This is a good question.
You’ve probably heard the expression “You can’t edit a blank page.” And while this is true, it has always seemed a bit nonsensical to me when used to convince writers that they must finish a first draft before looking back at what they wrote with an eye toward improving it.
OF COURSE you can’t edit a blank page. But as soon as a sentence, a page, a chapter is written, you can edit it.
Some authors NEED to just get the story out. They write as quickly as the ideas come to them, and their ideas come fast. The words flow easily. And if they stop the flow to go back and mess with what they’ve already written, it rips them out of their groove and they lose momentum.
Those writers do not benefit from editing as they go. They work best when they give themselves permission to write and write and write as the voices in their heads are talking, and the don’t censor the voices because–THE WORST–the voices might stop talking.
If they know that something is wrong as they’re drafting–say, they need to change a location or a character name or add something or move something–these writers are able to simply make a note of it and move on. They’ll fix it later.
Other writers (like me), are unable to do this.
When I was first writing, I tried really hard to just get that first draft out without editing. I read tons of advice on craft from experienced authors who swore up and down that editing your first draft as you go was a terrible idea. They said it would stifle my creativity. They said it was procrastinating. They said it was just another way to avoid the hard work of getting the story on paper, and I needed to power through or else I’d never finish. “You can’t edit a blank page” was the prevailing wisdom. “Give yourself permission to write complete crap,” they said. “You can fix it later.”
This made sense, and I gave it my best shot. But it didn’t work for me, and here’s why.
My brain isn’t wired that way.
Last year, I took a course from Becca Syme called Write Better Faster. (It’s a really fabulous way to gain understanding into your own creative process and improve your productivity by embracing the strengths of your personality and ignoring the advice that isn’t right for you. Learn more here.)
In Becca’s course, I learned that I am “highly linear and Compliant.” Turns out, people wired like me are terrible at plowing through a first draft without editing, and trying to do so is actually counterproductive.
Here’s what she had to say: “There are some people who can’t continue writing if what’s behind them is not correct. So they have to keep going back and edit, because otherwise the story won’t come to them. It literally won’t unfold.”
When I read that, I nearly wept with relief. That is exactly how I am, and I’ve never been able to explain it. If I try to plow straight through without fixing what I know isn’t right, the story literally will not unfold.
Does this make me a slower writer? Yep. I will never be that author who can reliably write 4-8K a day and finish a book in a few weeks, because I am constantly going back and revising what’s there. And I’ve learned to accept that about myself instead of wasting my time envying my friends who are faster than I am.
Another thing I’ve learned is one of the benefits of being wired this way. If I’m stuck, I know it’s because I took a wrong turn somewhere, and going back is the only way I’ll figure out where. (Usually I rushed something. Or I’m in the wrong POV.)
The editing-as-you-go question is only one example of a “accepted” wisdom about writing that should be challenged based on how YOU work best. Don’t feel pressured to accept ALL the advice you’re given. Listen, take it in, maybe try it out, and see if it works for you. If it does, great! If it doesn’t, feel free to discard it.
We’re all different, and that’s awesome.
Feel free to ask a question or tell me about your process in the comments! I’m also happy to talk more about Becca Syme’s classes if you’d like!