How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board

The Case Against Editing as You Go

When I first started writing I scrutinized every paragraph the moment after typing. I counted the syllables so I could adjust for rhythm and flow. I checked my metaphors to see if they mixed wrong, I ran every verb through the thesaurus, and I dialed all my hyperboles back.

By the end of the day my word count hovered around the same number I’d started at. Sometimes it was in the negative. My effort to fine tune the perfect page kept me from finishing my stories.

Writing is hard. I was making it harder than it needed to be, writing the way I’d seen authors work on TV. They’d type THE END, pull the last page out of their typewriter, set it on top of the stack of pages, pat it, and hand the completed work to their publisher. Their publisher called them back before the sun had gone down.

“Why, this is your finest work yet!”

Yeah, writing doesn’t work like that.

As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “first drafts are always shit.”

When you accept this your output increases. You give yourself permission to experiment, to stop worrying about grammar and punctuation, and press on without editing. Your focus shifts from quality to quantity. You can side step writer’s block and keep the momentum going. When you focus on the present you get more done. You measure your commitment to your craft not by your bibliography, but by your recent word count.

It’s easier to commit to writing every day when you don’t have to worry about publishing by sundown, about your reviews, or your target audience. You don’t have to bow to your inner critic, because you have no need to reread your story until its finished.

You have to paint a base layer before you can start adding the other colors. You have to carve out the rock before you can chisel out the sculpture. You have to shoot the scene while daylight is burning. You can fix it in post later.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing he recommends putting your first draft in a drawer for at least six weeks before coming back to edit. That way you can see your story with fresh eyes. This will make your darlings easier to kill, because your emotional attachment will have waned. This will make unnecessary scenes easier to cut, because you’ll feel like you’re working with someone else’s story. It’ll make everything easier to fix, except for spotty continuity.

2. Chalk

What Plotting and Knitting Have in Common

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the easiest parts of editing. Fixing a broken continuity is far more challenging.

A story’s continuity is what makes it believable. It keeps your characters consistent. If your hero has a fear of heights they shouldn’t be eager to check out the view from the balcony of a skyscraper. If your hero swears in church they shouldn’t have a polite streak when they’re talking to a police officer. If you break your hero’s arm in one scene they shouldn’t be throwing any punches in the next.

A story’s continuity allows readers to follow the plot, to understand the timeline, to trace its causes to its effects, and appreciate the ending. When you write by the seat of your pants, with a focus on quantity over quality, you do so at the risk of your continuity.

Continuity is a string that knots up every time your plot twists. Whenever you knit a new subplot into the story you risk forgetting the pattern you had going. Whenever you take a thread in a new direction you risk tangling the things you’d already set in motion. Whenever you follow inspiration away from your plan, you risk turning your first draft into a big ball of yarn.

If you leave a story with a spotty continuity in the drawer for too long you’ll forget which strings need to be cut and which ones to be rethreaded. You’ll have a lot of knots on your hands. I have two methods for fixing a broken continuity. The first is a bandaid solution. The other requires planning earlier on.

How to Fix a Continuity Error Without Going Back to Edit

A temporary solution for when you feel a plot hole forming is to let characters draw attention to it. This way you ensure your audience that you have every intention of filling it. This can be done organically if you’re writing a mystery. Let’s say you dressed up a crime scene with inconsistent iconography.

Your hero could say, “Why would the killer carve the Satanic goat of lust into the victim’s back, then draw Devil’s traps on the ground around the body. One symbol is made to summon evil. The other is meant to repel it.”

Just remember that every time the detective asks those questions, they’re promising the reader a mind blowing revelation. If you tie up a loose end with a cheap explanation you’ll reveal that you didn’t know what you were doing all along.

How satisfied would you be to learn the explanation for the above scenario was that the killer didn’t know the difference between the symbols?

Let’s say your hero does something out of character. They step out onto the balcony of a skyscraper and lean over the railing. A few chapters later you remember that they were supposed to be afraid of heights, but the story needed them to venture out onto that balcony. Do you go back and delete all mentions of their fear of heights? Do you rework the entire scene to keep that character trait consistent, or do you have another character comment on your hero’s strange behavior?

“I thought you were deathly afraid of heights, but I looked out my window and I saw you leaning over the balcony.”

“I know. I’m not sure what came over me.”

This exchange repairs the continuity by acknowledging the hero’s inconsistency, but it isn’t a very satisfying explanation. If anything it only promises better explanation later on. If you do this too often you run the risk of making your story feel convoluted.

3. Time Travel

What Editing and Time Travel Have in Common

In the story I’m working on, I’ve strategically placed moments of foreshadowing. I left comments in the margins of my documents to make them easier to find. I plan on coming back to them often. They will be the most frequently edited pages of my novel.

In these chapters, there are crime scenes where every detail is pivotal to solving the mystery later on. As I strive to make the solution to the mystery more satisfying I find myself returning to these crime scenes and making adjustments.

In my first draft I make sure to use the exact same phrases for each piece of evidence. This may sound redundant, but if you have a needle in a 90,000 word haystack you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to find. By using the same terms I can search out any element I need to go back and change.

My story is filled with these foreshadowing portals; places where I can go back in time and make safe alterations without upsetting the balance of everything else I have going. I have a prophetic story within my story that I adjust to fit future events. I have a tarot reading whose meaning I keep changing. I have an autopsy report that I keep fine tuning.

Another way to keep track of your continuity is to color coat certain setups and payoffs the same color. That way if you alter the payoff you can save time by cycling through all the setups that need fixing. For instance you could color code references to the murder weapons red, and references to the killer’s motivations in green. This way if you decide you’d rather the weapon be a lead pip instead of a candlestick you can go back and adjust the crime scene to reflect that.

Closing Thoughts

With these methods you can edit aspects of your story as you write. You can keep your momentum going while keeping your continuity consistent. This will leave less knots for you to untie when it’s time to edit the rest.


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22 thoughts on “How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board”

  1. Not everyone writes that way. I have tried that, writing a quick first draft and then rewriting it later on, and it doesn’t work for me. I waste a lot of time and what I end up with sounds plastic. Instead I do the rewriting in my head as I compose and type it out when it sounds right. I know that’s not the way I am “supposed” to do it, but it works for me. I’ve published three novels written that way and am working on my fourth.

    1. Congratulations on your books, Misha, as well as your consistency in turning them out. I agree that there is no “right way to write.” In the end, if it works, it works.

      In addition to being a mentor and author, I’ve been involved to varying degrees and in different capacities in education; and if there’s one thing I’ll stand by until the day I die, it’s that every kid thinks and learns differently. To expect every kid to think, learn, study or show what they know in one way (which is, unfortunately, the norm in schools) — is simply to wind up with a lot of unsuccessful, frustrated kids. Same applies to any creative process.

      (That said, I love this post and will leave a Reply separately to that effect.)

    2. You’ve got three up on me. I’ve self published one novella (here on the site). I have two novellas I’m considering self publishing, two novels that need work, and one I’m shopping for traditional publication.

      I made a lot of mistakes writing those first two novels by the seat of my pants. I’d intended to write one clean concise story and it ballooned into two. I wrote them back to back. They sounded plastic and needed more work than I could give them at the time.

      This is why I try to be conscious of how my plots are rippling as I’m going.

  2. Drew, what I love most about this post is that you, as a prolific and solid writer – not to mention one who not only writes, but understands the inner workings of writing as well as how to explain it – have allowed the rest of the world an opportunity to be voyeurs to your process. Many creative types are very protective about their processes, and yet you’ve chosen to offer people a real gift here.

    Another reader, Misha, pointed out that he doesn’t work this way when he writes. Great! But you do. And many other writers who get stuck or wind up with consistent tangles in those metaphoric yarn balls will absolutely walk away with real strategies they can apply themselves and which will greatly help them.

    Moreover, it is fascinating to me as a writer to see how other people I respect are doing what they do. I have great respect for your systematic use of side-bar notation, the color coding — and exact phrasing of key elements to make finding them all easier as you go! All “brill”!

    I don’t know that I would use every strategy that you mentioned using here. But some of them I wouldn’t have even thought to use; and so, now that I’ve been exposed to them in compelling format, my own mind is thinking about ways to adapt them to fit the kind of writing I do.

    Again, thanks for the gift. I don’t think everyone realizes how much work and commitment it is to consistently sit and write quality, informative posts like this — for free. As a consistent blogger doing the same in my corner of the Internet, I want to be sure to show my appreciation for what you are doing here.

    1. Thank so much for your ongoing replies.

      I like sharing my process because so many list-acles on writing are stuck on the basics. Stuff like “give each character a goal.” I’m working to fill the technical niche that I was looking for when I started writing.

      A lot of my advice isn’t universal. These aren’t always the same lessons you’d learn in fiction writing courses. They’re deviations from the path. The idea being if you’ve tried one method and it didn’t work for you try this one.

      I love reading about other author’s processes. I’m not sure why they’d be protective of them. Their literary competition still has to flush out novels of their own.

      1. You don’t get how people could be like that because you’re not like that … which is why I keep coming back.

  3. This is a great article. I’m going to share your tips about fixing plot continuity with my writing group!
    I also write without editing.Then I go back and edit for obvious mistakes and check the plot line.
    Then I do something weird…
    I copy and paste each character into their own document. This way I can see a clear character arc for each one and change as needed. It’s a fun part of writing for me to dig into each character on their own.

    Eileen Pinkerton

    1. That’s not a bad idea. I’ve been using Word for my latest book, but I was tinkering around with an app called Scrivener. Scrivener lets you use note cards and merge your outline and your core text in the same document. I wonder if it has a method for honing in on a specific character’s progress. It might be worth checking out.

      Either way I think you’re method is inventive. I’m telling my current story partially out of sequence. I might have to give your method a try when I’m done.

  4. Great post, Drew. The continuity thing is a pain and the one thing I do try and fix as I go along if anything crops up. The rest (I’ve learned, for me at least,) can wait! I like the colour coding idea. Great tip. 🙂

    1. This seemed topical for me. I gave myself a slew of continuity issues last week, but they were all easy to fix, because I’d set some foreshadowing portals. After half a day of editing I was back on my way.

      Thanks again for reading. Hopefully the color (or colour as they say across the pond) trick works out. 😉

  5. There are a lot of great tips here. I tend to write by coming up with plot points I need to string together, and I re-read the last three pages I wrote every time I start afresh to remind me what was going on. I also have basic character sheets to make sure people don’t change their hair colour, and shoot with their right hand when I made a big deal of them being a leftie, and I keep these with me when I’m editing as a checklist to make sure nothing massive pops up!

    1. Sounds like your process is a little more disciplined than my. I ought to reread the last three pages I wrote. Usually I reread the last three paragraphs and get going.

      I need to start using character sheets to chronicle their injuries.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  6. Great advice. I wrote a story last year that by the end I knew I had a lot of continuity errors. One character was the good, then he was the villain. And my explanations for these were subpar. This will help me avoid that mistake next time. Thanks.

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