How to Edit Writing: Tinkering Vs. Progress

Writers, I want to take a moment to emphasize that you shouldn’t even think about how to edit writing until you have a full manuscript under your belt. This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years: writers will be really passionate about their early chapters — the ones they’ve already drafted. There might be a strong desire to finish the project, but progress just isn’t happening. Why? Fixating on proofreading and editing those completed chapters slams the brakes on finishing a first draft.

how to edit writing, developmental editing
When you focus too much on tinkering with the details, you lose sight of the bigger picture.

Some writers sit down and bang out a draft, no problem. (Those jerks!) Some writers have the hardest time pursuing new pages when they already have part of a draft completed. This can be trouble for a few reasons.

The Appeal of What You’ve Already Written

It’s there already, and you can begin proofreading and editing. Plus, there’s the idea that if you really polish those first few chapters, you’ll have a stronger springboard for the rest of the story. The blank pages that follow are unknown, so they’re not nearly as appealing. In fact, they can be downright intimidating. So who would blame a writer for sticking to the familiar? In addition to being done, your existing chapters also provide a lot of opportunity for distraction. When we’re tinkering with the same few chapters over and over again, we tend to feel pretty productive.

Focusing on How to Edit Writing Means Missing the Forest for the Trees

While you’re working on syntax and trying to decide what order those three scenes should go in, the “bird’s eye view” of the entire project itself is getting ignored. Just like some manuscript revisions tend to devolve into moving around commas rather than dealing with larger issues like plot and voice, proofreading and editing can take you away from what needs to be your focus, especially in an early draft: getting the big picture down on paper.

What I Recommend

Write a long outline where you detail what you plan to do in each additional chapter. Cover what scenes you’ll include, what the big plot turning points will be, and how characters might grown and change as a result. It doesn’t have to be fancy or thorough, and you should pay zero attention to how to edit writing. The goal here is to give yourself a map for finally committing those unknown chapters to the page.

You Won’t Know the Whole Story Until You Reach the End

The hard truth is this: once you finish a manuscript, you will most likely discover things you didn’t know about your story, you’ll have developed your themes and characters, and you will want to go back to the beginning and start planting some seeds that will eventually grow and blossom over the course of the novel. Those first chapters that you’re proofreading and editing are likely to change as your own understanding of the manuscript changes. So tackling how to edit writing isn’t fully productive until that first draft is complete.

Aim for Complete Rather Than Polished

Tinkering can be good if you recognize it for what it is, and don’t indulge it too much. When writers come to me with a promising first few chapters or one really rough complete draft, I am much more intrigued by the draft, each and every time. In the first chapters, you are still very much in the idea stage and trying to figure your novel out. When you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve at least put everything down on paper and you’ve executed a version of your vision. It may not be the final version, and it may not be terribly polished yet, but at least it’s complete. (When you’re at that point, make sure to check out my post on first draft novel revision.) Pulling that off may be more intimidating up-front, but it’s definitely more gratifying than getting tangled up in how to edit writing.

Having trouble seeing the big picture? Hire me as your developmental editor and I’ll help you find the right direction.

7 Replies to “How to Edit Writing: Tinkering Vs. Progress”

  1. A lot of tinkering I’ve done is either because I don’t know what the next scene will be (your outlining idea helps!) or I have ideas to include in a previous scene that I don’t want to forget.

    For the first problem, taking a break from writing to brainstorm helps a lot, just for ideas for the upcoming scenes. And I don’t really outline more than the major plot points to keep the structure solid, so I don’t feel the pressure of having to figure it all out. I just do headlight outlining, ie I know where I’m going for the next couple scenes.

    For the second issue, if I have ideas I want to include, I just go to the end of the manuscript and jot down ideas or dialogue or whatever I want to include when I revise. It’s a way of not forgetting while I continue writing, but the notes are rough enough not to distract from actually writing and moving plot forward.

    Lovely post! thank you 🙂

  2. I do love that rush, though, of starting a new WiP with tons of energy and ideas. When I get into a rut and can’t seem to move past a chapter, I force myself to put that file away and open a blank file to continue (so I’m not tempted to look back). Otherwise, I may never finish the draft.

    Once I write the end of the story, those first chapters are the ones that need the most revision. Maybe I started in the wrong place, or maybe there’s a better way to show the character arc. In fact, I normally don’t start the MC’s character arc “low” enough to make it matter until I come back and revise.

    Good points here. Thanks.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I learned this the hard way, and spent way too much time polishing early chapters that in draft four are little or nothing like the original rough draft. Many were dropped or significantly altered. Once the novel was complete, I realized so many things about the story which changed those opening chapters.

    Fantastic post, and great advice!

  4. Your comments are so true. Unfortunately, I learned it the hard way while writing my first novel. Your points also apply to revising, I’ve found.

    I am starting another novel in the new year and will re-read your post DAILY if needed! Thanks so much.

  5. You caught me… I am doing this! OK, time to finish writing those last few middle chapters and get this thing put together. Thanks for the call out!

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