When to Edit–and When Not

Sneak Preview! Here’s the first-ever excerpt from my forthcoming Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing:

Don’t try to edit yourself while writing the first draft. The time for editing will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. I’ve heard one writer comparing premature editing to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep writing!

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much research you’ve done, you never know what you have till you’ve finished the first draft. Then you can see for what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled onto your theme as you wrote and realized this new idea requires a scene to be added or subtracted.

To put it succinctly: I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize later that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if there’s a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely—it probably calls attention to itself. So you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in your story, not thinking about how clever you are. Similarly, I don’t want you to waste a lot of time beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor.

Wait until you’ve finished the first draft to revise or you may find yourself wasting an enormous amount of time, or worse, never getting to the end. This project will take a long time even if you work with maximum efficiency. Don’t make it any worse than it needs to be.