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.
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.
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.
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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