CRAFT THOUGHTS: Why You Should Edit As You Write

Of all the bits of writing wisdom paraded in front of young writers, none are taken as seriously these days as “Every first draft is shit!” and “Never edit as you write!” This may be because these mantras — unlike the vague calls to “write what you know” or “kill your darlings” — have concrete instructions attached: vomit out your first draft as quickly as possible without any revision or editing. Only then, after wiping the words “the end” off your chin, may you edit.

This week Thought Catalog repeated this dogma in a piece called “The Big Mistake Every Beginning Writer Makes.”Never edit as you write” is the most important rule, the author Michael Malice says.

“Editing should be done…not in chunks, but from start to end. No one has a good first draft, let alone a great one. But I’d rather have a crappy, sloppy first draft of a manuscript than, say, fifty perfectly edited pages.”

I don’t mean to single this piece out — there are a million similar articles online — but since this advice is basically dogma in our NaNoWriMo-crazed literary culture, I want to offer a different point of view. Before arguing that this advice is not only not the most important advice, but actively harmful to many writers, let me say that I do agree with the underlying message that writers need to finish things. Plenty of writers fail because they simply give up part way through, whether while writing or editing.

Does anyone ever have a good first draft? There are many famous examples of works written in basically a single session. (In fact, my favorite short story ever, “The Judgment” by Franz Kafka, is one of them.) Virtually every story needs revision, but many writers complete drafts that are close to being done because they revise as they go.

Part of the issue, though, is the very concept of a “draft.”

Many young writers have this idealized image of a writer sitting down and knocking out a story from start to finish (rough draft). Then they pop open a red pen and edit from start to finish (first draft). This repeats (second draft, third, fourth, etc.) until the story is plopped in the mail and the author goes and drowns themselves in sorrow and whiskey at the nearest dive bar.

Some writers do this, especially the last bit, but in my experience the writing and editing processes are far more chaotic that this. A writer jots down a scene in a notebook. A few days later they write down an idea for an ending. They spend a day at the coffee shop working on opening lines. They tweak the opening, finish everything except the last paragraph, which comes to them a week later. The point is that the “first” draft includes sections that have been edited and revised many times. Not only are not all first drafts shit, but most of the time a “first” draft doesn’t actually exist, at least in the sense that many young writers take it to mean.

So why is “never edit while you write” bad advice? There are two reasons:

1) The first is that writers often look for problems that aren’t there. The idea that “first drafts are shit” makes them think that they must make radical edits to every piece they write. Surely there are a multitude of darlings that need murdering in there!

While under editing work is certainly a problem, it is also a problem to over edit it. You do not want to take your beautiful weirdo monster and defang it, clean it, and trim its fur until it looks like every other brown rodent in the park.

2) The second, and more common, issue is that the puke-up-a-draft-then-polish-polish-polish method can leave you with an unfixable draft.

The Thought Catalog article uses the metaphor of climbing a mountain: “Editing while you write is like climbing down the mountain as you try to reach the summit. Get the job done first, and only then should you try to go back.”

This metaphor would make sense if there was one peak you were reaching, but in fact there are near infinite peaks you might end up on. Each path you take — choices of voice, structure, character, setting, etc. — alters your destination. Thinking of it that way, is it so crazy to take out a map and backtrack if you realize you are going the wrong way?

A better metaphor might be building a house. When you build, you want your foundation to be as strong as possible or else everything else is going to be warped and ready to collapse. Sure, it’s possible to just slap up a structure as quickly as possible with whatever materials are around, and replace every single thing piece by piece, but it’s going to take a lot more work. And, frankly, you are going to be a lot more likely to say, “Fuck it, who cares if the floor is at a 20° angle and the toilet is connected to the oven? Let’s call it a day.”

If you are writing a horror story about two brothers living on Mars with a robotic chimpanzee, and realize early on that the story should really be a comedy set in a submarine with an ghost shark, it’s going to be much easier to fix at page 10 than page 100. If you get to the end, how likely is it that you will actually change Mars to the Atlantic and Dr. Weebles into Dark Tooth, the hammerhead poltergeist doomed to roam the sea until the mystery of his death is solved?

And those joke elements may be easier to fix than issues of structure or voice where you might literally need to rewrite every word. The most common roadblock to revising I see is a writer not wanting to throw away the things — voice, characters, setting, plot — that they’ve spent so long on even when they know it’s not working. It’s a form of the sunk cost fallacy. Human instinct is to make what you have work.

The Gordon Lish school of writing believes that your work should constantly pull from and build on the text already on the page. The elements on language in your very first line should resonate through the whole text. Even if you don’t take it to that extreme, good writing is an interconnected whole with the elements constantly playing off each other.

This is not to say that you should spend your time fretting about semicolon use for two hours instead of writing the next page. That’s like worrying about the bathroom tiles before the bricks are in place. It is just that it is often best to get your large elements in line, and make changes when you realize something isn’t working, before completing the whole building.

There are exceptions, of course. Some writers really do spit up nonsense and slowly shape it into something new. But most writers do something in-between that and slowly editing each line as they go. I remember Zadie Smith saying that she always rewrote the first chapter of her books over and over again until she got the voice exactly right. Once that was just right, the rest of the book flowed out like a river. Perhaps you’ll work best spitting out a chapter, polishing it, then spitting out another. Or maybe you spend time honing down all your major elements in an outline, and then quickly write a draft with your scaffolding already firmly in place. The real answer is never some absolute rule, but always about finding what works for you.

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