Editing-Meet the Novel-Killer

The topic for today is an interesting one and even possibly controversial. Editing is great, but it can KILL any kind of writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I keep tabs on #nanowrimo. One consistent post I see looks like this. “Looked at the pages I wrote last week and now editing. What crap”…or something to that effect.

Editing too early can kill a novel. Yes, editing can be devastating to shorter works, but doesn’t have quite the killing power it possesses when introduced into longer works. In a novel that can span anywhere from 60-120,000 words (depending on genre), editing can be catastrophic if done at the wrong phase.

Think of it this way. Driving is great. It gets us from point A to point B much quicker, and we do not know what life would be like without our cars. Yet, do we hand car keys to an eight-year-old? NO! Why? Because that child needs to develop into at least pre-adult (known as an adolescent) to be handed a two-ton piece of metal and fiberglass. Is it because we sit up at night thinking of ways to make the lives of our eight-year-old children miserable and that we take sick joy in depriving them of fun activities like driving? Um, no. As older wiser adults, we know the child doesn’t have the height, motor skills, and cognitive development to take on such a task without possibly fatal results.

Yet we edit novels three chapters in? Gasp. Can we edit a novel this early? Sure. But just like handing an eight-year-old car keys, we must prepare to endure some consequences.

In my opinion, a novel has not developed enough to sustain any reasonable edit until at least the first draft. Our first draft is essentially our fifteen-year-old who can now go to Driver’s Ed.

Some of you might be screaming right now. “Kristen! What do you mean? Are you mad? Are you suggesting I leave a document rife with spelling errors and grammatical flaws just lying around?”

Yes. Yes, I am. You will thank me later.

If you are writing a novel, you need to leave any kind of edit for once you have finished the entire first draft. Breathe. Get a paper bag. You will be okay. Just trust me. I learned stuff the hard way. I suffered so you don’t have to.

Now is it okay to reread what you have written in order to get grounded? Sure. And when you reread, it is even okay to red-pen any spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. It is okay to make notes of things you believe at the time should be fixed or even expounded. But don’t you dare hit that backspace button. Nothing gets deleted. Period. Feel free to highlight. Make a note that you believe something should be taken out at a later time, but leave it be. Also, anything you decide needs to be added needs to be written in any color other than your main document. Red, purple, blue. Doesn’t matter. Just make it a different color.

Also, if you take part of your novel to a writing critique group before you are finished with the first draft, then you are taking a HUGE risk.

But, if you choose to do so, I recommend that you still follow these rules of editing. Any changes or suggestions need to be inserted in the form of notes (highlight possible deletions and make a notes as to why this section needed a change). Any additions need to be in another color…then sally forth.

Don’t look back, or you will turn into a pillar or unfinished novels.

Premature editing is very dangerous for three reasons:

1. Uproots Subconscious Seeds—Our subconscious mind is an amazing machine. It sees the big picture in ways the conscious mind cannot. As we write, our subconscious mind is planting seeds that, when viewed in a microcosm of one or three chapters, will likely seem to make no sense. Duh. That is like an acorn trying to envision life as a 100 foot tall oak tree. These seeds need time to gestate. When we edit prematurely, all we see is a hunk of something smooshy. We don’t realize that a possibly mind-blowing idea is trying to germinate and take root in the fertile soil of our story. By editing too early, we can possibly cripple our novel. By the end of the first draft, however, we will be able to look back and see sprouted weeds, which we can feel free to uproot. But the sprouts will be mature enough to distinguish from seedlings that need to be nurtured to their full potential.

2.  Makes Us Mistake Busy Work for Real Work—Premature editing indulges our fears. Many times we writers do not continue forward due to subconscious fear. Deep down we might know our original idea is flawed, or not strong enough, or convoluted, or unclear. We may know that we don’t have a solid outline or framework to support a 100K words. We may realize our characters have problems, but it is going to take work and honesty to fix them. Or all of that might be just fine, but we fear failure or even success. We fear writing the gritty stuff because it leaves us exposed and vulnerable, or we fear writing real conflict because our human nature is to avoid it. Premature editing gives us a false belief that we are being productive, when in fact it is sabotaging our work and reinforcing our fears by permitting us to procrastinate. Fears can only be conquered by facing them, and premature editing keeps us “busy” and gives us justification to stay mired.

 3.  Premature Edit Can Discourage and Keep a Writer from Finishing—This is another reason that traditional critique groups can be counter-productive. Other writers are seeing our work in a microcosm, and that limits how well they can critique. This is why I suggest using the techniques we discussed earlier. Just make notes. Our fellow writers are invaluable, but we have to appreciate that they are seeing our work from a limited point of view. Their opinions may be dead-on (We HATE your protagonist and hope he dies), but they could be far off-base and serve only to uproot those subconscious seeds we discussed.

If we continue to go back changing things chapter by chapter, changing, changing, changing, either due to critique group feedback or our own self-edit, what happens is that we KILL our forward momentum with a big ol’ red-penning, back-spacing machete.  Do that long enough, and it becomes hard not to be discouraged and ultimately give up. If you have been reworking the first act of your book for months, it can very easily end up in the drawer with all the other unfinished works.

All of us care about our work, and we desire to put our best foot forward. If that means waiting a few months before we bring anything to read at our critique group, then so be it. Mark my words. It will take a lot of self-restraint NOT to go back through your writing with pruning shears after a hard critique. I, personally, develop a twitch even after all these years. It takes all the will power I have not to go slashing through my writing with the delete button. So, I feel your pain.

Writing a novel is like planting a field of green growing things that will eventually bear fruit. If in the beginning, we can envision the magnificent rows ready for harvest, then it is easier to be encouraged and to refrain from digging up the seeds and starting over.

Time to hear from you guys, What do you love about editing? What do you hate? Do you have any tips or suggestions? War stories you’d like to share?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Last Week’s Winner of 5 page critique is Angela Wallace. Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.

In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.


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  1. Yes, yes, and YES. I used to be one of those. I’d endlessly polish the front end of a story and never FINISH the bloody thing. Now I pretty much write the whole first draft. I’ll do read throughs to refresh myself and I’ll correct spelling and punctuation issues, maybe tweak a word here or there if I notice redundancy, but mostly I leave it until done. Because you’re absolutely right. I can’t count the number of times some insignificant detail turned into something HUGE. Great post!

  2. I completely agree! I have done exactly this with a novella I’ve not long finished writing. In this draft it’s been ‘meh’ at best but i’ve gutted it out and kept going and not looked back. Now i’m going back in, braving the finer details where my brain started to think in the first draft but never quite made it, deleting or editing sections that don’t quite work after my mind had a bright idea nine chapters in… And my second draft is coming out better than I hoped 🙂

  3. Awesome post. And very true.

  4. Thanks once again! I’m working on a novella that I’ve been sending to a writer friend for critique. She’s asked if I want the edits now and I said no since I really want to finish the draft completely first. She’s already made notes and I already know I need some changes and I’ve been resisting the urge…so far so good. This is great info.

  5. I call this “writing forward,” and it’s how I’m writing my novel. Earlier, I tried bringing chapters to writers group only to spend weeks on a chapter that may not even make it into the novel. It would take years to write a book that way (not surprisingly, that book didn’t make it very far.)

    Writing forward frees us to charge ahead, keeping our doubts and fears in check.

  6. I guess it perhaps depends on your definition of ‘editing’ but I’m going to politely agree to disagree here. It all depends on how you write. I write with a partner – we brainstorm together and then I write, she edits and then we go back together, rip through the chapter (sometimes twice), make it better and then move on. We keep every version of every chapter (we’re geeks, we number them like Microsoft software versions – 1.0, 1.1, 1.2 etc) so nothing gets tossed permanently. But we absolutely edit as we go. We move through the whole manuscript that way. Then we put it away for at least a few weeks and then we starting editing the manuscript as a whole work.

    It may not work for everyone. Heck, it may not work for anyone but us, but I do think it works for us. We’ve written over a million words together this way, and by this point, it’s just how we work together.

    1. I have to agree with you, Jen. I wrote my first novel in one go and ended up with 120k after 2.5 months, after that I went through it and edited the hell out of it. So many times, I began to actually hate the book I once loved so dearly. Of course it was the first novel and it taught me a lot, I also loved it again in the end, but it was hard.
      Now, I’m writing slower. I write at night and edit the next day — only typos and flow. I know for a fact that I won’t hate my novels when finished, because I’ll end up with a rather clean first draft. I’ve sort of my editing-programme running in my head and write accordingly. Yes, it’s slower, yes it’s often
      painfully long staring at a blank screen, but I know I will read it the next day and will be satisfied. Guess it’s all down to personal taste when it comes to editing. I’d rather edit other people’s works 😉


  7. Yves,
    Do you worry that obtaining feedback early might inhibit your novella? I worry about getting opinions from someone who may not understand the full concept of the story. That being said, my wife reads many of my stories before they are finished, but I mostly look for a “feeling” about the story, and not corrections.

  8. I probably write slower than most because I’m totally anal about making sure the story is going in the right direction. If it doesn’t feel right, I delete straight off, rather than waste time going in the wrong direction. But if everything’s flowing then I let it go. Like Kait said, I usually re-read and tweak sentences to make them flow better, maybe add in a bit extra here and there before sending the day’s chapters off to my CP, but I don’t edit until after it’s done. The golden rule: you can’t edit a blank page. Getting a first draft finished is definitely the heavy lifting, as far as I’m concerned. I do like to pay attention and tweak things as I go, though. Leaves less to do at the end.

    • Olivia Newport on July 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm
    • Reply

    I tend to just push through at least to halfway through the novel. Usually by then I discover threads that matter more than I expected, and I go back and revise the first half to be sure everything is in place to avoid loose ends or where-did-that-come-from syndrome. Then I push through to the end before doing any more editing.

  9. I usually start my writing each day by rereading what I wrote the day before, and yes, at times this can be a trap.

  10. Wow, “a field of green growing things.” I’ve always had the feeling that premature editing is killing something, but I was never really sure what. Now I know, it is killing the crop! The temptation is incredible to muck around with what I’ve already done, but I’m going to try to restrain myself and just keep writing, even if I don’t quite know where I’m going. Polishing up those first three chapters (or whatever) will have to wait.

    Thanks, Kristen

  11. My chapter book just went in a direction I wasn’t expecting so I cut two major characters out and can use them in another book. (Sorry that goes against what you said) I wouldn’t correct grammar early though. Finished draft and happy with it to go marinate. Great post as usual.

  12. I’m a nearly incurable editor-as-I-go, and it’s one part perfectionism, one part avoidance, and 62 parts fear of failure/success/this-idea-is-stupid. I am trying like crazy as I write this first draft to let what I write stand and just keep moving forward. I’m over 28,000 words in, and still going, but it’s getting harder and harder to not freak out!

  13. I’m working on my very first WIP, and yes, I do go back and edit a lot. Not grammar or punctuation or anything like that, but mostly big issues that I just can’t leave behind until they’re fixed. For instance, an unexpected twist in the plot which requires a partial rewrite of a previous chapter. Sometimes I can just leave myself a note, but usually I’ll have to go back and do the rewrite while it’s still fresh in my mind. Works for me (and I don’t think I have much choice in the matter anyway!).

    1. I wouldn’t. Just make a note. Your subconscious might have something better in the pipeline. You could be deleting something really brilliant. And, if you haven’t tried it this way, how do you know the premature editing works? I would just advise you try it.

      I was working on my current WIP and I wrote something so seemingly dumb. But, I refused to change it. 50 pages later I saw the full picture my subconscious was laying down and I thanked GOD I didn’t follow my impulse to delete. The conscious mind isn’t always running the same speed as the subconscious. Give it time to catch up. 😉

  14. Yes. I am VERY good at procrastinating due to fears I don’t want to face. I am the master tinkerer. But with my current WIP, I’ve forced myself to keep going forward. I have almost 65K words now. Some of them are junk, but that’s okay. (I think. Gah.)

  15. Brilliant. Every fiction writer needs to read this.

    I’d also like to add that hiring an editor too early will kill a novel, too. Even if you’re a zillionaire, it’s a bad idea. A lot of people think when they’ve got a first draft, and have reached that 15-year-old ready-for-a-driver’s-permit stage, they should hire somebody to “polish” the book and make it publishable. This is like hiring a chauffeur instead of learning to drive. Don’t do it!

  16. I accidentally do what you suggest, Kristen, and now I see why it’s a good idea. I always get through the first writing and then go back and then again and again. Revisions are my friend and my books are better for doing them after the book is written and not along the way.

  17. I write only non-fiction and I agree that coming back at it too soon is unwise. Ideas tend to play out in greater depth as you’ve had time to think them through – I added a kicker to the end of one of my chapters after the umpteenth revision when what I meant FINALLY became crystal clear to me and found a succinct way to express it.

  18. I almost never do this publicly (and especially not here because I love your blog), but . . . I’m going to have to disagree. (Only in part). 100% agree with not taking an unfinished draft to a critique group.

    I don’t agree with not editing until you have a finished first draft. Maybe I’m abnormal, but if I tried that, I’d actually never finish. I usually edit what I wrote the day before as a way to get started on the new chapter I’m writing. Some days that means I never reach the new chapter, but more often than not, it means I’m able to write the next chapter more quickly because I’ve already stepped back inside the world (or the topic).

    If something major changes, I also find that I need to go back and update the earlier chapters before I go on. (I’m a planner, so that doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen.) When I try to leave it, the thought of what a mess the beginning is actually causes me so much worry that I can’t concentrate on the rest of the book until I fix it. Maybe that’s because I’m an obsessive planner when I write (articles, short stories, or novels), and without a clear path, I freeze up. Pantsers may have a much easier time with it.

    Rather than “absolutely no self-editing until you finish,” I’d advocate for finding the balance that allows you to work to the highest level of quality productivity. That said, I’m not a fan of what my critique partner calls “vomit drafts” either. I’d rather get 500 good words on the page than 2,000 words that will take me hours to fix later.

    I might just be weird 🙂

    1. No, if you read, I said you can do that kind of editing. Make notes in another color. Totally rewriting might be undermining something better. I have done both ways and I have to say that we can undermine a lot of help our subconscious is offering. We are trying to leash the muse :D. Just let her off the leash and she can surprise you. Now, I generally always plan everything first. I am only a partial pantser. But I do have to say that this method has helped me discover some great ideas that I would have edited out.

      Sure, in the end we have to pick a method that woprks. But sometimes it helps to try something new. I learned this method (I think) from Candy Havens and I screamed and whined the entire time…then later had to begrudgingly admit she was right :D.

  19. I learned this lesson during NaNoWriMo. Now I’ve ingrained it in my head that I will not look back. At all. If I need to research something, or if I have concerns, I’ll put it in parentheses and come back to it once the first draft is finished.

    I did make the mistake of submitting chapters of an unfinished book to my critique group, and won’t do that again. It definitely messed with my head, making me think the whole thing wasn’t worth finishing. That wasn’t my critique group’s fault, it was my own. Lesson learned!

  20. Holy Cow! This one struck a chord with me: ” 3. Premature Edit Can Discourage and Keep a Writer from Finishing.” I am there. Halfway through my WIP, and I’m getting harsh critiques from crit partners, and right now I feel totally discouraged. I should have waited until the first draft was DONE.

  21. THANK-YOU for this post!!

    After a 3 week forced break from writing due to a new job I am starting my draft today and I will heed any impulse to edit, I want to allow the words that have been accumulating to just flow.

    Thanks again for all that you share! Please do not enter me into your drawings…don’t need any temptations to edit..hahaha!

    Cheers, Susette

  22. I totally agree with this post! This is exactly what happened to me when I started my novel 4 years ago. I edited so often and got so frustrated and discouraged that I put it away. For four years. So this time around, I let myself finish my first draft [which I am calling my “discovery draft”] with no looking back. Then I went back and read it and “discovered” that I have a lot of work to do! But instead of revising right away, I went back to the roots. I reworked my character profiles to flush out inconsistencies I had noticed, and am now revising my outline. THEN I’ll go back and edit my draft.

    Thanks for the continued inspiration!

  23. Oh my…I’m so guilty of this. With my MIP, I actually finished a first draft. Then I realized that the ending just wasn’t what it should have been. So I started rewriting…then I stopped about 2/3 of the way through and started rewriting again because I realized the beginning needed changing. Then, I tried to write all the way through to the end but kept getting stuck. Sigh. Now, I’m back in outline stages. I want to make sure I have everything worked out (though I know any of those details may change as I embark on the next draft). This time, I will get through the entire draft before rewriting. Any changes that come to mind will get noted and fixed LATER! 😀

  24. LIghtbulb moment! Even though I have a first draft mostly completed (no ending), my revisions have taken a lot longer because I keep rewriting the same sections. The second half of my draft for nanowrimo I got it a little more, but it’s so incredibly difficult not to edit as I go! Making notes in another color is helpful.

    Thank you for this post, it has me thinking in new directions!

  25. Again a very timely post I just finished reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King- both recommend finishing your work totally then setting it aside, then editing, then a critique group. I can see the point in this. I have been going chapter by chapter but I thinking about trying it out differently.

  26. I, now, completely agree. I belong to a crit group and we upload our work chapter by chapter. I know other authors who produce “clean” copy because they edit as they write. It works for them. I’ve tried it both ways and editing while writing does not work for me.
    It’s too easy for me to allow fear to stop my writing–that whispering voice that tells me it’s not good enough, or cliche, stupid, cheesy, boring…she does everything she can for me to quit. I no longer can add the immobilizing results of editing at the same time.
    I told my group they won’t see any more of my current wip until it’s finished and has survived through the first round of editing.
    So, yes, yes, yes! 🙂

  27. Lady Kristin

    So consider for a moment. Consider Mr Meriwether Lewis. Consider Mr William Clark.

    Yes. The Lewis and Clark Expedition. But what if What if Mr Clark and Mr Lewis had had been ‘early editor’ types? What if every time they made camp they’d refused to move one more step of the way till they’d built a nice dock at each camp, a trading station, established a custom house, built a small town…

    Bugger that. The Great Lewis And Clark Expedition would have been more the Great Lewis and Clark Camping Trip Over The Next Hill. Which isn’t just clumsy, it has far too many capitals for sanity :-).

    Jefferson himself told them their first and highest priority was to get there. He didn’t actually _say_ that building an Interstate with nice, neat paving and decent truck stops could come later. Well, since they were looking for a water route, he wouldn’t. Even if he’d gotten round to inventing Interstates back then :-). But if anyone had brought the subject up, I imagine he’d have expressed quite strong views on the matter. With an axe.

    Ah. Sorry. The whole axe thing was young Washington, or so I’m told. But you get the picture :-).

    The first thing is to get there. Actually, that’s not the first thing. The first thing is to work out if there’s a ‘there’ to get to. It’s just that, like Mr Lewis and Mr Clark, the best way to find out if you can get ‘there’, to find out whether there’s a book that needs editing, is to write the damn book. The rest is tarmac. And truck stops. And rest-rooms. And do-nuts with nice crunchy icing and lovely creamy…

    Damn. I hate being a diabetic :-P.

    Er… I probably should have said this at the top. But I agree with you 100%. I’d agree with you 200%, but the whole per-cent thing sort of stops me :-).

    1. Wonderful. Had me laughing out loud!

  28. Your constantly-tweaking-nervously-editing-on-the-hoof writer sounds just like me. Which might explain why I have 3 novellas which should have been novels and a 25000 word memoir sitting in abandoned files on my computer. I mostly write poetry, with rather more success, but I really do want to finish an adventure story I have been writing for my grandson. I will have a try at the let-it-all-hang-out technique, and see it works. Looking back on this comment I find I have deleted/inserted/re-arranged/corrected/re-written it for the last 10 minutes. Am I incorrigible?


  29. I’m working on my very first project that I think I can see through to the end (cleaning up, submitting to an agent and/or publisher, and so on.) I took the advice I see by so many people and tried to ‘write fast’ and just get stuff on the page, although I’m not really that fast yet.

    Yah, it’s total crap, and I ended up about 90% done before I started revising. I want to leave writing the ending to the end, as I’m not sure where the story will be at that point, but that’s only a few thousand words.

    I think part of why I waited to revise was procrastination. Revising is painful for me, and copy editing is especially painful. Probably ’cause I didn’t start my working life as an english major or journalist. I’m sure the pain will subside as I get more experience, as honestly, the pain is worth it. It’ll make me stronger.

    I did send the first chapter to some professional writers for a critique after I’d revised it, not waiting until I’d self-revised the who darn thing. I did that specifically to get feedback on what I needed to work on, and whether I’ve any talent at all. That was priceless, and, well, I got some really positive feedback along with the constructive feedback.

    I’m totally glad I did wait until I’d completed so much of the first draft before starting the revision process. I’d hate to have spent so much time revising stuff I’ve ended up cutting.

    Now back to revision hell.

  30. I completely agree. I ruined a novel I loved that way, or at least ruined my love for it. Fortunately, I got sick of it and put it away. A year later I picked it up, pretty much put back what I had taken out, and finished it. Now it’s sitting, curing until it becomes fresh to me again before I begin revisions.

  31. I couldn’t agree more. I slap the rough draft down like a coat of primer. Then, once I’ve typed THE END, I go back and get my story straight. Sometimes more than once. Once that’s done, I’ll play with word choices and decide if I’m telling too much and not showing enough. All other methods have failed for me.

    Critique groups are great if I have a finished novel. If I’ve only got a few chapters written, though, their well-meaning advice sends me into a tailspin. I’ll never get another word written. Instead, I’ll run around second guessing myself for a year.

    Just my experience.

    • EllieAnn on July 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm
    • Reply

    This is great! I really agree, and I can’t imagine editing as I go – editing usually shuts up my muse.

  32. Boy, do I ever wish I knew that twenty years ago. lol

  33. Kristen, your post comes at a time in my writing, when I really needed it. I have a bad habit of going back and editing. And you’re right, it does slow down my writing. It’s hard to get going again.
    I really appreciate your insight on writing habits. Always trying to help us be better at our craft. Keep the info coming.

  34. I definitely have to edit after my 1st draft is complete – how else will I ever finish? And now, thanks to my fabOoolous WWBC group, I have a TON to go back and think about and/or change. 🙂 GREAT post. Perfect timing for me, especially after Saturday.

  35. I agree but then again I also disagree! I think editing kills a lot of WIP, and no one knows that better than I do. But I also know that editing has helped me push forth the next few pages, AS LONG AS I did it in a reasonable, balanced way (i.e., at some point I put the red pen down and move on).

    AND I know that some of my WIP have actually died because I tried to pants it sans editing, and I need both pants and a sprinkle of editing. I wrote 100 pages of nothing relatively quickly and then, without even doing any editing, I gave up because I had no idea where I was going with this nonsense.

    For me, what usually happens is that I don’t remember where I was going with a scene. When I get stuck like that, it becomes extremely imperative for me to go back and do a little editing so that I remember the tension, the mood and the push-forward. Going back and looking at what I did before helps me remember what I want to happen next, and while I’m there, I might as well fix the spelling of that word and take out that adverb and punch up that dialogue.

    Part of it is that I never feel more like a writer than when I’m fixing a paragraph into (my) perfection, but I’m prosey like that. (One of the funnest things in the world to me is to print out something double-spaced and read it aloud, pen in hand.) So editing never shuts up my muse or shuts down my subconscious – in fact, it makes me realize, “Oh WOW that’s where I was going with that!”

    I think different writers, different strokes.

    I like the analogy of growing a garden or a tree, but I guess I would say that sometimes you have to go back and push the roots into the right place so that they can grow into that big beautiful apple tree.

  36. Absolutely agree!

    I’ll go with a war story from nine years ago. I decided after almost twenty years of not writing that I was going to do it again. To kick things off I read a couple of books and wrote a short story for submission to a contest. Five thousand words or less. I came up with a very basic outline and wrote half of it in one day. Then edited it for a week. Then finished it in slow moves until I finally finished the mangled first draft. Over several months I worked that story to 4999 words. (Because apparently that was the one thing I actually understood). I used my thesaurus until my fingers (and mind) bled. Change a word, change it back, add a nuance, kill a nuance, delete and add. Finally the day came when I had to send it in, I was out of time. I never heard back. I didn’t make the top 100. I went back, now a few months later and read the story. Sure the prose was great but the story wasn’t about anything, the characters were constructs with no hook or draw and the structure was horrendous (meaning, what’s structure?).

    I look at that story now, especially after the past nine months and laugh. I could fix it but you know I like it the way it is, which is to say, a wonderful reminder of why I do everything that I am doing today.

    Take the advice. Don’t edit yourself until you have something worth editing and when you do edit be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

    Thanks for a great post Kristen. You’re the best and I’m glad to have someone like you watching out for us.

  37. I’ve written and finished four novels using what I call a rolling edit. I find that as I read what I wrote the time before my subconscious will pop up with things I forgot the first time around, layering in richer character development and setting descriptions. I also have belonged to two critique groups in which we shared what we wrote every two weeks. For the first fifteen years or so, it helped keep me going.

    Nevertheless, I’m starting to come around to the idea of not sharing my work until it’s done. I like the encouragement I receive, but I know book four was changed by my critique partners’ comments, and I’ve yet to decide if it was for the better.

  38. Wonderful post! I do bring my pages to critique as I write them. What I do though is once my cg partners look at it -into the folder it goes. I don’t look at it until I get the first draft completed. Then I’ll pull the folder out and do my changes and editing as needed.

  39. Brilliant! Exactly what I needed and very timely. I have four first drafts and have started a fifth. I like writing and I haven’t really got into editing and was wondering if I was some sort of freak. Now I am inspired to get to grips with the script I finished in 2009 and get it out there.
    I’m not sure how this blog link thingy works but I will definitely try to link to your most excellent advice and proclaim your marvelousness to all who wil listen.

  40. Guilty! Wow, I really saw myself in this blog post. I do this way too often, sometimes without realizing it… and certainly without realizing how detrimental it is. Kristen, you make a great case, and I am happy to have found your blog. Thanks for the great advice!

  41. Fabulous post, Kristen. This may be the greatest writing truth every spoken.

    I love NaNo. After my fifth win, I finally figured out how to be an effective editor of my longer works. I write without stop. As new ideas come to me or changes that will need to be made on the front end based on current writing, I slip in notes, right then and there in red, and keep writing. After letting my manuscript sit, I’ll read the whole thing, making notes on my hard copy. Only then will I actually go back into my document and begin making changes.

    Thanks for this insight.

  42. I especially like #3. I have the OCD tendency when it comes to writing mid-stream. Some perfectionist tendencies pop up, at least in NF. I like the story of Stephen King who threw Carrie in the trash until his wife Tabbie pulled it out and said is wasn’t so bad. Ended up landed a six digit payday as his breakout novel.

  43. “As we write, our subconscious mind is planting seeds that, when viewed in a microcosm of one or three chapters, will likely seem to make no sense.”

    I love this idea, and I’ve noticed it in my own work. Something that I wrote without even thinking about suddenly becomes the catalyst for an amazing discovery in the story. I love it. (It makes me think I’m a secret genius or something).

    When I go to my crit group I take notes, and read through the changes they made, and then put it away for a week or two. If something they said is STILL bugging me when I get the MS back out I know it’s probably something that needs to be addressed. If I can’t remember what they said then it’s probably not worth worrying over and I move on with what I have.

  44. In our critique group, we always tell each other (and especially new writers) to just keep going. I’m going to hang on to this post. You list the perfect reasons for this advice. Thanks!

  45. Oh simply thank you for this post. Thank you, thank you and more thanks for helping me prioritize.

  46. awesome post Kristen and so true. My second novel still remains in pieces because I didn’t sit down and write the first draft from start to finish. Instead I wrote litle bits and tried to edit it here and there – consequence: it is sitting infinished and I am writing novel number 3 the right way 🙂

  47. Couldn’t agree with you more. As difficult as it is, we need to leave all the warts and pimples out there. The first draft is a bit like puberty!

  48. This is an excellent argument for just getting your first draft done. I have to remind myself not to edit too early and the 8 year old with keys is a great analogy.

  49. I completely agree. It’s often unclear, even if you are anal and spec out the novel as a flowchart, what will manifest as the juices get flowing.

    It’s hard to kill your children. But it can be a trap to get focused on being an efficient killer, at least before the novel’s done and had some time to steep. If I really hate something I’ve written, I’ll just save the pre-edit version for future reference. You’d be surprised at how good these “garbage” takes can be when viewed through a different lens than one of immediacy.

    Good blog.

  50. I love editing because it is like spring cleaning. During the first draft I know there is a lot of stuff that needs tossing out, but i stick with it until the end. Then I go back with a big machete and chop off the extra stuff. Very freeing.

  51. Fantastic advice that I plan to take. Thank you, Kristen!

    • Christine on July 15, 2011 at 11:29 am
    • Reply

    I’m sure it was the great Nora Roberts who said ‘my first draft is always crap’ and she usually writes one all the way through and without stopping in six weeks. Then, the fun starts (she says).

    I know this, I do, I do, so WHY don’t I do it? I have a great idea and outline it. Get all excited and begin and after three chapters … start to tweek it , just a little.

    Almost eighteen months ago, I had a complete meltdown with a competition entry. Needless to say I had no idea what I was doing and with every single critique of the thing I tried to take on board every opinion and almost imploded my brain. I lost my voice. I lost the characters and I lost the plot, literally. What a mess. From that I learned a salutary lesson. Do NOT touch and change work until you are finished otherwise how on earth do you see the big picture?

    So why am I not doing this? Why am I fiddling and faffing about? Why am I demented? Sigh.

    Thank you for this timely post Kirsten – onward and upward – and definately NO more editing until I’m finished. I promise. I really, really do.

  52. I’ve run two novels into the ground this way. Not doing that again, even if I don’t have anything new for my critique group for months. Argh.

  53. You are so right, Kristen! There was a time when I bought this book called Book in a Month. When I saw the steps I had to take, I froze. I literally ran to the hills and got scared. It had all the outline for characters, plots, character changes, scenes, etc. Now, it’s a good book for plotter but I’m a pantser at heart. What should’ve happened was that I set my book aside and finish the novel before looking at BIAM. It’s editing too early.

  1. […] The topic for today is an interesting one and even possibly controversial. Editing is great, but it can KILL any kind of writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I keep tabs on #nanowrimo. One consistent post I see looks like this. “Looked at the pages I wrote last week and now editing. What crap”…or something to that effect. Editing too early can kill a novel. Yes, editing can be devastating to shorter works, but doesn’t have quite the kil … Read More […]

  2. […] her post on useful writing websites, Margo Roby mentioned Kristin Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone, http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/editing-meet-the-novel-killer-2/   and I dutifully went to read […]

  3. […] I agree with Kirsten Lamb’s recent post about editing being the novel-killer when it comes to a first draft. I really do. (Okay, I mostly do.) But in this case, I seriously […]

  4. […] I decided I couldn’t take images any longer for the next several hours. But stumbling upon this read by random gives me comfort that boredom occurs in just about any form of craft or […]

  5. […] The writing life can be hard on us physically. Writing guru extraordinaire Kristen Lamb offers us Tips for Being a Healthy Writer. Because it is important that our manuscripts stay in good shape along with us, Kristen also gives us advice on Editing – Meet the Novel-Killer. […]

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  7. […] first draft and avoid reading each other’s work until the draft was finished. Much better. In Meet the Novel Killer, the brilliant Kristen Lamb explains why editing the beginning before you’ve reached the […]

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