Monday, August 10, 2020

Why You Should Edit That Last Scene Before Moving On

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Editing what you wrote in your last writing session can help jump start your next writing session.

There’s common writing wisdom advocating to just keep moving forward when writing a first draft, and not stop to edit what’s already been written. I think this advice is a little too broad to be useful, and misses out on something important to writers.


Starting a writing session isn’t always easy. On good days, we know exactly what we want to write and can dive in without thought. On not so good days, we stare at the screen and it takes us forever to get those first pages down.

Many writers even recommend “morning pages” for this very reason. You write before you sit down to write. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s the practice of stream-of-consciousness, free writing for a set amount of time. The idea is to wake up your mind and creativity. (Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is the go-to book everyone talks about if this sounds interesting to you).

Now, I won’t disparage any technique that works for those who enjoy it (not everything works for every writer), but if I’m spending time writing, I prefer it to be on my WIP.

Which is why I like to edit a little before I write. Here’s why:

Reading and editing the previous scene or chapter gets you back into the story without the pressure of writing new material.

For me, these quick edits are my morning pages. Instead of free writing, I wake myself up by reviewing what I wrote on my last session and making a few tweaks. Most of the time the edits are minor—a word choice here, and extra line of dialogue there, a cut where it needs it. By the time I’m done with that scene or chapter, I’m ready to get to the real work.

The Pros of Editing Before Writing

It helps you remember where you were in the story.

I work on my novel every weekday morning, but that’s not the only writing I do in a day. I also write blog posts, critique chapters for my critiques partners, edit client work, write non-fiction classes and workshops, develop marketing and promotional material, and more. A lot of things are in my head between ending a session on my novel and picking it up again the next day. Reading the previous scene reminds me where I was, and that makes it a lot easier to pick up where I left off.

This is particularly challenging for those who write in the evenings after a day of work, life, kids, school, etc. More than just writing is filling your head. Free writing for ten minutes might be a nice break, but it still doesn’t help you remember where you were when you stopped writing last time.

(Here's more on Onward...No? Write to the End or Go Back and Edit?)

It puts you back into the world and characters.

I need to live a little in my character’s head and world before I can write them again, and reading their last scene helps put me there. I reconnect with what they just went through, how they feel, what their goals are, what scares them, and what they plan to do next. All the things that drive the narrative and create the plot.

Once you’re in a character’s head again, the words flow much easier. You know where to go next, because you just experienced what happened last time.

(Here's more on Top Five Fast-Drafting Tips for Writers)

It gives you an easy way to get started every writing session without having to draft new material.

This is my favorite part of this technique. It’s a jump start on my writing session that doesn’t require me to use much of my brain right away. For someone who’s usually at their desk by 5am, this matters. I’m a morning person, but even I can be a little foggy that early. But it’s when I do my best writing. I spent a half hour editing, then I’m ready to write my 2500 words (my daily target).

Editing is throat clearing, or maybe a little practice writing before the real writing begins. It’s easy to do, so I start off feeling like I’ve accomplished something, even if the writing session doesn’t go well (and not every day is a good writing day).

(Here's more on Shifting Between Drafting and Editing)

It helps you polish a little so that first draft is cleaner.

This is a nice perk to clean up my rough first pass at a scene. I’m usually focused on getting the plot and action down first, then I flesh out the rest after. It’s not uncommon for me to use the same word multiple times close together, or use the same sentence structure too much, or forget to tag chunks of dialogue. Small stuff, but taking another pass at it allows me to fix all those little things while it’s still fresh in my head.

You don’t always notice those little things when you’re drafting a scene. Much of it you probably do on instinct, but you usually have to step out of writing mode into editing mode to spot the small bumps in the writing.

(Here's more on How Writing in Chunks Can Make You a More Productive Writer)

Well begun is half done.

My favorite Mary Poppins quote fits this so well. If a writing session gets off to a good start, it usually means a good writing day. And I’ll take any advantage I can get to start my session off right.

As helpful as I find editing before writing, it does have some drawbacks, and I’ll talk about those on Wednesday.

Next writing session, try editing your previous scene before you move on.

Give it a try and see if it helps or hinders your productivity. You can also try a quick outline or summary of what the next scene is about before you move on. This can help organize your thoughts and create a basic outline to guide you (more on this next week).

How do you start each writing session?

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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. Powerful advice. For anyone who has trouble getting into the flow of the story, this can be just the right time-saver -- and writing time saved is pure gold.

    I wouldn't recommend it for someone who's self-conscious or too easily distracted; these are the writers who will see hours' worth of "errors" in that last scene instead of a launching pad. A writer like that might start by looking at a set of notes about the next scene (especially if those notes have been left with something else to fill in), or speed-reading through the past scene with a promise not to "edit" anything yet.

    1. Thanks! I agree, and that's on my list on cons for Wednesday :) I love this technique, but it's not right for everyone and is does have drawbacks for certain types of writers.

  2. This article is how I actually write. It's good to see support for it, when many others have disagreed with me.

    1. Then I'm doubly glad you found it. That "never go back" advice never resonated with me, even though I do see how it can hinder writers. I find the review most helpful.

  3. Shared this on Twitter, where the subject comes up constantly. I'm always saying that no one piece of advice is right for every writer, but I've used this technique since I began my first book and find it really helpful. Especially on the days when I 'just don't wanna!"

    1. Thanks! Oh, I know those "don't wanna" days well. I often just outline or summarize scenes on those days. At least I can be a little productive even if I'm not putting down scenes.

  4. Tried yesterday and today, and worked well!

    1. Oh good! Glad it worked out, and I hope it continues.