Thursday, September 15, 2011

Editing As You Go

I have repeatedly said on this blog that I write fast, horrible first drafts and then spend lots of time editing. (I'm doing my first round of edits on my current manuscript, so at the moment I'm questioning the intelligence in my system, but that's my laziness talking.) Many of you have said to me that you have a hard time not editing as you go. Well, the same is true for my multi-published friend, Roseanna White, so I asked if she would pretty-please write a post about this since I cannot.

Roseanna White is the author of two Biblical love stories and LOVE FINDS YOU IN ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND (December 2011) and makes her home in the mountains of Western Maryland with her husband, two small children, and the colony of dust bunnies living under her couch. After graduating from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, she and her husband founded the Christian Review of Books, where she is the editor. She is a member of ACFW, HisWriters, Biblical Fiction Writers, and HEWN Marketing.

And she's somehow fitting us into her schedule. Here's Roseanna:

As has been said many a time on Go Teen Writers, there are different types of writers, who handle editing in different types of ways. Many just get the words down in the first draft, then go back in the second draft and do all the weaving, all the fine-tuning, all the word-smithing.

Me, I can’t work that way. I can’t go to the next scene until the one I’m on feels solid. I reread what I’ve written the day before nearly every time I open my document. I tweak, I edit. Then I plunge into new writing.

When Stephanie asked me to share how this process works, my first reaction was, “Oh, fun! Of course!” Then, of course, as I sit down to write this I realize I have no method, or at least not one that’s easily taught. But for you guys, I’ll try. ;-)

In a class I recently took by my agent, the fabulous Karen Ball, she said something that stuck with me: that editing and writing use two totally different parts of the brain, and so have very little to do with one another. This struck me because, well, I blend the two. But as I gave it more thought, I realized that her observation actually helps me define my process.

When I sit down and begin a story, it usually takes me a chapter or two to get into my characters’ heads enough to get their voice. To decide what cadence the prose should take. To decide what images I’m going to be drawing on throughout the story over and again. These things usually crop up organically in the first few chapters, then I make an effort to keep them going in new, fresh ways throughout the book.

Once I’ve gotten my first three chapters written, I stop and go back through. By that time I’ve got a better idea of who these people are I’m writing about, and I can smooth out inconsistencies, remove some superfluous backstory, and otherwise do a check to make sure all my language is smooth and how I want it. I usually send out proposals at this point, so it’s crucial that the first three chapters shine. Once they do, I press onward.

In general, I write a clean first draft. There are obviously typos and mistakes, but I’m what I’d term a go-and-stop writer. I write, write, write, then stop. And here’s where my brain shifts gears. I go back, spot-check, make sure I haven’t slipped into redundant wording. I smooth phrases, sentences, delete what I don’t need, add where I do. While I’m doing that, the next part is simmering in that other section of my mind. Editing clears some of the cobwebs, and then I’m ready to jump back to writing.

I also have a decent memory for what I’ve already written, so little flags pop up in my mind when I write something that doesn’t agree (or agrees too much) with what I’ve already written. I can’t deal with flags in my brain, so whenever I reach a good stopping point, I’ll go back and check on them, resolve issues as necessary.

When I hit a roadblock (which always happens at some point, usually after a writing marathon), I go back to the beginning and read it all again. At that point I usually catch a few threads that went loose, or things that I reiterated too many times. This read-through usually involves a lot of jumping around as I add or delete. It’s when I check for consistency or insert some motivation. And usually after reading it (which only takes me a day or so), I’m ready to keep going.

Occasionally I’ll have something I know needs addressed but I save it until the end—like in my current manuscript, I know I need to add something else with a fellow named Percy, but I haven’t figured out what yet. When I do, though, it’ll be a simple matter of inserting a few lines into the right scene. I’ve also decided I’m going to have to change a character’s name, but I intend to do that all at once, at the end, as well.

Otherwise I’m still just rereading portions as I begin each day, smoothing, tweaking, editing. Then I write. Then I stop, edit. Write. Rinse and repeat.

When I hear folks talk about the draft process, and how many drafts they usually have of a book, I always think they’ve got it down. That they know what they’re doing, and that it ought to be the right way to do it. Yet that’s not how I work, and I seriously doubt it ever will be. I have a very hard time pushing on if I don’t like what I’ve got. Occasionally I can do it, and then just know that chapter four (it’s ALWAYS chapter four, LOL) needs work. Which it will get during my next break from writing. ;-) But in general, I need that go-and-stop to keep my brain functioning as it needs to, to have the time to mull while I polish.

The benefit of doing it this way is that I end up with chapters I don’t mind sending out more-or-less as I finish them. To my critique partners, my agent, and even an editor every now and again. I like to get feedback as I go, because then I can make small, manageable tweaks as changes are recommended. Alter a character that is hated (and shouldn’t be). Take care of things that bother my readers. Now, that way is obviously not for everybody, but for those of us who try the draft method and fail at it, don’t think you’re alone! The very thought of a serious rewrite makes me groan—but small, as-you-go revisions I find energizing.

By the time I finish a manuscript, I’ve done what I term “a draft and a half.” Portions have been rewritten (my ending usually two or three times, LOL). I’ve edited and polished. I do one final read-through (preferably after that time away that Stephanie has recommended before), then send it wherever it’s going. For me, this is what works best. Which editing method do you find yourself gravitating toward?


  1. You are a lot like me when it comes to writing. I have a really good memory of what I have written and that usuallyhelps me when I want to incorperate something that I know will fit in. Also it drive me nuts I'll find something that doesn't fit and I have to rewrite it all over.

  2. Roseanna!!! Thank you for this! I'm so glad I'm not alone. Whenever I'd hear someone say just to write a first draft without bothering to edit until the end, I'd always gulp with nervousness, because this is something that I can't do. I thought I was just being a rookie writer and had to suck it up and deal with it. LOL. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who does it the stop and go way, so now I don't feel as bad when I catch myself editing my fifth chapter instead of moving forward and writing my sixth.
    I have those little flag moments too when I write, that tell me that I've already written something too similar to what I've just typed, or my character is contradicting themselves, or whatever.
    I find editing as you go helps me form even better ideas and mull over my plot to make that much stronger. :)

  3. It's really just a matter of what works best for you! Writing is art--and there's no right or wrong way to do art, right? Yes, you need to learn technique, but there are so many different ways to achieve the same end. That's the beauty of it. =)

  4. I'm definitely the edit as I go type. Like you, as if I want to go back and edit the whole thing!:P

    I've asked this question before on the blog, but I forget the answer and I can't find it -- so, first person/third person... I started my book again yesterday, the same idea but a different, well, lots of things. But I've only written three chapters, and I've slipped back and forth from third and first about five times, without even realizing it until I read back. And I can't change it because I have no idea which one I write more "naturally". Well, I'd say first -- but then I still go back into third. What do I do?!:D

  5. I think I might try your method Roseanna. :) I like it! And it might help me make my work look a little better, I refrain from editing when I read bits and pieces that are horrible sometimes haha.

  6. I usually do the write, write, write method. I learned that I worked better with that method when I ended up writing a prologue six times and still did not get it right...

  7. I so enjoyed reading about your method, Roseanna. That's one of the (many) things that I find encouraging about writing - there are about a gazillion ways to do it and none of them are wrong, they just work for different people. I'm kind of surprised that I don't work more like you do...being a perfectionist usually means that I edit, edit, edit everything (like street signs, which can be annoying, haha). However, I chalk it up to the "college crunch" and the fact that if I don't write my first draft all at once and let it sit before the semester settles down and allows me time to read and edit...well, then, I wouldn't get anything written.

    I really liked this post, Roseanna!! Thank you!

  8. Great post! I once read that Dean Koontz will hit the backspace button as many time as it takes before moving forward, getting every word exactly the way he wants it as he goes along. That's what this reminded me of. I'm with you on the brain-flagging-repeated-words bit, but other than that, I mainly write straight through.

  9. Emii, you probably don't remember the answer because I probably gave you some non-answer like, "Write whatever works best for the story." If you tend to slip into third person, I say write it that way :) There's no reason why all your books have to be one or the other.

  10. Stephanie, I'm like you. I need to get it all down first. I'm so eager to let the action happen to my characters that I plow through, and go back and edit and edit and reedit after the fact.