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.
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 Proofreading and Editing 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 proofreading and editing. 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. (For tips on how to finish a novel, check out this post.)
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 proofreading and editing.
Having trouble seeing the big picture? Hire me as your developmental editor and I’ll help you find the right direction.