You write Chapter 1. It flows like paddling a canoe in a strong current, a few J strokes and you are heading forward fast. Yes!
Chapter 2 starts out that way too, still moving well, still splashes of enthusiasm and creativity, but the current flows a little slower now. You think back to Chapter 1. Did you start in the right place? Perhaps you should go back to the beginning and make sure?
So you retrace your steps back to the start and paddle through Chapter 1 again. For the moment you are convinced that, yes, you started in the right spot. But you find a short cut on an upper stretch that improves the trip, so you make it. Chapter 1 feels really good now.
Back on the route of Chapter 2, you look for similar shortcuts, note the beautiful spots you don’t have time to explore, make notes about bad spots you’ll avoid if you come this way again.
In Chapter 3, your writing river opens into a lake. You’re not sure exactly which way to point the canoe, so you figure you’ll go back to Chapter 2 and explore those beautiful spots before you continue.
And while you are in Chapter 2, you figure you probably missed a couple of beautiful spots in Chapter 1, so you go back to Chapter 1 and….
The internal editor
It’s certainly the story of my writing life. But I know I’m not alone. The urge to rewrite before you’ve finished the story is powerful. Many discarded, unfinished manuscripts have polished first chapters that would keep readers reading…if there was more to read.
It’s all the fault of that dastardly writers’ internal editor. The one that tells us that our writing is “crap”; that we are disillusioned at best and arrogant at worst to think anyone would want to read what we write. The one that tells us we need to be perfect.
And the truth is, most first drafts are not publishable. As Hemingway so succinctly said, “All first drafts are shit.” First drafts will have strong parts and weaker bits, and bits that should be axed and areas where more needs to be written. That’s NORMAL. That’s what the editing process is for.
But if you heed your rational, analytical, internal editor, and constantly loop back out of the writing process and into editing, you will run out of creative energy. And you will push the unconscious creative writer in you further and further away.
In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote:
The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
No editing on a first draft?
So does that mean that you should never edit as you go. Of course not.
I get momentum for a new chapter by going into the previous chapter—not back to the beginning of the novel— to read it and often edit it. That’s productive. You get into the voice of your characters again, you renew your sense of place in the story. And the time invested is not huge. More importantly, you do it as a way to move forward, not as an excuse to not move forward.
Perhaps like me, part way through your manuscript, you feel that the wrong character is telling the story, or that the POV should be first person instead of third person. I think it makes sense at this point to go back to a previous chapter or two—again, not necessarily the beginning—and rewrite and decide. But make that decision and move on.
Time and circumstance play a role too. If all I have is the forty minutes on a noisy train, likely editing is a better use of my time.But maybe not. Maybe just thinking through a plot hole or a character’s reaction in an upcoming scene would be better for keeping the novel moving forward.
It’s definitely tempting to go back to edit when you can’t think of what to write next. I do it all the time. But I’ve found some effective ways to overcome that urge:
- Go for a walk and think my way through the plot or character problem and then write forward again.
- Use targeted writing prompts
- Freefall write
- Write a brief summary of the scene I’m stuck on, and go on to the next scene.
- Persuade myself to write just one sentence…then one more…then…
It all comes down to how much your editing loops are preventing you from writing new material. We all create and work differently. If a bit of editing gets the creative juices flowing, go right ahead. But if it’s a procrastination tactic, fight the urge. The main goal of your first draft is to get the whole story down.
How do you stop yourself from using editing as procrastination? Share your tactics in the comments below.