Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When Should I Start Editing?

This article first appeared here on October 9, 2008. We're happy to repeat it for all the NaNoWriMo participants last month.
The answer to the question “When should I start editing” is the same answer to many writing and editing questions: It depends.

Writers fall into two distinct camps when it comes to editing. Some like to edit as they write. They finish a scene or a chapter and go back and edit it before moving on to the next scene or chapter. I know a few successful and prolific writers who do a good job of editing as they write. Perhaps that has always been the way they write best or maybe they developed the skill through years of experience and the pressure of deadlines.

Editing as you write requires:
  • An organized and well-planned outline: If you don’t know exactly what plot point will occur in every chapter or the how you will structure your how-to book, you will end up editing material that you later decide to delete or change.

  • The discipline to edit, then continue writing: Some writers spend so much time revising and polishing the first chapter or scene they never finish their book.
In my experience, most writers edit more effectively if they finish the first draft before they begin to edit. I’ve written about this in Ten Tips for Self-Editing as well as these posts on my blog: The First Draft: Pure Green Dreck, Editing: Turning Dreck into Prose, and Seven Editing Tips for Professional and Nonprofessional Writers.

Although the post is a several years old, Editing Your Writing at All Kinds of Writing generated a lively discussion among several writers who share how they edit. You will see different perspectives that may help you decide which editing method you prefer.

I finish the first draft before I edit, but I do use Word’s auto-correct to correct common mistakes as I type. Unlike spell check and grammar check, auto-correct can be customized to eliminate your most common errors without creating new errors. You can add the words that are your bugbears and know that when you type harrassment, auto-correct will change it to harassment (one of my bugbears). You won’t spend any time or energy correcting those common mistakes—while writing the first draft OR while editing.

Do you edit as you write? Or do you finish your first draft before you start to edit?
Lillie Ammann is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in working with self-publishing authors. Her romantic mystery, Dream or Destiny, is available now as an e-book and soon in paperback. She blogs at A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye.


    1. Wonderful colors, and content, on your site.

      I tend to want to edit as I write. I usually get a majority of the way through an article I writing, and then get the urge to edit. I start picking on things and then end up stopping myself, smacking my hands back. I prefer to edit at the end. I think editing is something you need to wait a little bit on. At least for me.

    2. covewriter,
      So many writers don't smack their hands back when they're tempted to go into edit mode while they're still writing a piece. I know people who have been writing a novel for years but never get past the first chapter or first few chapters because they edit again and again instead of writing. Good for you for stopping yourself from falling into this trap.

    3. This is a great article, and I enjoyed reading it. I personally do small editing, such as spelling that pops up as I write, but I save the important editing for when I'm finished with the first draft. For me, it's always been easier to lay down the bare bones of the story or article first, then go back in later and fill in. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    4. I make myself a deal...once I get 5 days of writing work done (any 5, don't really care which 5), I'll let myself have 30 minutes to glance over and edit that work. No more, sometimes less. Then I move on.

      My A.D.D. mind just doesn't manage to not float back to what I've written, wanting to rework something. If I don't give myself that dedicated time, I'd never move forward.

    5. I like Jayne's approach because I tend to freewrite forever, and never get back to the editing. LOL. I could start a few more raised beds in my garden with all that "dreck".

      Good tips, Lillie, and thanks for all the additional links. A goldmine of editing information there.


    6. I do most of the editing after the first draft, but I do some while I write. I usually read what I wrote the day before to get me back into the story. While doing that, I do some small edits on the old stuff then start the new.

    7. I edit three times. When I write, when I transcribe the work onto pc, and once more before I send it off.

      I have to admit, though, sometimes I edit it four times: once to check for typos and once for content and internal logic. It depends on the piece.

    8. I edit in two places, timewise. One is after the book is complete and I've put it aside for 4-6 weeks (if it's an article with a deadline, I give myself at least an hour). The other time is if I'm having a hard time thinking about what comes next (some call it writer's block, but I'm not going to go there). If I'm stuck, I read what I've already written, editing here and there as I go. By the time I get to the end, I know where I'm going again.

    9. Great article. I use the promise of editing in the future to get me through the first draft. "Just get it down. You can make it good later," is what i often tell myself. The exception to this is when I write a scene or chapter and then decide that the tone isn't right. I find that a change in tone, more than anything else, can set me off in the wrong direction.

    10. Thanks to all for the great comments.

      Jenny, It sounds like getting the bones down before doing major editing works well for you.

      Jayne, Clever idea to "bribe" yourself with editing time as you write so you don't get distracted.

      Dani, I'm glad the links are helpful.

      Helen, The suggestion of reading what you wrote the day before to get back into the story is excellent. I usually do the same thing and sometimes do some minor editing as I'm re-reading.

      Ghostposts, Some pieces do need more editing for some reason.

      Gayle, Setting your manuscript aside for several weeks is an excellent technique, and editing when you're stuck (not blocked) is also a good idea.

      Mark, I like the idea of editing if the tone isn't right. It's better to go back and edit at that point rather than carry on and continue to get off track.

    11. Good topic, Lillie. I work a lot like Helen, trying to complete the whole first draft without doing a lot of editing along the way. And one thing I have notices since I have been editing so much for other writers, is that I do more self-editing as I write. If I just noted on a client's manuscript that he was not varying the length of his sentences enough, I tend to pay more attention to that in my own work.

      And I hardly ever overuse adverbs in my first drafts anymore. :-)

    12. I edit as I write. Since I don't write all at one time, I end up going back and little. I always find something to make better, then go on.

      Morgan Mandel

    13. Thanks for sharing when you edit.

      Editing other's people work certainly does make us better self-editors.

      If there is a significant time lapse between writing sessions, it's good to go back to previous work to get back into the story. It's natural to edit at that point.

    14. The compulsive editor in me edits as I write. The practical editor, however, sits back and waits until the first draft is finished to begin working. I guess that means I do both.

    15. I couldn't even finish this comment without a thorough edit.

    16. Great post! (eds, thanks for the reprint.)
      I have gotten it down to the point where, if there's an important edit for plot or character, I'll go back and leave a bare-bones note inline in the text, and there's usually enough there that it's a easier edit when I go back. It makes for a much messier first draft, but it's better (for me, anyway) than forgetting the edit altogether.
      I avoid polishing prose in single drafts. It's a huge time-suck. It's why my first novel took 12 years...

    17. Chris, once again, you crack me up.

      I do edit as I go along to a point, because doing so invariably leads me deeper into the story than I knew to go at the outset. This makes me happy. :)


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