At some point during a first draft, we're bound to ask ourselves if we should keep going or start editing. I've talked about some general reasons before, so now let's look at some specific instances we might face.
Chances are this type of editing urge will be prompted by reading a great article or finding some great writing advice, or even getting an exciting idea for the story. A light bulb might go off and you'll understand something you didn't before and want to go back and put that into practice.
But should you?
If this is your first book, you might be better off just pushing ahead and getting your first draft done. You'll learn a lot by completing the novel, and going through the process will not only prove that you can do it, but will give you much better insights on what needs to be done overall with the story when you are ready to revise.
And, (perish the thought) if you reach the end and realize the story doesn't work, you haven't spent a lot of time polishing it and can start fixing the problems. This happens more than you'd think on first drafts.
First drafts are usually messy, so don't stress if yours is a bit of a wreck. Sometimes we need to write a lot of bad (or so-so) words to find the story and understand the characters. If revising is going to keep you from moving forward and finding that story, perhaps wait until you're done. Having five perfectly polished chapters isn't going to do you any good if you never get to chapter six. (One note here, if your goal is to perfect an opening to learn to do them well, then by all means go for it)
Some very common reasons to want to edit...
1. You want to cut the beginning, because you realize the novel actually starts on chapter three
Revise, Yay or Nay?: You already wrote it, so you might as well leave it and not worry about it for now. Once you're done you can go back and cut whatever doesn't need to be there without interrupting your momentum. And you'll know how it ends, so you can edit the beginning to make it resonate better.
(Here's more on seven deadly sins for first chapters)
2. The story just isn't working
Revise, Yay or Nay?: I think we've all had stories we knew deep down weren't going anywhere, but tried to rationalize why we should keep working on them. We already put so much work into it, and we feel that if we just keep tweaking we'll get it right. But if your instincts say nay and you know it's a waste of time to continue, then trust yourself and revise. One caveat here... If you want to revise just because you feel it "can be better," then you're probably better off pushing forward. First drafts can always be better. Heck, final drafts can even be better. That's just how writing is. Only go back when you know in your bones that moving forward will only leave you with more to revise later.
(Here's more on why some books are just harder to write than others)
3. You realize what the real story is, and it wasn't what you started writing
Revise, Yay or Nay?: This one can go both ways. If you're still in discovery mode, then pushing ahead can help you learn more about the story and characters. (You see this a lot with premise novels, where you haven't solidified the story yet) You might need to write more to find the critical aspects of your story. But if you suddenly realize the protagonist's real motivation, or find the perfect piece of backstory that puts the entitle story in a new (and better) light, then revising can put you on the right path and save you time in the long run. It might be worth going back for that.
(Here's more on premise novels)
4. You realize you have the wrong protagonist
Revise, Yay or Nay?: You see this most often in epic tales where the core conflict isn't as personal, or in stories with a lot of characters and moving parts. The wrong protagonist does mean you have to start over, but at least you'll have a good sense of how things are going so the rewrite should go quickly.
(Here's more on writing a great protagonist)
5. You learned something about the writing process and want to fix the mistakes you've already made
Revise, Yay or Nay?: This is probably the hardest thing to avoid doing. I can't tell you how many times I rewrote scenes to put into practice something I'd learned. But there comes a point when you start revising just to revise, and the story isn't really improving. You're usually better off using those new skills from that point on and revising after the draft is done. Odds are you'll learn even more before you're finished, and then you can fix everything at once.
Everyone has their own process, so you should always do what works for you. But on those days when you just aren't sure, taking a minute to objectively look at what you're doing can save you time and hassles later.
What about you? Do you push forward or do you go back?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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