Thursday, October 17, 2013

Revising as You Go—Good or Bad?

The WRITER’S DIGEST website features an article called “7 Reasons to Write an Entire 1st Draft Before Going Back to the Beginning”:

7 Reasons

This author isn’t talking about whether to write your novel in linear order or skip around composing scenes out of sequence (although she would probably disapprove of that practice, too). What she advises against is backtracking to revise earlier passages instead of forging onward nonstop.

I disagree with almost everything said in this article, which is clearly written for extreme pantsers. I can’t imagine starting to write a story or novel without knowing how it will end! Also, while I’m a dedicated outliner, almost all pantsers whose process I’ve read about do say they at least know where the story is headed. As for that bizarre assertion about typically chopping off 35 to 100 pages from the beginning of the first draft—good grief. As a comment on the page mentions, outlining eliminates that hazard. Anyway, my revisions more often ADD to the word count, not subtract from it, since I typically need to flesh out sketchy sensory images and emotional reactions.

I do agree, however, that there are good reasons not to go back and revise during the first-draft process. A perfectionist, even one who’s a plotter instead of a pantser, could fall into the trap this author mentions—tinkering with the early part of the book for so long she gets discouraged and never finishes. More important, revision engages the editing rather than creative part of the brain, a reason I’ve often seen cited for not trying to do both at once. And even the most thorough outliner may alter the plot during the actual writing, so it makes sense not to obsess too intensely over getting every phrase and punctuation mark right the first time around.

That said, I still tend to fiddle with earlier scenes while composing later sections of the first draft. If I think of a line of description or dialogue I should have included, I insert it while it’s fresh in my mind. If a tweak to the plot requires a minor alteration in an earlier scene, same procedure. As for polishing word choice and sentence structure, I can’t help doing that as I go along. I’m an English major who worked as a proofreader for over twenty years. It’s too late to reform. The advantage of the extensive outlining and in-process tinkering is that my drafts (whether fiction or the rare articles I occasionally still write) reach stage 1.5 pretty clean. One more pass, and they’re ready to submit. Editors seldom ask me for significant changes.

Do you revise as you go along? Or generate the entire first draft in an uninterrupted forward-moving flow?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. I revise as I go along. I may sometimes make a note to change something later rather than actually change it at the time, but I've timed myself while working.

    From those records, I know for a fact that I write far faster if I revise as I go. If I force myself to continue, I keep getting distracted by the things that need fixing, and my end timing is far slower.

    I also know that I can't outline in the conventional sense. My standard process is to start with a situation and characters, figure out the plot points or themes I must hit. I then write until it no longer flows easily (which will usually end up being about 10% in).

    That's when I sit down and make sure I consciously know the protagonist, the antagonist, their respective goals, and how those conflict. I'll also plan a bit more, often even write the blurb.

    Then I jump in and keep writing. Rinse & repeat to end.

    If I try to plan everything in advance, it wastes time—again, I've kept records—because the plan stymies me and ends up missing something. I'll have the motivation right and screw up the action, or I'll have the action write and screw up the motivation—that sort of thing.

    (Why, yes, I do like em dashes. How'd you guess?)

    So I plan as little as possible for me to jump back into the writing again. I'm also getting practiced at identifying types of "writer's block"—which is always my subconscious telling me something's wrong. Sometimes it can be fixed by cleaning up typos in what's gone before; sometimes someone's acting OOC two scenes up. Once I identify and fix the problem, I'm good to continue.

    (I also work very well with having beta readers on a work-in-progress, but that seems even rarer than the rest of my process.)

    Again: I know the best process for me because I've kept records. And that's the only real way to verify the best process for you.

  2. I revise every chapter before I move forward but then I still consisder what I have a very very rough draft as I revise and layer in emotions, descriptions, humor hits I see an opportunity for. Really I would say I go through about 7 revisions before I consider I have a rough draft - But that's how I work, I need to write the skeleton, flesh it out, then layer in other elements.

  3. Great post. I agree fiddling saves work later and keeps the mind into the writing space.

  4. I do wish I was a good outliner. Every time I've ever tried using thorough outlines, though, it doesn't work for me at all. And trust me, I've tried! But it works for many writers. I do have a general, non-detailed outline in my head, though. I'm more of the power-on school, but I do go back and make revisions when the plot's starting to derail, or when I think of a better way to get to the ending, or when I think of things that need to be added for later parts to carry through appropriately. For "minor" things that don't affect the plot, like changing POV, though, I just go on in the new POV and don't fix the first section until the rewrite.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. I always find it fascinating to read about other authors' writing processes. I also tend to make notes in the text of things I want to go back and fix; however, I've never thought of keeping formal records of how long the process takes for me. Very organized!