Myth-Busting, Part III – Personal Editing

WW Editing

Congratulations to Terri Crossley! You are the winner of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries. Please contact Sherry at! was used for the drawing.

This month, we’ve busting myths and rules about writing and the writing process. We’ve talked about character bibles and word count goals, and today we’re talking personal editing habits.

Many writers and teachers alike follow the mantra of, “Get the whole first draft down before you edit a word.” It works for a lot of people, especially those who dread the slog of a first draft. But some people say they need to look at what they’ve already done and make it better before they can move forward. So who’s right? Wickeds, what do you think?

Sherry: I do a combination of both. I think I’ve shared the odd way I write before — the beginning, the end, and then back to the middle. Because of this I do some editing along the way. But avoid writing and rewriting the same scene over and over. I think that is a form of procrastination or fear of failure.

Jessie: I am of the “get the draft done, then go back” school of thought. I don’t change anything already written before the draft is done. For example, if I decide to combine two characters into one, I go forward as if that has always been the case from the moment I make the decision. I wait until a revision draft to begin to patch things up. I tend to write quickly during those early drafts and I really don’t want anything slowing down my flow.

Barb: I am also of the “never look back” school, partially because I don’t know what needs to be fixed until I’ve gotten to the end, read the whole first draft, and made some decisions. I could waste a lot of time going back and fixing stuff–and then end up cutting the whole scene for one reason or another. Sometimes I KNOW I’m creating continuity issues, but I soldier on.

Julie: I write the entire draft. But, I use inline edits in Scrivener, and also use brackets and write myself notes like this [fix this later] [find out what you called her in the second chapter] [add more clock stuff here] [is this true or did you make it up?]. I’ve learned to trust my plotting, and keep on going.

Edith: I also like to crank out the sh**ty first draft, as Anne Lamott said. I try not to stop for research while I’m writing, instead typing [CHECK THIS] or a variation on one of Julie’s notes. One of my first editing passes is to search for left square bracket and then go check for answers to those questions. That said, every morning when I start writing I reread what I wrote the day before. I do some minor editing, fleshing out, tweaking. It gets me back into the story and reminds me of what’s coming up next.

Photo by Lisa Risager (blue socks for a feminist) via Wikimedia Commons

I think it’s interesting that this approach we all pretty much share would not work in some other art forms – like knitting, for example! Can you imagine knitting the rough draft for a sock and then polishing it? Although it might work for a painting. I wouldn’t know, not having talents in that direction, but I can imagine an artist might lay down the rough idea for a picture and then fine tune it.

Liz: I always intend to write the first  draft through, but when I get stuck I find that if I go back and do some editing, I end up making changes that get me unstuck. I don’t love that it works that way because I always feel like I’m never going to get the entire book done, but it seems to work – even when I’m churning out the last chapter after the rest of the book has been revised a few times!

Readers: What do you crank out and then refine, and what kinds of projects do you have to make your best on the first try? Writers – anybody out there write just one draft, ready to submit?

28 Thoughts

  1. I edit each scene when completed. I have an extensive outline for editing. Takes time but worth the effort. I do not delete scenes.
    JB Morris

  2. Edith, I find it interesting that you reread what you wrote the day before. I see how that would get you back into the story. So I have a question for the other wickeds…. Do you also review past writing before you start up again or does it make you want to fix any mistakes you may find on the spot? Thanks for taking the time to share with the readers!

    1. I don’t fix existing scenes or even read them unless a new scene I am writing brings up a question that needs answering for me to continue efficiently.

    2. I usually read the last couple of paragraphs before I start on the new scene. But I would rarely edit it — if I spotted a misspelled word I might fix it.

  3. I get the “vomit draft” (Nora Roberts’ term) done first, although I usually read the most recent chapter I wrote to figure out where to pick things up. I ignore details like, I’ve forgotten to include Tuesday, or, his name was Joe when I started this and now it’s Bob?–things like that can be fixed later.

    And I can only edit with a red Pilot Rolling Ball Extra Fine. Nothing else works.

  4. Interesting responses, everyone. As a reader, your second question is easier to answer. I love to bake and cook, and want to get the ideal result (i.e. final product) the first time I try a new recipe.

    As for my experiences in writing, I spent over 25 years writing journal articles and LONG technical reports for the Canadian government. These were always done in bits and pieces (i.e. chapters/sections), since they were often written with several co-authors. The journal articles also went through a formal peer review process with anonymous reviewers & the journal editor. So, there were many revisions and responses that need to be addressed/documented before sending the revised manuscript back to the editor/publisher. Another review/revise cycle might also be needed before the manuscript was accepted for publication. Each journal/publsher also tended to have slightly different writing criteria and review processes, too, so I (we) always had to adapt to their requirements.

      1. Hi Sherry. Well, kinda like Edith’s sock knitting analogy above, once you mess up a recipe, you have to dump the results, and start over. And yes, I would definitely tweak the original recipe to see where I went wrong!

  5. Always interesting to learn how other writers write. I write a first draft and then revise & edit. I may tweak as I go along in the first draft and write notes for the second draft.

  6. One draft. Surely you jest. (No, I don’t. And don’t call me Shirley.)

    Anyway, before I had my critique group, I wrote the entire Draft Zero (Anne Lamott’s sh!tty first draft or the vomit draft) and then when back and edited. But now that I’m in a critique group, and I’m writing as we meet (for pretty much the first time), I have to do some editing as I go because I wouldn’t waste their time or insult them with Draft Zero. So I do take a pass over the pages I’m submitting that month to at least make them acceptable for critique.

    But I’m not sure that’s really “heavy” editing. That comes after they’ve read. And I keep drafting in the mean time.

    1. I do proofread and tweak the pages I send to my writers group, though since their reading cycle could be anywhere in the writing cycle, they are often reading stuff I wrote weeks before. When I get their feedback, I enter it into Scrivener, either on the page or in the notes section, but I don’t fix anything until I can go back through the entire draft.

    2. I forgot about that part, Mary. Yes, for the scenes I take to my critique group, I read them out loud and fix stuff before I bring them. Definitely don’t want to waste their time on repeated words or forgotten punctuation.

  7. If I had read this earlier I could have saved a lot of rewriting, rewriting, rewriting the first chapter time. Now, I follow something like your system: Power through – keep writing – leave notes for future self to correct. Plus an outline which I consider a zeroth draft.

    Here’s my question: I sometimes think that during my messy first draft, I could be writing myself into a terrible trap. Something so bad I have to trash the draft and start over. Do you prepare so much that the first draft is pretty good or should I simply expect to need MASSIVE edits and changes through multiple drafts.

    1. Thanks so much for asking, Robert. The point of the myth-busting posts is that there’s no one right way. Julie outlines completely. Sherry often writes the end before the middle (so she knows where she’s going) and Liz, as she says above, edits everything before propelling herself through to the end.

      As for me, I know I will require MASSIVE edits and lots of drafts, but that’s just what works for me.

      1. Two great lessons can be learned from the MythBuster posts. One, whatever process a writer thinks she needs to use, there are alternatives. Two, some choices are better. None are magical.

  8. I edit as I go along. I read the day before’s production and edit some more if needed, then proceed. Read some aloud to the Saturday group for critique, send manuscript to “power group” for more thorough critique. By the time the draft is finished, it’s pretty near ready for submission. Kensington expects two 80,000-90,000 word books a year so I have to go pretty fast. Sometimes though I plant stuff I may or may not use in the plot, so that has to be omitted on my final go-round.

  9. I call that initial draft the rough draft and nobody sees it but me. I try to keep going till it’s finished, but I rarely make it to the end without going back to do some tweaking, although I don’t read previous scenes before starting the next one. I outline about two chapters ahead and do a scene per writing session, so I rely on those notes to get me going. Sometimes I get partway through and just go back to chapter one and work back to that point, especially if I’ve had to be away and have lost the flow. On the current project, I got up to the middle of the last chapter and realized the confrontation with the villain and the “obligatory spilling of the beans” isn’t going to be believable until I go back and make some changes, so it’s back to chapter one without finishing the rough draft. As to number of drafts–as many as it takes. I know I always need to revise for continuity and to improve pacing. At least one read thru/revision is just to make sure the mystery plot and its solution make sense. The final read thru is usually just to catch typos and repetitious words and the like. I want what goes to my editor to be as close to perfect as I can get it.

    1. Very interesting! I like that you outline a bit at a time. I think Jessie makes notes on scenes to come. I maybe need to try that out!

      1. That is what I do, Sherry. In fact, I do quite a lot of scene planning ahead which is partly how I push straight through the first draft. I don’t always have an entire outline but I always have something before I start to work on a scene.

  10. I am of the edit-as-you-go school. That is, my eyes often flick back over the last two or so written pages, and always find changes that will make the writing better. I go back an pump up the tension in the last few lines of the chapter, rewrite the opening paragraphs and so on. I have never written a first draft. When my last chapter is edited and finished, the manuscript is ready to go to my editor. I was a little scared when I sent the first book in my new series to my St. Martins’ editor, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when she she said the copy was clean and needed very few changes, and nothing major. Since I also have a critique group, I agree with whoever said she had to do some editing as she went along, because she wouldn’t want to waste her cirtiquers time or insult them with Draft Zero.

    In the end, I think we find out what works for us, and I’m a believer in, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Comments are closed.