Is it actually bad to edit as you write?
Much of the advice you’ll find online says not to edit as you write. (I share this advice a lot myself. Even my free downloadable draft-by-draft novel revision guide recommends you separate writing from editing!)
But is editing as you go really all that bad? What if it’s an integral part of your writing process? That’s what we’re exploring in today’s post.
The Pitfalls of Editing as You Go
The reason this advice is so common and touted everywhere is that there’s one major pitfall to editing an unfinished draft: losing momentum and giving up on the draft entirely. This happens a lot, especially to new writers.
So why do so many writers lose momentum on the first draft when they try to edit?
Writing is creative. Editing is analytical.
While yes, you can be creative and analytical at the same time to a certain extent, these two ways of using your brain aren’t very compatible with each other. Analyzing each sentence you write will naturally slow you down and interrupt your creative momentum.
And switching rapidly back and forth between your creative mindset and your analytical one means your brain can never truly sink in to one or the other. Instead of getting into a flow state and being able to do deep work, you end up constantly pulling yourself away from flow and only doing surface-level work, which means you don’t make as much substantial progress as you could if you separated the two.
Editing naturally creates doubt.
As an editor, I can tell you definitively: Self-editing is all about second-guessing what you’ve written. Does this sentence flow okay? Could I have used a better word? Is this punctuation correct? It’s all in the name of improving your story, of course, but this constant barrage of rethinking can lead to something more sinister: self-doubt.
One of the reasons so many writers struggle with revisions is because it brings up all kinds of self-doubting thoughts. Facing your messiness, your imperfection, and your mistakes as an author is jarring at best, devastating at worst. As soon as you start giving yourself room to think things like “This story isn’t good enough” or “Who am I to think I could be an author?” you’re upping your chances of giving up. Editing is highly likely to bring up these kinds of thoughts (second only to comparison), especially if you’re new at this.
Really good editing takes place from a reader’s perspective, not the author’s.
To truly get to the heart of your story, you need to see it as a reader. (That, by the way, is why so many people also recommend giving your book a rest before diving into edits. I’ve got a blog post on that coming up!) The reader’s perspective sees your book as you’ve actually written it, not as it is in your mind as the author.
When you edit as you write, you’re still stuck in the author’s perspective. You can’t see accurately how a reader will read what you’ve written when you’ve just freshly written it yourself! Without that different perspective, it’s almost impossible to know whether the changes you’re making are actually for the better or not.
Editing while writing is generally less efficient.
Have you ever edited an entire chapter of your book, only to realize later that the whole chapter has to be thrown out anyway? It sucks, right? And this happens much more often when you edit as you go, because without the distant reader perspective mentioned above, you just don’t know what’s important and what’s not yet.
You can save a lot of time and useless editing by waiting to edit until the draft is finished.
But what if I still want to edit as I go?
Some authors’ brains just work that way! I want to be clear here: I don’t think editing as you go is wrong at all. It just has a lot of potential places to go wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right method for you!
I find that the writers who can do best editing as they go are usually either very experienced (we’re talking ten or more books), so they know exactly what their writerly sticking points are and how to fix them without losing momentum, or they’re heavy planners, so they often do less of the structural edits that might mean deleting entire scenes or chapters and thus canceling out all their careful editing.
I would recommend that every writer try not editing as they go at least once and see how that feels for them. But if that doesn’t work for you, that’s fine! Here are some ways to make editing as you go more efficient and effective:
Create separated times for writing and editing, ideally with a break in between.
For example, you could do your writing in the morning, take a lunch break, and then edit in the afternoon/evening. Or write in the evening, then edit in the morning before you start the rest of your day. There are many different ways you could do this, but the key is to have a gap between your editing time and your writing time so that they don’t interfere with each other.
Set limits on how much editing you do or how long you spend on it.
Since getting caught up in the editing so much that you never finish the first draft is the biggest and most dangerous pitfall of editing as you go, set yourself some kind of limit. Maybe that means you set a timer for thirty minutes and only edit for that long, or maybe it means you only edit the previous day’s writing and don’t go back any further than that. Set limits that encourage you to continue working on the writing itself, not just the editing part. After all, a blank page can’t be edited!
In all, editing as you go isn’t universally bad, nor is it impossible to do well. It’s probably not the best method if you tend to be perfectionistic or if you’re a heavy pantser, since it’ll likely slow you down. But if you’re super experienced or a heavy plotter, then it may work for you just fine!
And if you’ve finished the first draft of your novel and need help getting started on revisions, that’s something I can help with! If you’re looking for a step-by-step process, sign up for my email list to get my draft-by-draft novel revision guide! It’ll help you get started.
And if you’re looking for more customized, one-on-one help with your revisions, my Editorial Evaluation service may be the perfect fit for you! More info here.
Do you edit as you go? How is that working for you?