Sunday, 26 March 2017

Is It Better to Edit During Writing, Or At the End?

Every writer has a different way they approach writing. Some like to edit as they go, while others like to wait until that first draft is done before so much as changing a word.
Since there are no hard and fast rules, best practice is usually the way to go. There are pros and cons for editing during writing or at the end of this process, but when it really comes down to it, many experienced writers choose the latter method, simply because the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Of course, it's down to each writer in the end.
Editing During Writing
How many writers stop what they’re doing and go back a few chapters to edit stuff?
This might seem a great idea, but the stop-start nature of this process means that the narrative suffers because all the writer is doing is slowing down the writing process and making it painful and drawn out. By continually going back to edit, writers lose focus on what is important within the narrative they’re currently writing, so some things go off on a tangent, sub plots suffer, they don’t keep an eye on continuity of events and characterisation can suffer because the writer has taken his eye off the ball.
The outcome of this is a process that takes longer than a normal draft would take, since the toing and froing between writing and editing means that two single tasks are swallowed up into one and any cohesion and clarity is blurred because the constant stutter causes the narrative to suffer and story focus is lost.
Not only that, but writers may end up making more mistakes by switching back and forth between writing and editing, because they are not concentrating on what is fundamentally important – writing the actual bare bones of the story. This is especially compounded if the story itself is complex.
Another major problem is that the writers don’t allow enough time from writing to editing, to allow the mind a break from the story and characters and the glaring errors, and that means they won’t distinguish between narrative mistakes and the deeper, complex ones; they just won’t see them. They’re too involved.
The complex stuff is exceptionally important. For example, you may not spot the plot flaws as easily as you would if you treated the editing process as a single task undertaken weeks after the writing process. You may not spot characterisation problems, or you may not realise that what you’re writing doesn’t actually make much sense. That’s because you’re too busy editing the previous chapter, and so on.
Editing as you go can cause all manner of problems with chronological events. If writers edit the previous page or chapter, they may cause plot problems later down the line with events that are yet to happen, and characters are to act and react with continuity. Something in chapter 30 might relate back to chapter 2, but you’ve already edited chapter 2, so now it doesn’t make sense. You’ll end up editing it all again anyway, which is inefficient and time consuming.
The other way of looking at it is “interfering” as you go. In other words, the urge to go back and interfere with the previous chapters to tweak things can cause problems with the entire storyline, since how can a writer know what will be written later in the story if he keeps interfering with the earlier story? The answer is you can’t.
Many writers do come to realise that the creative side of this process – writing – doesn’t always gel with the deconstructive, practical part – editing. You’re giving free range to your creativity on one page, but then constricting it and changing it on the next. To create and deconstruct at the same time can be destructive – it’s a volatile coexistence and rarely works.
That’s why they are two separate tasks within the writing process. Doing both at once isn’t conducive to flow, clarity, continuity or cohesion, not to mention all the other complex aspects that go make up the writing process.
That’s not to say that this doesn’t work for everyone. Some people like to edit as they go, and that’s entirely up to them. The end result is that the entire thing will still need to be edited properly anyway, several times, so in terms of efficiency, it’s not always the best way to approach things.
In Part 2 we’ll look at editing after the first draft has been written, and whether this is a better process for the writer.


  1. I'll confess here and now that every so often I go back and edit ( a bit) as I am writing and yes, it's an interruption, but I think a lot depends on your creation process. I like to have an extensive outline before I start and that outline helps me avoid some of the pitfalls you mention. As you say, its an individual thing. I miss out words a lot when I'm writing and like to go back the next day and fix that, but I also find that I only hit the right 'tone' for whatever I'm writing once I've made some progress. Editing for tone as I go along actually helps me to stay consistent.

    1. Interesting perspective, Amaryllis. The fact that you have an extensive outline helps you to keep to the story, even if you edit a little as you go, and so any editing you do shouldn't affect the story too much that you lose sight of what the story is, as can happen to so many writers who don't plan and outline. It obviously helps, which is a positive thing.