How I Write - Editing as I go
This year, I started developing a process for editing my work (particularly novels) as I worked on the draft, rather than after I finish. It’s evolving, but here’s where I’m at with it now.
Image by Daan Stevens from Pexels - note, my office doesn’t look like this.
For many, many years, I was a straight-through, linear, never-look-back drafter. I never really taught myself to edit, just forged ahead producing draft after draft. Then I deliberately set out to learn the actual skills of editing (here’s the series of posts on that topic). That was an incredibly useful process, but I was still starting every edit from a difficult place - trying to edit messy, inconsistent, mushy first drafts that required a lot of structural heavy-lifting.
Trying out ‘editing as you go’
This year, I wrote a new book called The Disaster Club. I set a couple of ambitious targets for myself - I wanted to write the first draft in about four months. And I wanted that first draft to be about as good as my second, third or fourth drafts were usually.
That meant it was time to figure out how to apply some of my editing practices while drafting, so that I could avoid the huge structural and continuity problems that made most of my first drafts unapproachably huge editing jobs.
With this book, I sort of succeeded. I started writing as I’d planned (and describe below). However, about halfway through the draft, I caught Covid (after successfully avoiding it for two plus years), lost a couple of weeks to illness, then panicked (about my self-imposed deadline) and wrote the rest of the draft right through to the end.
After I finished the first draft I re-read it. The first third was notably more coherent and smooth. When I started editing, the scale of the structural work I needed to do was less extreme. I’m taking that as a sign for the next novel.
So how does it work?
Editing-as-I-go has three components that interlock in interesting ways. Firstly, I start my writing by briefly revising the previous day’s work. Second, I run all of my chapters through my critique group, with a 2-3 chapter buffer versus what I’m writing at any given moment. Third and finally, I set aside one of my writing days per week to do in-depth revision of the work that’s been through my critique group.
The ‘rolling start’
In motor racing, a rolling start is when the starting grid does a paced lap around the course first, then actually starts the race with the wheels moving. I’ve definitely found that doing the writing equivalent (a quick lap around the course in the form of re-reading what I wrote the day before) is a HUGE help in avoiding procrastination and just getting started.
I write about 1500 - 2500 words a day in a 90 minute writing session, depending on how focused I am. This means I have time to do a light skim and correction of the previous day’s output (fixing obvious typos, making notes on structural things I need to think about, a bit of light rephrasing) in about 10-20 minutes. This is deliberately light work - I’m not going line-by-line or word-by-word. That way lies endless tinkering and no forward progress. I usually find myself able to roll straight into the new draft once I reach the end of the previous day’s work.
It also means when I go into that new work, I’m completely clear on what has just gone before - that really helps you avoid the kind of stacked, interlinked and nested inconsistencies that can make editing a massive pain in the arse.
Getting eyes on the work
I’m extremely lucky to be in a small but very focused critique group. There are all kinds of different groups out there, from online to in-person workshops, for writers working at different levels of energy, commitment, raw output and skill. One of the challenges I have had in the past is my own writing speed. I write a lot and move pretty quickly from first draft to second and then onto submission. It took me a long time to find a group of writers who were similarly prolific and (crucially) willing to both read a lot and submit a lot.
Most of us post something several times a month and we meet every week if possible. It’s a lot of reading (on busy weeks I might crit 15,000-20,000 of new or redrafted work from the other members) but the other side of the coin is that I can write an 8,000 word short story or novel chapter(s), submit it to my group and get 2-3 amazing, in-depth critiques back within a few days. That is gold.
When I’m working on a novel, I try to get two or three chapters ahead before I start posting stuff - I want (and need) feedback and second pairs of eyes on the work, but I also don’t want to be overly influenced and end up writing a book by committee, or ‘playing to the gallery’ - I need the first draft to be relatively free of other influences.
Once I get the critiques back and we’ve had our weekly discussion, I take notes on everyone’s feedback, then break it down into actual tasks and I put it in my backlog of editing work. More on how I actually do that (in process and software terms) in a future post.
The last and most important piece of my process is setting aside one of my writing days per week as a dedicated editing day. I write for 90 minutes most week days, and I spend one of those sessions on editing.
Most of that time I’m reading the story or chapter(s) in-depth, working my way through a task list I’ve assembled from my own notes, my critique group’s comments and new stuff I notice as I go. I’ll also take more notes in the project file about things to keep in mind as I go forward with the draft, as well as adding to editing aids like the timeline I’m slowly assembling in Aeon Timeline, which is essential for sorting continuity stuff out later.
Ninety minutes once a week is usually enough to get through my week’s output (which is anywhere between 8,000 to 12,000 words). I use Scrivener’s ‘Labels’ feature to track which chapters and scenes I’ve run through this process, tracking them from ‘Todo’ to ‘First Draft’ to ‘Critique Group’ and through to ‘Edited Draft’.
The end result
So what does this process get me?
Broadly, a bunch of much more coherent ‘first’ draft that’s actually something more like a third or fourth draft by the time I type ‘THE END’ on my ‘first’ draft. More importantly, it vastly reduces the kind of open-heart surgery I used to have to do on my novels, because I’ve avoided many of the big structural problems that plagued my straight-through, linear, never-look-back messy first drafts.
So, now I’m done, right?
Haha, no, of course not. At a bare minimum I’m also going to do three or four full readthroughs myself, one or two passes with my agent’s feedback, more feedback from beta readers reading the whole thing and (hopefully, one day) work with an editor at a publisher.
But I’ve found it’s still worth doing. First draft editing-as-I-go makes every subsequent step a lot easier and drastically improves the quality of my first draft. The gap between the shining orb of light in my head that is my original story idea and the messy reality of the first draft is substantially narrower and that’s a major confidence boost.
This method of editing works with my brain, my schedule and my motivation level. Your mileage, as they say, may vary extremely. For starters, I have a very well embedded, protected writing routine that I’ve worked hard to make as consistent and boring as possible.
If there’s any element of this process that’s hard to get going, it’s the critique group side of things. Finding people who are a good match for you in output, reading speed, skill level and motivation is incredibly difficult (it basically took me a decade) but it’s so, so worth it.
For some writers, this may sound like absolute death-on-a-stick to their creative process, killing their momentum and inviting in the kind of showstopping self-doubt that leads to weeks or months of not writing at all. And you may feel that you don’t want to invite feedback into the first draft process at all (I used to feel this way!) because you have concerns about the impact on your own voice or motivation.
Every writer is different and every writing process is different. So take what you find useful from this approach and ditch whatever doesn’t work for you.
To be honest, I was scared to try editing-as-I-go for many of these reasons. It felt safer to forge ahead and just get it done. But as I developed a steady writing routine and found my critique partners, I felt like I could experiment a little without running the risk of derailing myself in motivation terms.
It’s also a question of balance. The work of making the writing good needs to happen at some point. If you do a ‘don’t look back’ first draft, you are backloading the editing work to the end of the draft. If you edit-as-you-go, you’re spreading most of that same work over the first draft. But you may also remove some work, because you’re fixing inconsistencies and structural issues before they become embedded in the draft. So in the end, you may well end up saving time overall.
If you’ve never tried editing-as-you-go, I’d urge you to give it a try. Start with something lower stakes, like a short story or a novella. I think you might be surprised at how it feels.
How do you edit? Ping me over on Twitter with your thoughts, questions and ideas.