One quick internet search pulls up post after post admonishing writers not to edit as they write. This piece of advice has to be one of the most popular in the author world (right behind “don’t use adverbs”), and it’s one I see followed regardless of genre, age, and experience. If you read the title of this post, then you know that I don’t follow that advice—strictly, at least. But it would be unfair not to acknowledge its usefulness before I explain why I often break it.
Perfectionism (passive, at least) kills the ability to write; it will lead you to procrastinate and dig yourself deep into a hole of dejection and insecurity. It strikes writers new and old alike, so of course it’s important to nip it in the bud before it takes over. And actually writing is where perfectionism shows up most—which makes sense, because transforming ideas from your mind into not just understandable but enjoyable and beautiful prose on the page is a skill that’s hard to hone. Anything with such a learning curve is an open invitation for you to give into passive perfectionism. That’s why, I think, the advice to write bad first drafts is so common. It’s to encourage each other that you don’t have to get it right the first time—“you’ll fail and so will we! It’s part of writing and that’s okay”—and to try to help writers learn how to shut off the part of the brain that inhibits them from putting words on the page. You can’t improve unless you work for it; if something’s stopping you from working, find a way to root it out. But as I’ve learned how I write as an individual—what outline methods work best, which genres bring me joy, how long I need to take to develop characters, the order in which story elements emerge in my mind, what’s most natural for me to write—I’ve learned that I need to edit as I go. And, funnily, editing as I go curbs my perfectionistic tendencies, not encourages them.
The reason why I edit as I go is the same reason I outline extensively and take months and years to work through the pre-writing phase: my stories have a lot of subplots and story threads. There’s no way for me to feel confident about the sequencing of plot points and character arcs unless I take my time. I also write linearly—I can’t jump to a chapter at the end of the book and write it, then come back to a chapter earlier in the book. I have to see how each chapter builds upon the other. So, consequently, I don’t want to move onto new chapters or sections until I’m certain that what I just wrote accomplishes what it needs to accomplish. Postponing fixing plot holes or bad dialogue stops me from continuing. This is a trait of mine in all areas of life: if, for instance, I’m talking to someone but notice that the pillows on the couch are completely disheveled, I have to pause and fix them or else they’ll continue to bother me. That’s what the idea of not editing until I’m done does to me. However, if I allow myself to fix those big issues before moving on, I’m able to hammer out chapter after chapter at a good pace.
That seems counter-intuitive, no? Wouldn’t editing stop me from writing quickly? In the short term, perhaps it does stop me—but in the long term, my confidence remains at a level that propels me to work hard. I feel confident knowing that I can pause at any time, fix any issue, and feel good about my characters and plot and prose again. Not stopping to edit makes me feel sloppy, as if my writing MUST be bad. But, while first drafts are never perfect (and neither are second or third drafts), you don’t have to throw out intentionality when you write them. In fact, the more intentional you are, the fewer mistakes you have to fix later—which can be equal fodder for perfectionism. Who wants to open a draft where you know typos and bad dialogue and lame descriptions abound? But, instead, if you know that the bones of the story are good, and you’ll find good pieces of conversation or descriptions in the midst of silly mistakes or inconsistencies, you’ll go into editing with the mindset that you can actively work to better your story.
To use the cliché, this isn’t a writing hill that I’ll die upon—if editing as you go doesn’t work for you, then by all means, don’t do it! But if it doesn’t work, then find a way to draft that does. Perfectionism emerges for all sorts of different reasons—no two people are insecure about the exact same parts of their writing—so why shouldn’t there also be different methods for how to conquer it? This is how I approach organization, editing, and, really, all of the writing process. Part of maturing as an author is not just learning how you’re made, but allowing yourself to explore techniques that facilitate that joy, confidence, and passion that makes all the hard work and frustration worth it. For me, that means I get to edit as I go.