Edit as You Go and Why You Must Try

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Before 2012, I had a problem. A disease many aspiring, beginning, and even seasoned writers know well. Finishing what you start.

I had good intentions. Many a book idea. And yet, I had a hard drive full of half-baked manuscripts with good intentions written all over them.

Until a small tweak in my process made all the difference. What was it, you ask?

Edit as you go.

I know many writers and fans of #Nanowrimo will start a riot after suggesting such a radical idea. I hear them now:

“If you edit as you go you’ll never finish. What if you need to change the story? Won’t this just slow you down? Everyone says write and never look back until you’re done with the rough draft. You’re a heretic, Ryan.”

Maybe I am a heretic. And I will concur with my friend Rachael Herron who suggests not editing as you go if you can’t finish anything (We duked it out on her podcast).

Yes, please, for all that’s holy, you need to finish something. Everyone is tired of hearing about your Sci-Fi novel you’ve been working on since college. Finish already.

But if you’ve finished stuff, or want a new way of tweaking your process for better production, consider editing as you go.

Here’s why.

Finishing my first book in 2012 wasn’t a first draft issue. It was a problem with editing. I got to the end of the book with all the typical advice from Anne Lamott about “writing *sh$%*** first drafts.” Not a problem.

But when I got to the end and saw the pile of first draft nastiness. This heaping pile of squalor, this thing not resembling any form of literature, a mound of nonsense staring back at me. The motivation to edit went out the window and I gave up.

I gave up many times over. Another manuscript in the hard drive grave.

When I edited as I went here’s what emerged:

1. I had less editing on the back end keeping my motivation high for finishing the book.

2. In actuality, I was rewriting, editing, and polishing my book multiple times over. By the time I was done with the manuscript it had been cleaned up at least nine times.

3. Editing as I went helped keep the ideas, characters, and voice fresh in my head.

4. Editing as you go allows for major changes early in a work instead of trying to apply the scalpel after tens of thousands of words.

5. I learned to edit as you go is what many professional writers do (Lee Child, Stephen King, Dean Wesley Smith, Elmore Leonard, and many others). These pros wanted their manuscripts done when they typed “The End.”

I know, I know. This is crazy advice and not going to work. But… It can.

You must build in more margin into each writing session. If you can give an extra 15–30 minutes per writing session you’ll be fine. It won’t matter because you’ll save time after you finish your manuscript. You’ll only need to do a couple passes and then send off to your editor.

A couple tips for editing as you go:

1. Write for a few days before doing first edits. You’re trying to get a feel for the story and work. Circle back and clean it up after a couple writing sessions.

2. Before each writing session clean up the prior sessions work. Look for clunky sentences, spelling, grammar, and inconsistent thoughts. Does the book have heart? Will it move the reader?

3. Write a few more days, circle back, edit, and repeat.

4. Always edit by reading aloud. You’ll pick up more problems and clunky sentences.

My method is not gospel truth. But apply some of these principles in your own way and see what happens.

By the time you’re done with your story, or non fiction work, you’ll have cleaned up your work multiple times over. It will be clean, punchy, and ready for your editor. He/she will thank you.

If you’re willing to join the growing community of writer heretics, try editing as you go.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll finish that Fantasy Epic you’ve been boring us with since 1995.