Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Why You *Shouldn’t* Edit That Last Scene Before Moving On

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you want to keep your writing momentum going, you might not want to edit your previous scene.

On Monday, I shared the pros of editing and reading what you wrote during your last writing session. Today, let’s look at the cons of doing so.

There’s a lot of advice that says editing what you just wrote is a bad idea. It’s better to start fresh and move forward with your current draft without worrying about what came before. That way, you can focus 100% on new material and have a much more productive day.

When I was starting out and developing my writing skills, I put enormous effort into getting each chapter right before I wrote the next. I’d go through it over and over until I’d polished it to death. It was as if every chapter was a manuscript all its own and it went through a full-on revision process.

When I read a craft book or heard good advice on writing, I went back to the start of the manuscript and edited it again with everything I’d just learned. I spent nearly a decade revising the first 100 pages of a novel.

I never finished that novel, and didn’t learn what it took to complete a whole manuscript until I learned to get that first draft done and then worry about editing.

These days (and a million words later), I find doing a quick read and edit of the previous chapter helps put me back into the story and jumpstarts my writing session. But it wasn’t always that way.

My experience is a good example of how a writer’s process will vary over the course of their writing career. What you need to be productive and effective changes as you learn and grow as a writer.

If you’re just starting out, or are having trouble finishing a novel, then editing before moving on might actually be holding you back or keeping you from finishing. If you’re a “get the story down and see where it goes” type of writer, editing could hurt your creative process. It’s just might not be a good idea for you for plenty of reasons.

Let’s look at the pitfalls of editing before the manuscript is done.

You can get drawn into editing too much and not move on.

Some writers are perfectionists who can’t just tweak “a little” and keep on writing. If there’s something wrong with a scene, they keep tinkering with it—even if it’s a perfectly good first draft scene. They edit it, and the more they change, the more they want to change earlier scenes, too, and pretty soon no new writing is getting done.

Not every writer has this problem, of course, but if you’re the type who get sucked in if you edit before the first draft in complete, editing before a writing session is probably not a good idea.

(Here’s more on Oh, Now I Made it Worse: When Editing Goes Astray)

You can shift into editing mode and have difficulty drafting new pages.

Writing new material uses a different part of the creative brain than editing existing material. Editing is about getting the story and text to fit a certain vision you have, while drafting is about exploring that vision. Even if you’re trying to get a first draft to fit that vision, the editing brain looks at the details, while the creative brain looks at the bigger picture.

If you’re trying to write a new scene after an editing session, your editing brain might trip you up because it can’t find the perfect way to describe a character’s expression, or it flags you down to get you to fix a paragraph where you used the exact same sentence structure three times in a row. It doesn’t let you just write.

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

You might not want to change it once it’s polished.

Draft words are easy to delete, because you haven’t spent much time on them. But edited words? Words you've polished and tweaked? You might not be as open to experiment or follow a spark of inspiration that requires you to change something you view as “done.” Once a story is edited it’s WRITTEN IN STONE AND MUST NOT BE ALTERED.

Editing takes work, and it’s hard to change any writing we put a lot of work into. But if that chapter isn’t right for the overall story, not changing it hurts the book. Particularly if you don’t write the story you want, but the story you feel you have to because you already “finished” the first part.

(Here’s more on Tell Your Inner Editor to Calm the #$@! Down)

It can tempt you to rewrite the story before you’ve figured out the story.

This was my problem back in the day. I’d get an idea, then go back and edit the previous chapters to reflect that idea. Then a few chapters later, I’d change my mind and have to fix everything. Or I’d get a better, cooler idea and do the whole edit-it-to-fit thing all over again. (This is how I know I’m so not a pantser).

New ideas are tempting, especially if you’ve hit a rough patch in the draft. It might seem like a great idea to change fundamental aspects of the story, but doing so might actually be a terrible decision. You don’t yet know how the story will unfold, and until you do, you can’t really judge if that “great idea” is all that great.

This is particularly damaging to writers working on their first novels. You learn so much by completing a novel, and until you write a dark moment and a climax, you don’t truly realize how much they affect the early chapters of a story. The second half teaches you what to look for and what to develop in the first half.

(Here’s more on Stop or Go On? Should You Revise or Keep Writing That First Draft?)

It’s a form of procrastination.

Yeah, this is also me, even now. On days when the words don’t want to flow, I can usually edit. And editing makes me feel like I’m being productive. At this stage of my career, I usually am being productive if I take a day to edit and not draft, but in those early days? Ooo boy. Nope. Editing was me putting off getting any real writing done.

You can edit all day and feel like you accomplished something, but have you really? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but you’re definitely not getting any further along in the manuscript. If you’re editing because you don’t want to write, or don’t know how to move forward in your story, you’re usually better off taking a break or using that time to brainstorm.

(Here’s more on Writers: Is Perfection Getting in Your Way?)

Keep on keeping on.

There’s a lot to be said for putting your head down and ploughing through to the end of a first draft without ever looking back. It gives you the freedom to focus on where the story goes without worrying about the technical details of writing. Especially if you’re more on the pantser side of the scale, and don’t know the full story until you write it.

Next writing session, try not editing your previous scene before you move on.

Give it a try and see if it helps or hinders your productivity for a week. See how much you can get written and how you feel about the process. maybe even split the difference—write without editing for a week, then take a day and edit that chunk. No one says you can't mix and match processes.

Are you an “edit before you move on” writer or a “get it drafted first” writer?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

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. Good advice for those who need to move forward with their novel. Balance seems to be key. These last two articles cover all of us writers well.

    1. Thanks! Every writer is different, and even writers with the same basic process will approach it differently. They key is to find the process that works for you, but also be willing to adjust it when it stops being useful for you.

  2. It works best for me if I start by editing the last scene. It gets me back into the story, warms me up and helps me tap into the writer part of my brain. After that, I can keep going into new pages. But if I work on earlier chapters, then I can get stuck in editing mode and never write anything new.

    1. I can totally see that. Recent scenes are still fresh and feel like "new" writing, but older scenes are more like revising.

  3. It depends. I used to get lost in a rabbit-hole of over-editing, but I'm better now.�� Lately, I've learned to keep moving, though I'll do quick editing pass to refresh. However, I save each scene as a separate file (I use yWriter), so if the scene has accomplished what I need (stakes, conflict, etc), but still needs a 'coda', I leave it for a deep edit another day. Sometimes, I've finished a scene at the end of my writing session, but I'll start a new file with quick notes for next scene

    1. I love doing "quick notes" for the next day, too. So handy to start with ideas in place. I really ought to save a scene before I edit, but I never do. And Scrivener makes it so easy! Luckily, it's only bitten me once or twice.

      You sound much more organized than I am :)

  4. Boy, can I relate. It took me 15 years to finish my first novel. I kept rewriting the first 5 chapters! When I finally just sat down and wrote, it was done in six weeks. :D

    1. Wow, what a difference! And a perfect example of why it's sometimes better to just write and get the novel done. :)

  5. Lindsey Russell

    I write longhand and then type it up so some alterations/additions occur during the process. I print off every completed page and then will not alter anything on screen that has been printed. The printed pages then go into a lever arch binder. If improvements occur to me I write them in red pen on the printed copy (and if they are lengthy I'll insert them on a separate page). I find this keeps the momentum of continuing to take the story forward but also not losing the thread of what changes need to be made. During the creative phase I do not consider these alterations/ additions/etc editing. For me editing can only start once I have reached the end :)

    1. You're going old school (grin). Very cool. There are a few of the really big science fiction authors who write along those lines. Bonnie Randall also writes longhand. I did that way back in the day before (ahem--mumble--computers) but not anymore. Do you write with loose leaf paper or in notebooks?

    2. Lindsey Russell
      I used to write straight to the screen but the muse deserted me for some years when I had to care for my disabled and then terminally ill mother. When the conditions were right to write again I found I couldn't write on screen. Yes it is tedious but if it gets the words down ... and I am finding myself adding much more as I type up so hopefully writing to screen will eventually return to me :)
      I use lined A4 hole-punched notebooks which actually lets you see more of what you have just written than a laptop screen does and makes inserting additions into the lever arch binder printed copy easier.

    3. Very interesting. There are a lot of things I prefer hard copy to over a screen, so I can see how this could appeal to a writer, especially during a difficult time.