Friday, May 22, 2015

Onward...No? Write to the End or Go Back and Edit?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?  

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Fantastic post - so very applicable to all kinds of writers.

    Thanks, Janice!

  2. On my current WIP, I kept a revision notes file, mainly for reasons that fall under your point #5. It is tempting to go through the manuscript before it is finished to use the ideas that were learned along the way, but it has proved more efficient to just make the note and push on to the end of the draft. I finished my second draft yesterday, so with great relief, I can now dive into my revision notes.

  3. Excellent post! I am on the first draft of my first WIP and this is something I struggle with a lot. For a while I was tempted all of the time to revise, but now that I have made the decision to plow forward and just get the story down, the temptation is not as bad.

  4. Something that I'm in the process of learning is what constitutes a "go back and fix NOW", a "go back later when you need some time to think about where to go next", and a "do NOT go back and fix until after the first draft is written!".

    I'm doing it by instinct, at the moment, and it helps my process. I immediately fix anything that'll significantly change the where the story goes next (which means those last 3 chapters of the primary plot can wait before fixing because they won't influence the secondary plot I now need to write). I put notes and postpone things that, though they'll influence the story, they aren't critical. And then I don't let myself go back and touch little content edits unless I'm completely stuck elsewhere.

    Sentence structure and such get adjusted as I go back and reread what I've written when I need to make sure I'm keeping the "voice" consistent.

    I won't know how successful I've been with the revise-(somewhat)-as-I-go after I finish this novel draft and send it to my betas. I figure it has to be an improvement over the MANY significant revisions needed by my panster novel draft that's in its 3rd rendition and may finally be approaching publishable.

    Square brackets (and some things that are unique to Scrivener) help a lot with identifying problems. If I can tell something's wrong but can't pinpoint the issue, I just put a note that indicates "[There's a problem in here somewhere!]" (Or use my "PROBLEM draft" status in Scrivener.)

    I like how you take the time and effort to provide balanced posts of how situational (and idiosyncratic) writing techniques should be, rather than saying "Never/always revise as you go!" etc.

  5. I've never understood the advice that aspiring novelists should keep writing in order to prove to themselves that they can finish a novel. I've never doubted that I could finish a novel, so this advice doesn't apply to me. Every writer is different. Sometimes I'm in the mood to write, and sometimes I'm in the mood to edit, so I do what I'm in the mood for. I find it helpful during the first draft to go back through what I've written, so I can keep track of all the plot points and emerging character traits (I'm not an outliner). I agree that you can spend a lot of time perfecting things that you'll later go on to cut. But when you're beginning your first novel, everything is practice. Nothing is wasted.

  6. Like all advice it's really subjective. If you know you have no trouble finishing something, then the advice doesn't apply to you. My process now is different than when I started writing, or even different from a few years ago. But I've run into many an aspiring writer who gets frustrated because they get X amount of words into a book and can never get past that. They start over for various reasons, most frequently because they want to fiddle with the first half to make it perfect. If this keeps happening, sometimes it's good to just plow through and do it once.

    And you're right about no writing even being wasted. It's all good practice or development.

  7. I'm working on my very first book right now and I do go back and work on the earlier chapters quite a bit. These days, it has mostly to due with reason #5. As I learn more about plot and structure and character arcs and so on, I constantly feel the need to go back and at least partially fix up the older chapters, especially when the new concept is so firmly fixed in my mind.

    Since I gain many of my insights from this blog, I guess that means YOU are partially responsible for this behavior. :)

  8. Great advice, Janice! I think I am slowly coming to the realisation that my story just doesn't work, but I'm trying to see that as an opportunity rather than a crisis!

  9. Working on my third novel now. I find some kinds of editing - things that change the story in some way - I must do right away. Prose polishing, descriptions, details, exposition (if needed), internal musings and such should wait for the first edit after I've finished the draft of the last chapter. Here's one bit of advice I try to remember though - write your first draft for yourself. The story is something you're imagining for your own enjoyment. When you're done, you can edit it for other readers.

  10. I'm in the process of revising the beginning of my manuscript, but for a reason you didn't address: a ms evaluation from an agent who made extensive suggestions, most of which I can see as improving the story. And if I don't work on it NOW, I could forget what all those lovely/brutal notes scratched on my pages meant! :-)

  11. As always, spot on and timely. *g*

    I know I personally have no problem finishing rough drafts -- I'm a champ at messy, exploratory, completed drafts. But I'm still learning a lot about revising. At this point, I feel like I've got an okay balance. I'm sort of tackling it in chunks. It took ages and about seven rewrites for me to get my first act revised into something solid, since I kept having that nagging "something is wrong" feeling and it kept me from moving forward. I think I finally got all the set up I needed into place -- character motivations! Turns out I was missing those.

    Anyhoo. I was planning to just go forward from there, but ran into something similar at the end of the second act (an entirely dropped plotline which, uh, completely redirects the outcome of the action...) and ended up going back through it again and again. My hope now that *that's* under control is to get to the end of this draft, revise the last act like I did for the first two, and then start looking at the thing as a whole and seeing what's left to do.

  12. I usually push through. I'll allow myself to tweak the writing from the previous day but I use that partly to get back into the story. I'm still at that stage where I need to prove to myself I can reach the end :)

    If there's something big -- a new technique I've learned, a thread that needs fixing, a change in goal and/or motivation, a way to up the tension and/or conflict -- I'll make a note using the 'track changes' comments in Word. Because the comments can be as long as I need, without affecting word count, I can be extremely detailed and that helps when I revise.

    Excellent post!

  13. Great post. Re #3, I realized 2/3 of the way through the first draft of my current WIP that it was a mess and that the story I was writing in the middle didn't jive with the opening or with the ending I was heading toward. It was so temping to stop and go back, but I pushed through and came to realize that I had two books--two heroes and two stories. I picked one and am working through the second draft that still feels very much like a first, learning things I couldn't have gotten to, I don't think, unless I'd written "The End" to that other draft.

  14. I am so thankful that you write so many thoughtful posts. I have been hesitating to write my first novel for over a year. I have an outline that is developed enough to just get into the story, but to be honest, I'm just afraid of defeat (I know I should be writing for myself, but in the back of my mind, I know I want someone to end up reading it, and liking it), which leads me to consistently find reasons not to write my story. I'm one of those people who needs to feel the accomplishment of just getting the story down, and go back and edit later, as much as editing would be tempting. Your posts are encouraging. Thank you!

  15. Chemist Ken, oppsy (grin). I know what you mean though, I did the same thing on my starter novel. But I did learn a lot from it.

    Jen, it's totally an opportunity. And you have to give yourself kudos for seeing what doesn't work. That's a skill too.

    DL: Great advice.

    Cathy, oh, that's a great reason to go back and edit :)

    Becky, sounds like a solid process to me.

    Raelyn, I like that about track changes and word count. I just make the notes in my file, but they do add to the overall count

    Becky, that's exactly why sometimes it's best to push on through. I've been there myself.

    Melissa, I'm so glad I could help! You're not alone in that feeling, and lots of writers are nervous about their first novels (and showing anything to others). The only way you'll lose is if you don't try. First drafts almost always stink, and the real writing gets done in revisions :)

  16. Wow. I so relate to this. The amount of times I learnt something new and stopped to infuse it through--it wasn't good, I learnt to write down what I learnt or how I wanted to bring it into the early parts that I'd already written and use that LONG list when I commenced the rewrite(s). Thanks for the helpful posts!

    1. Most welcome! I did the same thing when I was first learning. It also depends on what the goal is--if you're stopping because you've learned something and want to start over that's okay. It's only a potential problem if it's keeping you from finishing a book and that frustrates you.

  17. This has been my biggest problem. I have gotten to a point to where my beginning is somewhat solid(thanks to the rewrites) but the rest is nonexistent. My ending point seems to always be at the top of act two. That's when I get that "This is stupid" feeling. My NEW goal is to push through it no mater how stupid it feels. Easier said than done though.

    1. It sure it, and I've been there, too. What helped me with that, was to take a little time and summarize more/flesh out my ending once I got closer to it. That let me figure out how to connect the opening to the ending and gave me more things to write toward. And if I needed to add anything, I still had time to toss it in on the first draft.

      Have you tried a midpoint reversal goal? That also helps me get through the middle and gives me a solid direction to go for the end.

  18. I won't stop until I'm at the end. This is my first book, but that isn't the reason why I keep on going. I do it because if I don't, I may stop forever. Of course, I don't want to do that. One of your other articles talked about 1st drafts being messy and that is what the revisions are for. You pointed out that everyone has that 1st draft. I just keep on writing notes in OneNote to tell me to expand, concise, or whatever later, and keep on going.

    1. Good for you! And yes, first drafts are often messy, so you can absolutely clean them up in revisions.

  19. Great post, Janice! I've come to the conclusion that what works for me is pushing on no matter what, but I make notes, either inline or on a list, to remind me of whatever it was I thought of. When I go back through to revise, I check the notes. I think it comes from doing NaNoWriMo for the past decade. I need to keep reminding myself with first drafts: once it's on "paper", it can be reworked, but if it isn't written yet, there's nothing to revise. Otherwise, I find it takes waaaay too long to finish that first draft, and I get distracted by that next book I want to write :-)

    1. Totally, we can't revise what we haven't written. I agree, NaNo is great for that, and I have a few friends who did it just to break themselves of the "go back and edit" habit.

  20. Excellent post as always. It's reassuring to know that other established writers experience similar humps in the writing process. As a new writer, I recognize my own pitfalls in four out of five points you cited (I know who my protag is, so #4 did not apply). I am a solid seven chapters in to my WIP; as I venture toward the murky middle I'm determined to push forward and finish. Thanks again for this very helpful post

    1. Most welcome. The nice thing about writing, is that we all go through the same things no matter how many books we've written or where we're at in our careers. Good luck on pushing forward!

  21. I really needed this! I just recently attended a writers conference and have been confused about revising versus finishing the I'm going to push through and finish it๐Ÿ˜Š

    1. Good for you! At the very least, you'll know how your process works when you write first and edit later. So if you decide later that you prefer to edit as you go, you'll know that's the right choice. And if finishing first works great for you, you don't have to stress over it anymore :)