Editing–Are You Butchering Your Creativity?

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 am currently participating in #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.

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, feel free to correct 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.

Yesterday, when I reviewed previous pages, I realized I’d divulged a tad too much information too early for my mystery-thriller. Instead of spending the entire day reworking the scene, I merely added in a note in red.

Rework this scene to make it seem like they are really after a possible serial killer. Increase tension.

Then I moved on.

Also, I must warn you that this applies to writing after NaNoWriMo. 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. You are asking for people to critique isolated instances out of context. The advice you get might do more harm than good.

You can still get advice, 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 of unfinished novels.

Premature editing is very dangerous for three reasons:

1. Premature Editing 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.

This is especially true for those of you who did at least a basic plot of your main narrative points. When we do this, we have basically told our subconscious we need to make it from Point A to Point B (Inciting Incident to Turning Point Act One). Sometimes, our subconscious will want to show off and can dazzle us with how creatively it can make the trip.

So let it alone. Your subconscious could surprise you.

2.  Premature Editing 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 Editing Can Discourage and Keep a Writer from Finishing—This is another reason that traditional critique groups can be counter-productive. Again, 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 bone saw.  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.

When it comes to NaNoWriMo, the point is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. That’s it. You can’t do this if you over think your work. If you hit a wall, just keep writing. Sometimes our brains are like water pumps. We need to prime them and get through the goo before the creativity flows. Just write. You can fix it later. Or, you can start over.

Doesn’t matter.

For those participating in NaNoWriMo, you need to remain focused on the entire point of NaNoWriMo…word count. That might not seem like enough, but trust me it is. Becoming disciplined enough to generate respectable word count and adhere to self-imposed deadlines is the clincher to doing this writing thing for a career. No publishing house will sign a writer who writes only when she “feels like it.”

NaNoWriMo is “career day” and newer writers get a taste of what it’s like to be an author. Career authors have to say no to family and friends, set boundaries and write no matter what…just like Nano. Professionals also have to learn to not edit too quickly. That is yet another valuable lesson from NaNoWriMo. So embrace the experience for what it is and let go of perfection for now.

So put down the red pen and use the Delete Key with care. With great power comes great responsibility. And, most of all, relax and have fun.

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 do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, 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 October I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also 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 ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both 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 to write great books!


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  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! Spot on advice, Kristen. The best advice ever given to me early in my career was pretty much exactly what you’ve said. Except, he told it to me like this, ‘Write whatever crap you will. Just poop on the page. Everyday. Don’t even think about that poop on the page until you’ve got a finished draft, then and only then go back and find the diamonds in all that crap.”

    Since he’s a published author with several books, I thought maybe I should listen to him and he’s right. When I went back and found too much backstory shoved between some diamonds. I took that out and polished up the diamonds.

    Now, if I’d known your advice about the whole road map thing, I wouldn’t be searching for diamonds in a 300,000 word beast. Yeah, my first draft was seriously that long.

    I would stay and chat, but I’ve got to get back to mining my diamonds.

    1. Tip #2 was as raw and concise as it gets. I have had to get really real with myself over my blocks (fear of success-er over here) You nailed it and helped me hear what I need to hear right now. Thanks, Kristin.
      And BTW, how on earth do you NaNo, deal with the little one and blog? Whoa.

  2. Boy, did I need to read this! Have spent days editing my Nano! Bad idea! You are right on, Kristen. The added benefit… I might now have a chance to complete 50K! The way I was doing it, I was “hoping” to complete 30K.


    • Monique on November 11, 2011 at 9:46 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for this, Kristen. This is so beneficial if you know ahead of time. During the writing of my current WIP I have deleted several sections that later I had to go back and add because they play a huge role later on in the story.

    • heatherishither on November 11, 2011 at 9:46 am
    • Reply

    I’m addicted to editing. NaNoWriMo has been good as far as forcing me just to write the dang thing and quit rewriting.

    • arette on November 11, 2011 at 9:49 am
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    Excellent points again, Kristen. I’ve been guilty of nr 1 & 3. When you mix the dreaded Inner Editor to the creative writing process, he drives the Muse screaming away. It’s really hard to bribe her to return. The first draft can be brutally bad but it’s just the dough. Editing is the baking and prettying phase.

  3. Such a good post! I wish I had seen this when I started writing my novel. I got stuck several times because of the very things you said. Eventually I wised up and stopped edited no matter how poor I thought the writing was on the readthrough. I have now completed the whole thing and am edited. So much better that way. Thanks for another great post!

  4. This is exactly what I needed to hear now. I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo, but am steaming through the first draft of my first full length book. I’m about two thirds done (I think!) and suddenly I’m doubting everything. So far, I’ve followed the rule of “just keep going” but that is getting hard!

    I planned quite carefully, but I also left big gaps in my plans on purpose because I wanted to be open to the inspirations that may come my way as the story unfolds and to some extent that has worked for me. But now I’m getting anxious that the whole thing just wont hang together.

    Yesterday I broke my rule and re-wrote a scene because I had made some major mistakes and it was bothering me so much that I could not move forward. In this case it turned out to be the right thing to do because it “unblocked” a whole lot of ideas and I’m feeling much more excited about the story again. But I’m not allowing myself to do any more of this.

    I like your idea of putting in notes – that’s a good way of dealing with it.

    Now I just have to figure out how to get from where I am to the ending I planned!

  5. I only edit the commas, etc., the present tense dialogue tags to past and so on. I write in a stream when in first draft mode, but I have learned to go back and make the sentences clear and grammatically correct so that when I do my read through it’s easier to go into revision mode. I also make notes in the document as I write so I can make those changes later.

    And now? Back to my regularly scheduled mangled mess.


  6. I start editing about halfway through the first draft. I write out of order, and I’ve discovered, for me, it’s the least frustrating way to deal with the middle. However, I have a friend that REALLY needs this advice. she’s so stuck right now!

  7. Wow, Kristen. Have you been peeking into my brain? I am a chronic early editor, and it has exactly the effect that you say, but I didn’t know why! It’s so hard to trust that subconscious creative self, isn’t it? And the “busy work” stalling is so true. Looks like I need to do more word sprints with folks out in the twitterverse! And tell my inner Critic to shut the heck up.

    I’m going to print this out and paste it to my forehead/put it over my desk.

  8. This is so true and I know you’re right. I just LOVE editing and want to start much sooner than appropriate. It’s hard for me to reread a passage and then keep writing without editing what I just read. It absolutely does allow us to mistake busy work for real work because I can “write” for an hour and only have progressed my word count a little. It’s futile because once it’s all written I might just be scrapping that whole section anyway! I will try to resist!

  9. Fab advice, and the whole “if you know what I mean” double entendres had me laughing… (maybe that’s just me and my demented brain. Blame Canada).

    I’m doing Nano. For my NF humor manuscript. I know my tenses are all over the place, essay to essay. I’ve been torn to go back and fix it. But I also know I’m a pretty ruthless editor and to fix “only tenses” at this point would be impossible for me. So, I’m writing some essays in present tense and some in past. And trying not to worry.

    There is another parallel with humor writing, too. I was talking to one of the editors of The Calgary Herald this week and he was asking if you can edit for humor. Does “adding humor” take out the magic? Umm, no. Unless you hack it to death. But you can pump-it-up Anyway, it was an interesting conversation.

    And I’m babbling. Happy Nano-ing. My word count has sucked the last 3 days…Sigh…

  10. I do agree, editing can kill creativity, particularly when the editor comes at you with negative comments.

  11. Exactly! And this is why I owe a huge debt of thanks to NaNoWriMo, because it taught me this important lesson. I’ve done it twice now and finished both times. Yes, it means there’s usually lots to revise, but at least you have a nice garden of potentiality to mold into shape instead of a barren wasteland of nothing because you keep second guessing each sprout that appears and yanking it out, or pulling out anything because it’s not growing in the EXACT pattern you’ve outlined in brick.

  12. It’s good to know I’m doing one thing right. LOL. Seriously, this is the only thing I think I am. For some reason I have to get everything out of me before I can go back and rethink or edit anything. Of course, there is a lot I end up cutting, reworking, but like the process of going through it seems to prepare my mind for editing. And I know you’re right about our subconscious wanting to impress us. I have been editing and struggling with a critical part of the book and there was just something not quite right. I woke up this morning and new exactly what I needed to do. My mind had apparently been working on it while I was asleep!!

  13. Hi Kirsten, great advice and very helpful as always. I agree it’s always good to wait a while before editing but the tricky thing is that the longer the words stay on the page, the more permanent and beautiful they can seem. Ha!
    I’m not doing NaNo.. this month but as it happens I am in the middle of editing my novel after a bit of a wait. It is AWFUL seeing it dwindle to half its size as I hack away (boo hoo!), but the good thing is I find I have lots of exciting ideas/words/twists to replace the tired ideas/words/twists with (at least I think I have!). I suppose that’s the miracle of creativity, ideas appear as if from nowhere, although hard graft definitely helps:o)

  14. This is absolutely spot on. I am sharing your post on my Facebook author page. Thanks!

    1. Wrote this before seeing that Comment #1 used the same language. Great minds. . . .

      –This is absolutely spot on. I am sharing your post on my Facebook author page. Thanks!

  15. Great post, Kristen and sound advice. I tend to write out the entire draft like a panster. Then I go to something else and wait for the story, like good wine, to breathe. It is in the first, second and third rewrite or edit I take copious notes, perhaps change the entire beginning, or find blaring errors.

    I do however, begin each writing day by reading from the first page. I do this until I am three quarters finished. In the end I combine the plot lover and the manic writer in me to produce a better story. Great good writing to you in your new thriller. Scare the pants off of us 🙂

  16. I couldn’t agree more – with this whole post! It’s why traditional critique groups totally don’t work for me. Often I’ll be writing along in chapter 14 when a great idea occurs to me that would require changes back in chapter 3. I just note it and continue in Chapter 14 as if I already made the change. Otherwise I’d never finish anything. Early critique would be a big waste of everyone’s time because so much ends up being chanved later. What I love about revision: the first draft is for getting the story down; revision is when we make it into something worth reading.

  17. Kristin, you are absolutely spot on with #1. IME the sub-c is the key to creativity. We all work too hard and should relax & let our subconscious do the heavy lifting. Hard to do, tho, because you don’t know at the time why the hell you wrote what you did. It’s only later that All Is Revealed. Thanks to the trusty sub-c.

    The sub-c has given me wondrous gifts time & time again so I know it works. Then why is it so hard to relax & let the process do its thing? Because, I suppose, you/we/I feel out of control & that’s scary…

    End of philosophy du jour. Thanks for a truly helpful post.

  18. Oh YES! How so very, very true! Busy editing my latest novel right now (completed August this year and having had a chill-out time before I started in on the edit this month) when your post came through (gave myself permission to read it) and found myself saying ‘yes’, ‘true’, all the way through.
    My first (put at the back of the drawer) novel was an unplanned revelation and really rubbish, but taught me SO much. The second had an outline that I was working to, but my subconcious had a better, more intricate, plan, however, I editied as I went along thinking ‘what’s this character doing saing that – edit it out’ or ‘who is this character – don’t think I need him – edit him out’ until I got to the very last page and up spoke one of the characters and shed a whole new, and more interesting, light on the whole book… so i darn well had to go back and try to remember all those ‘irrelevant’ bits I had edited out as I could now see they were important after all and that was a hard thing to do!
    So with my third to fifth books, I only re-read and checked grammar and spellings before adding the 1000 words for the day. Means I have to work hard on the edit later (as I should be doing right now!) but it’s the better way to do it.
    Great post Kristen!

  19. Wish I’d read this advice 15 years ago. I threw out a LOT of crappiocca writing (thought it was, anyway) and killed lots of stuff that might have worked.

    I’m a big fan these days of highlighters. And even while editing 2nd or 3rd drafts, anything that gets cut also gets saved in a “dumped file” for later perusal as a just-in-case. I’ve found some gems in there that really add back in some neato schtuff.

    1. Amy, I do the same! Only I call my “dumped” file “To Be Used?” That’s where I find the gems I was dumb enough to dump!

      1. Amy and Ruth, it’s the only way I can keep writing! Knowing, even if I cut it, it won’t be killed, just “moved.”

        1. Too funny. I have a ‘landfill’ file where I put all my stuff I cut, but don’t know if I’ll need it again. GMTA!

  20. Isn’t part of the point of NaNoWriMo to not self edit as you go and force yourself to wait until you’re done? That’s why I did it last year, and it was such a huge help.

  21. So true, Kristen! When I first started writing, I re-wrote the first chapter so many times I was sick of it. I stopped for a while, started something else, did the same thing and got sick of it. I did this about four times before I finally started over with the first. Things flow so much better when I turn off that infernal internal editor. When I let my characters do what they want rather than what I think they should do, well, I’ll just say…they’re usually right! 🙂

    • Cora on November 11, 2011 at 11:23 am
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    I can’t believe I hit that wall everyone talks about in week two–for me day 5. I wrote furiously and then, bam! The questions started. Am I starting in the wrong place? Is this really the wrong protagonist/point of view? Do I have two stories here, not one? Maybe the whole thing is crap. I stopped dead, unable to write, but I spent the time rethinking and reevaluating and last night came to a decision. This morning I was ready to begin again and voila, found your timely confidence building post. I know, you’re a magician, right?

  22. I’m an edit-as-I-go writer, and I’ve learned to accept that part of my nature. Writing is, for me, like working with wet clay. I cheer on people who like to write first drafts through to the end, but one size never fits all. For many of us — I am not alone — NaNoWriMo will never work at much more than exercising our fingers.

    I do, though, agree with you about bringing WIP to critique groups too soon. I prefer finishing a work and then letting an editor take on the whole thing.

    1. You’re not alone, Anthony and Kim (below), Lol. I’m right there with you. I’m amazed that people can just keep writing and not make the appropriate changes as they go along.

  23. I am with you, Anthony, only I consider it writing like a painter paints, in layers. Seeing that my protagonists are, in fact, painters, this method makes complete sense. NoNoWriMo would only give me a nervous breakdown.

  24. OMG, I’ve been bad…going through and rewriting paragraphs. I immiediately saw the logic in your post, and realize now (what do they say about hindsight?) that it will be much easier if I don’t fret over phrasing at this point. Thanks once again for some good advice. I took it.

  25. I agree, but then I don’t agree. You can definitely kill your novel in progress through excessive early editing – sort of like pruning a plant, but what you’re really doing is taking out the roots.

    But sometimes I really have to delete things in order to get the story back on track. For example, yesterday I had to delete this 500 word scene that completely took things in the wrong direction. Was it painful? Yes. And it felt like two steps forward, three steps back. But the new scene that I put in there ended up working much better for me, and really helped me sort out what to write next. I’d rather delete 2 pages than write 10 pages that go nowhere because they’re on faulty ground.

    But I have taken to the habit of just writing notes about things that need to change but that I can’t stop to wallow in at the moment. And it’s definitely improved my forward momentum.

    • Sarel Rathnow on November 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm
    • Reply

    I made the mistake yesterday of taking a peek into a book about how to open your novel strongly. >.< Could barely write 500 words the rest of the night, because I kept worrying about not having a good enough beginning. I totally needed this. Thanks.

  26. I used to edit — and revise — as I went along, because I thought it saved time on the back end. No more. After I took my book through Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel, I realized how much I had messed the book up by doing exactly this. I ended up fixing things because I’d revised!

  27. Thanks for this post. I am an obsessive editor trying to cure myself. This is all great advice.

  28. I think this advice is good–for some people. It doesn’t work for me.

    I cut out words all the time and place them in a “storage” document just in case. There’s no way I can keep them in my main document. Furthermore, writing a note works from time to time if I have a vague sense of how I want to improve a scene, but 9 times out of 10, I need to get those words on paper or I’ll regret it because I won’t remember them later.

    It may be as simple as writing them in long hand in my trusty notebook and adding them to the ms at another time, or simply adding them right then and there.

    I think it’s wonderful that people can do a first draft and then go back and edit. It doesn’t work for me, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Great advice for those who can function that way.

  29. OMG, just looking at that doc with the saw and the obvious look of delight is enough to make me take your advice and never, never edit until I am done with a ms.

    Seriously, though, I agree that we need to go with the flow of creativity and I love the fact that you added the tips on putting notes in where we think a scene needs work or there is some other problem. I have done that for quite some time and it is a good way to be sure we won’t forget to make that fix while still allowing us to go forward with the story.

  30. It’s my first WIP, so I’m still trying to decide what works best for me, but I find that I have to go back to earlier chapters and fix them up constantly. This most often happens after I’ve learned about some aspect of plot and structure (sometimes from this very blog), or some other important aspect of writing, and realize how poorly those chapters were constructed. Just can’t help myself.

  31. Unfortunately, many beginning writing classes include critiques/revision comments from fellow beginners, the teacher thinking this will teach writers not only how to read with a writer’s eye, but also how to critique. But an astute teacher will teach these skills using writing not done by students in the class, or insist the work is newly written for the class and not a part of a larger piece. Yes, we learn by critiquing someone else’s work, but at what cost to them if we–and they– are not yet skilled?

    Conference revision workshops by Elizabeth Engstrom, James Scott Bell and Robert Dugoni over the past two years drove the point home. Nobody but the writer should look at the first draft, and only after it is finished. They echoed your teaching, Kristen, do not revise until it is completed.

    Dugoni completes a revision of his first draft before showing it to someone. That way, his freedom of expression is not compromised. Another said “Why edit as you write, when during your examination of the finished first draft, you decide to cut a scene, remove a paragraph, switch to dialogue?” Wasted a lot of time editing. Another said he prints the 1st draft, and reads only, with underlines & notes or signs in the margin, but still doesn’t correct. For this reason, style should be the last thing edited after the revisions are complete.

    Your blog on editing/revision is absolutely true for me. I learned the lesson far too late. Thanks for setting writers free from a boxed canyon, or heading them in the right direction early in their writing career. Kristen, you are amazing.

  32. Word count is definitely everything. Career writers take their jobs as seriously as CEO’s and rock stars do. If you want to be an author, you have to write, a lot, everyday.

  33. I kind of love this post. These thoughts definitely apply to nonfiction as well. “Don’t look back, or you will turn into a pillar of unfinished novels.” Line of the day right there.

    I am especially intrigued by point #2. That makes a lot of sense. When staring at a blank screen, there’s so much temptation to go tweak some other things, especially (for me) in NF when the individual chapters don’t have to flow in a novel-like progression.

    Finding time to write is often a challenge for most writers. I’d say this post ranks as one of the most important you’ve put out, and you’ve got a pretty brilliant run going my friend.

  34. Brilliant! I plot and do extensive character work before beginning the first draft. Once I start, I don’t look back. Sure, it’s crap at the end, but it’s finished crap, and I can work with that. Actually, it usually isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Great advice here.

  35. Great advice!

    • Rachel Thompson on November 11, 2011 at 5:16 pm
    • Reply

    Good advice for most, especially new writers. However, there are notable exceptions. Kurt Vonnegut would write one page a day, over and over until it was perfect. He did very little editing. I think what he did was getting what was precisely in his subconscious mind onto the page. Some of us need to decide what we are really trying to say, and say it well, before moving on.

  36. Kristen, it had to be serendipity or the 11-11-11 karma, but your post made me get off the couch, where I was distracting myself by reading email on my iphone, and get my butt back in the chair. My intention for joining NNWM was to challenge myself to stop self -editing and just write. Today I took a sinker, I dunno what touched that off but I’m so glad I read your post.

    A pen is now next to my laptop and I will jot things down. A piece of duct tape covers my backspace button, to remind me to keep going.

    On a positive note, I did finish Are You There Blog, It’s me Writer–fantastic. After I meet my word count for today I’ll go to Amazon and complete a review. THANK YOU!

  37. This is excellent and just what I needed. I thought I was deluding myself about letting the subconscious take over and this gives me the confidence to keep on writing. (just crossed the halfway point)

  38. Oh, dear… I’ve read and heard this excellent advice couched in other terms but I’ve still managed to *forget* it so the result is I’m currently stuck in creative quicksand and going nowhere!

    So THANK YOU for this timely reminder, Kirsten! Time to get some forward momentum happening!


  39. Great post, first of all. These things are truer than true, and this one I want to shout out to all poets and songwriters as well–

    1. Premature Editing Uproots Subconscious Seeds

    It can kill more than novels.

  40. This is an excellent post! It describes my writing problems spot on. I have a huge problem with finishing stories. I think my problem is largely due to a lack of discipline, self-editing, discouragement from the feedback given from some of my friends about my writings.

    This year I am unofficially participating Nanowrimo in an effort to discipline myself and curb that awful self-editing habit. I’m also handwriting it! My writing hand may never forgive me.

  41. And for anyone who’s edited themselves into a hole that they feel stuck in, I’ve blogged about ‘Ideas on beating writer’s block’. You can read my post and get your writing off the ground again at this address: http://rebeccaberto.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/ideas-on-beating-writers-block/

  42. I was just discussing this very topic with my critique group. Someone mentioned that Diana Gabaldon, author of the Highlander series, revises as she goes so that, when she reaches the end, she’s basically done. I guess the point is that different things work for different writers, but for the most part, I think your advice is right on. Write on!

  43. 🙂 True. 🙂 It’s through this mess that we get our pieta marble from thin air. Then, editing is just revealing the pieta hidden in the chaos that was our first draft. The more words we have, the more possible material we have to work with.

  44. I have to hide the laptop when I’m done with a days work. I can see where I want the story to go and I’m banging my head because I didn’t follow a path that would have moved the story along in a more sensible manner. Sometimes it gets away from me and a note to self reminds me to look at that page and fix it. With NaNo it’s word count and my notebook is getting filled with deletions and add-ons. The rewrite will be a bear. Sparkling post, thanks.

  45. Argh, I HATE editing! But I am a constant nit-picker if I don’t stop myself. You’re so right, it can totally zap your creativity and make it so your eyes bleed when you just look at the words on your manuscript. I’ve been doing what you suggested for my WIP – highlights and quick notes in red. Works excellently and keeps me productive. I got 3000 words done today. 🙂

  46. Great post, Kristen! I really wish I had this advice while writing my first draft – which took me several months to complete. I finally wised up and realized that the inner editor had to be silenced at all costs until the first draft was completed. Now, for whatever reason, I thoroughly enjoy the editing process! 🙂

  47. I really needed this post. I actually enjoy editting, tweaking and polishing things, making them better. But I’m notorious for writing a novel only 75% of the way through because I can’t turn off the editor. And then I don’t usually revise, I end up rewriting. I’m going to take your advice and hold off on the compulsive editing.

  48. I enjoy the editing process because, for me, that’s when the story really comes to life. I edit nothing as I’m writing – basically laying the foundation of the story, which comes to me as I write. (I don’t remember creating an outline for anything since I finished school.) When I edit, I go back and color in all of the details, thinking about the 5 senses and how they come into play, as well. BY the time I’m done, my first draft – which I thought was pretty good – looks like an absolute piece of crap in comparison.

    I really enjoyed your post.

  49. Excellent, excellent points! I always want to edit so bad. It’s like an itch that’s gonna drive me nuts until I scratch it. Of course, if I scratch it, it’s just gonna itch more. Arrrrg! So now I try so hard not to edit prematurely. I joined a critique group and submitted some of my MIP. Not a good idea. My crit partners were wonderful, but that premature editing, even the idea of editing, started to strangle my work. In some ways, I’m still working my way out of that mindset. Next time, I’ll make sure I’ll hold off on any editing until after the first draft’s done.

    I love the idea to leave notes and highlight areas while I’m working. That’s what I do now and it helps that itch so much. Feels like I’m doing something but I’m not derailing myself.

  50. Thanks for this, Kristen. My writing buddy keeps saying, Just. Write. Don’t. Stop.
    I hope I can salvage my first novel from the revising I’ve done on it (of course, the first draft isn’t finished).

    My NaNo novel, OTOH, is a Zero draft (per Chuck Wendig). That’s okay. Word count word count word count. 🙂

  51. I never realized editing while writing could be so – dangerous – to the creativity! So thanks a heap, Kristen. Now for the really difficult part – teaching my perfectionist self to ignore the details, put your advice into practice and just write, write, write.

  52. This was a great post and I read it at exactly the right time. I’m going to take your advice and finish this wip before digging back into the text to embedd the ideas that become clear while I’m writing.

  53. This is so true! I’m an obsessive editor……and that slows things down a great deal…..

  54. Do you maen the same thing as editing out voice, or are they different categories in your mind?

  55. In my head, I tend to think of a novel as being like a war, and the weak scenes are the casualties. They get left behind, maybe taken prisoner for awhile, and some never come back at all — but if I stop to try to rescue everybody, then it’s over.

    That, and I keep the two activities as compartmentalized as possible. I get frequently tempted to go back and edit, but I put myself on rails and don’t stop until I’m done with a draft.

    This post is a goldmine. Thanks.

  56. Kristen, good article, thought provoking. I’ve always wanted to write my first draft and then go back, but I’ve always been part of a critique group so I’ve been forced to complete work to send in each week.

    What you say has merit. I’ve got to try it. Just need to figure out how to make it work and maintain my critique group.

  57. Oh yes! When I was scratching through my novel’s first draft so long ago, I put up stuff I knew was substandard, and left it alone, until I’d worked through to the end. This was because it caught the gist of what I was trying to say, even if it wasn’t as elegant as I wanted it to be.

    Thank you, Kristen! Love those subconscious seeds!

  58. I very much appreciate hearing from readers where I went off track and lost them. I like to make my readers work a little, and so often give them just enough to put things together themselves. But when they don’t, I need to spell things out a little. Even if I think they’re just reading too fast. Or are a little stupid. Or just mean. Or, really, who cares what people think?

    • EmilyR on November 13, 2011 at 8:24 am
    • Reply

    I find it easier to edit than to generate words and end up deleting out of frustration, sometimes. Next book, I’ll take your excellent advice!

  59. Your advice is great, Kristen. I went to a writing retreat at the end of June and wrote over 50,000 words in 5 days – writing only, no reading of what I had written and no editing. Each day we would copy the last paragraph from the previous day to get us back in the flow and keep on going. I felt like some of the people you have talked about – thinking my work was “crap”. When the retreat was over, then it was time to go back and read the whole thing and to begin additions, subtractions and rearrangements. I worked on that as time permitted over the next few months, and at the same time I started another book using the same techniques. I just got feedback from my style editor on my first book – “The author has a superb writing style and her work is well organized….” “Well organized!” – not the way I felt as I wrote, but it did come together when I got all the creative stuff out and then pulled it all together.

    So for others just entering the world of writing, sometimes when you feel like none of it is going to come together, believe those with experience, like Kristen, and trust the process. It will come together because everyone of us has creativity – in some, buried deeper than in others – but it will come out eventually if you don’t get stuck in the paralysis of analysis. Write on!

    • wes thomas on November 13, 2011 at 3:50 pm
    • Reply

    Spot On. Excellent advice. While writing I never interrupt or censor my thoughts. When the story finds its end then I edit and edit and edit and only then do I proofread. I love the whole process. It is an unending journey of discovery.

  60. I need to hear this, again and again. As a professional editor as well as journalist, the instinct in me to ‘edit as you go’ is incredibly strong. But lately I have been trying to continue my novel sans edits: I can see inconsistencies cropping up, and phrasing that just doesn’t work, but I am resisting the urge to revise too early, and powering on to really tell the story. When I do let go, writing becomes fun again. I needed to read this post for encouragement, so the timing was perfect. Thank you for the great advice.

    • bethkvogt on November 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm
    • Reply

    If I could have, I would have hit the “Like” button over and over again. Not fawning over you. Really. You just approached the whole “Please stop editing your first draft to death” topic from a fresh perspective. I’m NaNoWriMoing and doing the whole “This is junk, junk, junk” chant. But the idea that I could be uprooting valuable subconscious seeds provides powerful incentive to keep my hands off my lousy first draft.

  61. Very interesting. As an editor, I love to see how authors work and create the drafts that get to me. But also I agree that it’s so important to work on the whole book in one go – you need to get the big overview as well as the little details in order to see how the book works and what needs to change and move around.

    I sometimes get asked to work on part of someone’s work in progress. I always tell them, no, get the whole thing down in some semblance of order and completeness, then it can be worked and shaped.

  62. I would add that the only way you will learn the gut feeling of how and what to edit is with time and experience. Write a lot of stories and rework them. Just as you have a voice as a writer, let the internal editor be your microphone to enhance the working parts and discard the muddy writing. If you’re just making changes to make changes without knowing why, then you aren’t doing your story or yourself any favors.

  63. I totally agree with the first point. Get the “crappy first draft” out first.

    What is crap good for? Fertilizer, that’s what. If you try to harvest too soon, you’re done. The story needs time to germinate with all of that other great “crap” in the first draft.

    This is my first NaNo and it’s really forcing me to work to the end first.

  64. Oh, good post! You know what’s interesting? I actually feel more empowered about my writing when I make a note to edit or think of editing something later, then get back to the actual writing of my draft. It’s as though, by holding off on editing, I am tapping into my own self-confidence. It feels great! I’m going to have to use your idea of typing new details, info, etc., in a different color than the first-draft text, and see how that works for me too. Thanks!

  65. I never edit anything until I’ve reached the end of it. I even keep the spellcheck off. Those red squiggly lines draw my attention and give me eye twitches. Writing time is writing time, and editing time is editing time. If editing time tries to encroach on writing time, it gets sent to the corner and given a strict talking to. 🙂

  66. The biggest problem that I run into is that I am, in my spare time, attempting to work as a freelance editor. I have to essentially switch off a part of my brain when I’m writing so that I won’t automatically start to delete or rewrite things. It’s definitely a conscious effort. Still, I came into NaNoWriMo knowing that all that I was producing was a barebones rough draft of what might turn out to be a decent novel. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort beyond the month of November to turn it into anything any agent will consider looking at. “What’s that? You wrote this in 30 days and haven’t done any editing or reviewing of it whatsoever? That’s fantastic! Let me send this to Random House right now! You’ll be published by the end of the year!” Hahahaha. It’s a good thing it doesn’t work that way, or we’d have even more awful books *cough* Twilight *cough* filling up shelves around the world.

    • thespiritguide on November 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm
    • Reply

    I just want to add a big BUT, Dean Koontz edits every single page 30 times before moving on to the next page. He states that in an eight hour day, he sometimes only finished six pages.

    There’s something to be said for knowing every word of your novel every step of the way. I tried his technique, (maybe not 30 times over per page, but close) and found that it was a little easier to stay on target with my plot.

    Just sayin’. 🙂

    1. I have met Dean Koontz and most of us are not him, LOL. Koontz has written 76 books and that kind of experience allows him to do what newbies would be wise to avoid. He has written so much and for so many years that he has an intuitive feel for the story that takes years in the making (unless you happen to be a genius and I think he might be both).

  67. I write out my entire novel before I start deleting or making major changes- and I have made great wonderful friends with my delete key! The only time I read back over what I have written, is when I hit a patch of “ungh…” or “what’s next?” or “I’m feeling bored (a danger zone ),” or something else that stops me from writing more. Sometimes re-reading what I’ve written so far spurs me off – lets me see something I may have missed, or gives me some kind of AHA moment.

    I had a friend once who never moved past a couple of pages of a story because she couldn’t let go of the urge to edit and edit and edit and make each sentence perfection before she moved on. Lawd! Lawd! LAWD!

  68. Oh my God Kristen! Your post couldn’t have come at a better time! I was getting bogged down yesterday and thought maybe I should spend time editing… fortunately, I came to my senses. I walked away and went to bed. My subconscious helped me dream up a new plot twist and I’m back at it with a vengeance. I would love to read all these comments but I’ve got to get cracking. I’m behind but will catch up. I’ll be back 🙂
    Good luck fellow Nanos!

    • Peter on November 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm
    • Reply

    Question: why in hell would I want to pay for the advice of anyone who doesn’t even proofread her own blog posts (if they are, in fact, your own blog posts)? It’s bad enough that you don’t correct the phrase “you will turn into a pillar or unfinished novels.” (How about, “you will turn into a pillar OF unfinished novels.”) But you didn’t even fix the mistake on your title! “Editing–Are Butchering Your Creativity?” It’s obvious that you meant: “Editing–Are YOU Butchering Your Creativity?”

    Either you can’t be bothered with these minor details (which makes me wonder why your books would be, as you put it in your own self-agrandizing way, “recommended by the hottest agents and biggest bloggers in th biz”… and that’s an exact quote, your typo and all), or the underling that posts your blog entries for you doesn’t have the fortitude to go back to you and say that you made a mistake.

    In any case, when I get around to paying for writing advice, I think that I will get it somewhere else.

    1. Wow. Thanks for pointing out those two errors. I should know better than getting in a rush. I’ve since corrected and all I can say is that I am human and make mistakes. Also, this blog is not about line-editing, which is totally different. It is about trusting the creative process. Most people focus on content and details are secondary. People don’t read a book and say, “Gee! There wasn’t one single typo.” They marvel at story or character. But if we keep going back and second-guessing the story, we can undermine the beauty.

      With blogging it is easy to miss some of the oopses. My books are about social media, not line-editing. All I can say is I hope you find what you need.

    2. Dear Peter,

      I’m the Chief Antagonist here. You may not usurp my throne. Not without great struggle.

      I seethe whenever I listen to Kristen talk about “branding.” I dream of writing a “High Concept” blog post about how my life is like my dirty clothes hamper. I refuse to surrender to authority without question.

      But you have accomplished what till now I considered an impossible feat.

      You caused me to feel sympathy for a guru.

      Woe is I!

      1. LOL. Thanks, Anthony. You’re awesome. Hey, I made the mistakes, I should take the heat. Frankly I am thrilled he pointed them out. I am normally such a detail-nazi, but those oopses totally flew by me. I know I kept changing my mind about the title and that’s how I goofed that up. I started with “Editing–Meet the Novel Killer” then something else and then something else and just ended up with a big fat typo.

        We can’t please everyone. I just am blessed that so many writers loved the message they, too missed the oopses. THAT is a success any day.

        1. Can I just say that, as a fellow editor, I end up with the odd oopsy on my blog posts too. I don’t know how they get in – heck, I’m a writer too and I don’t get them in stuff I write commercially for people, but there’s something about a blog post that seems to attract the things. I – of course – am horrified when they’re spotted (and they’re not that common, I hasten to add) but I feel your pain – and people are always so shocked and thrilled to see them!

  69. Wow, I am really late to the party. My email blew up and I just now got to this post.

    “We fear writing conflict because it’s human nature to avoid it”. Okay seriously, that is the first time I’ve heard it put that way. Thank You!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    What did I do this past September? Took Bob Mayer’s class on conflict. But how do I get over the fear? I keep writing more and more conflict. Each pass I slip in more.

    I would think there is a fine line between not enough and too much conflict. Or is that just not possible? Hummm. Well maybe that just takes experience that only comes along with time.

    Thanks Kristen!

    1. BTW, Thank you Kristen for taking the high road. Who knows what side of the bed Peter got out of this morning! And what about the message? Why all the focus on the mistakes? Hello, it’s a blog not a book. Yikes.

  70. This is the best defense I’ve ever seen for why we shouldn’t edit as we go. I didn’t realize how much I’ve been sabotaging my work by doing so.


    • Debbie Haynes on November 23, 2011 at 12:53 am
    • Reply

    Wow –Thanks Kristen. I was so proud of my editing skills. Now you have forced me to admit that I was mistaking busy work for real work – my fear being that if I finish the book I will actually have to DO something with it! Ouch – the truth hurts! I promise, from this moment forward, I will NOT look at the 60% I have already written until I finish the rest. Alright, I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet, but I’m sure gonna try! Thank you for the insight! So glad I found you and your peeps!

  71. Another great post! This is so useful, and I really agree with your three points. It makes sense to me to finish a book, then go through it only noting the changes that you want to make, rather than making those changes straight away and at that point. As you say, your subconscious may be doing something that you’re not immediately aware of.. and I think, to avoid the fear response, you need to give the whole novel to kind of sit and stew.. I think often inspiration comes when you’ve left your mind, and the text, to wait and simmer.. good stuff happens at that time. Thanks again for sharing!

  1. […] Editing – Are Butchering Your Creativity? […]

  2. […] let’s be fair. A WIP is just that, a WIP. As Kristin Lamb said in her excellent blog posting today, major editing should usually be left until the WIP is a completed first draft. Get it out of your […]

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  4. […] Editing: Butchering Your Creativity? via Kristen Lamb. Anyone who’s ever been tempted to edit while writing is cordially invited to stop, drop, and roll with this advice. […]

  5. […] Then again, there’s this perspective on it: Kristen Lamb […]

  6. […] Remind me to never, ever do NaBloPoMo and NaNoWriMo at the same time again.  AGH!  Today is a short and sweet post.  I read a blog posting by Kristen Lamb about editing butchering our creativity.  WOW!  I knew I hated editing for a reason!  Read the article here! […]

  7. […] few days ago, Kristen Lamb posted an article on her blog, discussing the problem with editing in mid-writing. I just found it via twitter today, but I think […]

  8. […] curse (I know its mine). The fabulous Kristen Lamb brings advice on how to handle this topic in: Editing – Are You Butchering Your Creativity? Also from Kristen this week: Structure 7 – Genre […]

  9. […] Writing: our creative muse has to “settle” too.  If we only write a few scenes and start editing them (I’m so guilty of this), we’re not giving ourselves the time we need to spread our branches, so to speak, and reveal the spaces where we can really make our writing shine.  This post of Kristen’s really resonated with me:  Editing: Are You Butchering Your Creativity? […]

  10. […] editing butcher your creativity–just as Kristen Lamb described in a recent blog post. Click here if you want a kick in the rear into gear from […]

  11. […] Writing: our creative muse has to “settle” too.  If we only write a few scenes and start editing them (I’m so guilty of this), we’re not giving ourselves the time we need to spread our branches, so to speak, and reveal the spaces where we can really make our writing shine.  This post of Kristen’s really resonated with me:  Editing: Are You Butchering Your Creativity? […]

  12. […] So, like any modern mother, I took my concerns to the interwebs for resources to deal with this problem. I found a post from Writing Doc Extraordinaire, Kristen Lamb, that I think covers my worries fairly well: Editing: Are You Butchering Your Creativity? […]

  13. […] Lamb has some good advice for writers who are looking for feedback on their work. You can be a premature […]

  14. […] 85. If you hit a wall, just keep writing. Sometimes our brains are like water pumps. We need to prime them and get through the goo before the creativity flows. Just write. You can fix it later. Kristen Lamb, Editing–Are You Butchering Your Creativity? […]

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