Leave That Thing Alone! Why You Should Write First and Edit Later

If I could give only one piece of advice to new authors, it would be this: do not edit as you write.

“But!” you cry from the balcony. Yes you, at the back. You’re always interrupting. But go on.

“What I’m writing is terrible,” you assert. “I need to fix it, because it’s so bad it’s stopping me from writing anything else.”

Well, yes, it probably is terrible. Much of what we optimistically call a ‘first draft’ is terrible, including my own first draft of this article—and thanks for saying the final draft’s terrible too. You can leave now.

But we’ve got to resist the urge to try and fix it as we go, because that way lies disappointment, unfinished novels, and madness. At least for me, and 90% of other professional writers. Of course, you may be one of the 10% who really do get results from editing as you go, and we’ll talk about you later. But for now, let’s stick with what works for the great majority, shall we?

Being a writer is all about . . . well, writing, but for much of the time, we seem more preoccupied with just about anything else when we sit down to write. There are so many emails to answer, admin to administrate, chairs to adjust, hard disks to defrag, pencils to sharpen (even though you’ve haven’t used a pencil since school art classes). And editing as you write is another distraction technique. If you’re editing what you’ve just written, you’re not writing, and it’s easy to fall into a never-ending cycle of editing and revising the same thing over and over. Like Groundhog Day, without the laughs.

All this boils down to a simple rule (and we all love rules. Don’t we? Hello?):

Finish what you start.

So, start writing.

Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. Don’t go back and fix a paragraph, or a sentence, or even a typo. Just write. Don’t worry if the plot becomes unwieldy, or if your characters seem to do odd things, or you lose track of where you’re going.

You know that little guy who lives in your head, and says things like, ‘That’s a bad idea,’ or, ‘You call that writing’? Well, slip some Rohypnol in his drink and thrash those words out while he’s not looking. Don’t kill him—you’ll need him later on—but don’t let him speak and put you off your stride. If you stop to fix something, not only are you disrupting your creative momentum and slowing your writing down, you’re admitting that this snarky little fella is right. You’re undermining your own confidence by admitting that what you’ve written is bad, that it’s unworthy, and nobody will want to read it.

Which is all nonsense. How could you possibly make a value judgement like that when you’ve only just this minute written it?

I’ve heard this draft called ‘the discovery draft’ and that’s a good description, because it’s where you’ll really discover your story and what direction it wants to take. And if it seems to be heading somewhere other than where you had in mind, well, let it go there and see how it turns out. You see, the whole point is this: you can always fix it later. Whatever you do here is not carved in granite. You can change it. You can reshape it. Hell, you can scrap it and start over.

Let the ideas flow freely, revel in the invention, and savour those moments when your characters come to life and start to do things of their own accord; it’s weird when that happens, and it can be a bit unsettling, but it’s one of the great feelings that comes with the act of creation. If you’re stuck for a phrase, or a bit of research, or you’ve forgotten the name of a character, don’t stop to go and find it—make a note in the margin, insert a Comment in Word, or type a long line of big XXXXXs to remind you.

Do what you need to do so you can push on and write. Just make sure you finish it.

Then put it away for a while.

Yes, I know. You want to edit it—you want to properly finish it.

“You just told me to finish it!” you howl.

But you are finished, for now. You’ve written a book (or an article, or a short story, or a poem, or whatever). It’s complete in and of itself. Maybe it’s terrible. Maybe it’s great. It doesn’t matter. It’s finished. And now it’s time to let your unconscious digest it for a while, like a compost heap. Well, my unconscious is like a compost heap. Yours is probably more appealing. Fewer flies.

Then, when you can’t bear not to tinker with it anymore, get it out, and discover that there’s (another) draft in there.

It’s time to wake that little blue-nosed guy, your self-appointed literary critic. Give him some strong coffee and let him do his thing. Go over the draft and shape it. Cut scenes. Add scenes. Move scenes around. Rewrite whole sections. Examine the structure, and the pacing. Murder your darlings, if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald is hanging around. Murder them even if it isn’t.

Are there lulls in the action? If there are, do you need those lulls for the reader to get her breath back? Or do you need to add something to keep things simmering. Have you got a strong, pivotal moment at the midpoint? If not, can you rewrite what you already have, or do you need to devise something additional? Does the story flow naturally? Does it make chronological sense? Are there any extraneous plot diversions that slow things down? Examine these things and more, and bash that thing into shape. Because you’ve written it now—you can fiddle with it all you like.

Of course, there are those few who need to edit as they go. And that’s okay. There are no rules in writing, not really. There’s advice—and plenty of it, not all of it good—and there’s what works for the majority, but if that’s not you, do what you need to do to get the words out of your head and onto the page (or screen).

Maybe stilted sentences and inelegant paragraphs hold you back to the extent that you can’t move forward until they’re properly readable. Maybe the looming prospect of ‘fixing it later’ blocks your creativity and stops everything in its tracks.

If that’s you, edit I say. I’m not your mother; you can do what you like. Though I do advise that you wash behind your ears and wear clean underwear in case you get run over by a bus.

Perhaps the hardest part of writing is the conflict between our creative right brain and logical left brain. Writing (and music and any of the creative arts, for that matter) are free, untrammeled activities that are generally unbound by logic or reason. However, the problem is that unless we somehow ‘tame’ them, they can be unintelligible to others . . . and, to me at least, the whole point of writing (and art) is to communicate—whether a feeling, an idea, a sensation, or just a good story. It should speak to others. But to do that, we have to be analytical of what we produce, in order to give it a shape that adequately communicates our intention.

Because most writers are ‘right-brain’ types, we’re not so good with the analytical functions that live in the left brain (like our shrill-voiced little critic) so we have to train ourselves to access and use them. And it’s hard. Of course, there are some who have access to both parts naturally, and can switch between them, or use them in tandem—writers who are also editors, for example (cough)—and for those of us who can pull the trick off, it’s as simple as flipping a switch.

Whatever you do, if you’re serious about your writing, it will need editing before it goes out into the world. So, you might as well enjoy the creative part as much as you can while you’re doing it, and not ruin it with analysis and logic. Do that later.

After all, you’re a writer because you love to write. Right?

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