Dear Novelist: To Edit or Not to Edit

DEAR NOVELIST SERIES ISSUE #1: Or when to lock the inner editor in a dungeon guarded by a fire-breathing dragon.

Dear Novelist,

You are reading this either because:

a) You are a writer on a quest to improve your craft,

b) You want to see what another writer says on this particular subject, or

c) You are bored.

If the first, I pray you find some use in this little guide. If the second, treat me kindly, I beg you. If the last, I suggest you find some better way in future to spend your wayward hours (like, maybe write a novel?).

If there is one major pitfall common among novelists, no matter our genre, it is our inner editor. You know, that little voice (or deafening voice, as the case may be) which prompts you to cease in the midst of your writing and double-check that last sentence. Or it may scream at you to look back on your previous chapter, where you discover—Heaven forbid!—a plot hole.

So often we heed that little voice as though it were Jiminy Cricket, thus straying from our present task (i.e. writing the dang novel). This is detrimental. If that last sentence surprises you, I’ll be surprised. You’ve probably already heard others say you must ignore your inner editor. (My fellow NaNoWriMo veterans know this philosophy well.) Oh, certainly that voice will be offended, but ultimately he’ll be your undoing unless you put a wall between you from the outset. (That’s where the fire-breathing beastie comes in handy.) 

Trust me. If you let your inner editor take hold during the initial draft, you will probably never finish writing your book.

Why is that?

I’ll respond with another question. How many drafts does it take to make a novel publishable? Consider that the average published novel takes between three and eight drafts before it’s in its present state.

Let’s ask another question. How many novels have you finished writing so far? If the answer is none, think back on how many times you’ve heeded that little voice. Often? Very probably.

Don’t get me wrong, your inner voice is there for a reason, but sometimes he intrudes too soon. It’s like having your friend banging at your door around 2 am when you’re supposed to be sleeping. The rough draft of your novel is the “dream” stage, when everything is falling into place. If your friend interrupts this stage, you’ll likely forget key components of your dream, or at least lose continuity. A first draft is far from perfect. Like a dream, it makes little sense after you wake up. But if you ignore your inner editor long enough to get your basic thoughts, your panoramic vision, down on paper (or word processor) you’ll be ready for the next step and you can put your whole soul into it.

So what do you do? That voice is powerful. It clamors and rages until you heed it. Doubts flood your mind. You wonder if your first chapter is worth anything. You realize the protagonist started in Singapore, but now he’s in Sidney, and you didn’t explain how he got there! If you don’t go back and change it now, you might forget later.

This is where a notebook comes into play. I say notebook, but it might just as well be Wordpad or sticky notes. How ever you feel comfortable, the method is simple. Jot down these “inner” thoughts as they occur to you. Don’t go back to the chapter where John suddenly found himself in Sidney. Don’t change anything. Just make a note of your mistake and move on. (I must mention here, your subconscious is an amazing creature lurking in the shadows of your creative mind. It may even invent an awesome, mind-blowing explanation for why John traveled at the speed of light from one continent to another, which you can now explain! Aren’t you glad you didn’t go back and change that prematurely?)

Frankly, it doesn’t matter that your first ten chapters suck. Of course they do! That’s normal in a rough draft. It doesn’t matter that your protagonist started out nice and turned into a jerk (though character development before starting to write might’ve been beneficial). Transformations are frequent in the “dream” stage. What matters is that you get your idea recorded. The rest will follow.

So shut that voice off. Beat it with a stick. Bribe it with chocolate. Whatever it takes, don’t look back or you’ll trip and break a crucial bone in the structure of your novel. Move on. The inner editor takes center stage later. For now, to accomplish that first big step in your dream of being a novelist, keep writing.

“But you don’t understand!” you scream, throwing your hands up. “If I do that, I’ll be too intimidated to edit the novel afterward!”

First off, have you considered a career in acting? The dramatic flourish of your wrists thrown against your forehead is perfect for the stage—but it won’t get you far in a writing career.

Here’s a simple fact of writing: If you think your inner editor is going to save from you a second, third, fourth or even tenth draft, you’re mistaken. Whether you correct these errors now or later, you have to work hard to polish your prose. Taking one year to write and polish chapter one isn’t going to change that. You may have a nearly-polished first chapter, but where’s the rest of the book?

I’m sure there are novelists out there who can work like that, even publish like that; polishing one chapter, writing the next, polishing it, and so forth; writing and editing piece by piece. But you don’t hear about those writers much, do you? They’re few and far between and I’m willing to bet they’d still get more done if they locked their inner editor up first.

It boils down to this: If you want to finish a novel, write first, edit later. And don’t worry about your inner editor. He’ll hover nearby waiting his turn. Heck, he’s probably been taming the dragon in the meantime. Saves you the effort of a rescue later.

That doesn’t mean you can’t peek at what you’ve written. Editing and referencing are two different sides of the same coin. With my faulty short-term memory, I do have to scroll back a chapter or two to be certain of a conversation, a turn-of-phrase, a plot revelation, before I can move on. Glance back if you need to; just don’t stop to fix that wordy paragraph. It will still be there later, promise.

I must emphasize: Glance back, don’t look back. (There’s a huge difference.) Find that reference point, then move ahead; otherwise the inner editor will escape his dungeon. As my sister recently reminded, “When running through a forest, don’t look back! You’ll likely run into a tree.” In a writer’s case, that tree is usually synonymous with running head-long into the dread writer’s block-ness monster. (Yeah, that was a stretch. Sorry.)

In short, write long and prosper.

Sincerely,
Your Fellow Novelist

Dear Novelist: To Edit or Not to Edit

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