is. It's like three or four, tops.

But, if you are revising as you go--if the act of revision is connected to the act of creation--any editing that you do while you're drafting doesn't count against that total. The manuscript can't get out of sync with itself because you're still creating it. There's nothing for it to get out of sync with until you're finished. You're not losing spontaneity to the edit because you are still creating.

This is how I write. I plan out whatever structure I will need ahead of time and I wordsmith as I go. When I'm done with the draft, I give it a quick clean-up pass to look for continuity errors or places where I started a sentence and forgot to finish, which sometimes happens. And then I don't touch it again. If it's on active sub, every few months between submissions I'll give it a once-over to look for awkward phrasings or typos, but I usually don't change more than a few words. And I sell stuff. This works for me.

But. There are a few tools you need to have in your toolbox in order be successful with this method. First, you need to have a solid understanding of story structure. If you're at a place where you get to the end of a chapter and don't know what the emotional through-line is, then you're probably not ready for this. If you have to go back and make structural changes at the end of a draft, then wordsmithing as you go is just going to create more work for you, as you're going to end up editing things that need to be re-written. And that will slow you down considerably.

Second, and probably most importantly, you have to be able to read your work critically so you can quickly diagnose issues, and you need to be pretty practiced at solving them. Otherwise you're going to lose all your momentum, and this method will just bog you down. So how do you do that?

Believe me, we're going to get into it. It's still only January, and we're doing this all year.

*Just so we're all on the same, ahem, page: a developmental edit involves major changes to the story or characters, a line edit (what I refer to as "wordsmithing") is where you polishing up the prose, and a copy edit (proofing) is fixing low-level things like spelling and punctuation.

Next week, we're gonna talk about reading critically... and how the best way to develop that skill is by consuming horrible media...


In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.

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