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Monday, April 27, 2020

Breaking Writing Rules: "Never Edit During Your First Draft"

I recently had a follower ask me to what extent it was true that you shouldn't edit your first draft while writing it.

I almost started laughing out loud because I never follow this rule.

Which means, you don't have to either.

But first, let's talk about this rule.

What's the Rule?

Don't start editing until you have your first draft complete.

There is a very popular idea that you shouldn't edit your first draft while writing it. Instead, you should just focus on getting it all on paper, first. And then you can come back and start fixing things.

Why is this a rule?

Well, it's been so long since I followed it that I actually decided to take to the internet, look up articles and ask actual writers who follow it--because I couldn't quite remember all the reasons anymore. (Which might be hard for some to believe.)

Why is it a Rule?

"Rule" might be a bit of a strong word, but honestly, it is for any writing rule, so I'm using it.

As I revisited this rule, it seemed to revolve around the idea that after you've thrown everything on the paper, then you can have a clear concept of how to shape it. It's about getting your ideas down, first.

I could also see how it might be a waste of time for people to edit things they will be throwing out (I once felt this same way, and years ago, even blogged about it on here).

Some of the writers I talked to said that if they edit while writing, it pulls them out of the story, and they get focused on the fact the writing sucks. Some of them start second guessing themselves and get discouraged. Others find it easier to be creative if they just get the story down as fast as possible.

And it was also suggested that for beginners, it was a good rule to follow, because beginners are often just trying to finish a full draft, period. That makes sense to me.

I could also see how this approach could be great for some discovery writers--since they don't know the story, they need to "discover" it in the first draft.

That is all fine and well, and if it works best for you, awesome. There are professionals who like to use this same approach.

If it doesn't work for you, you're in luck. Because it doesn't really matter. . . .

Breaking the Rule

Back in college and for a couple of years after college, I largely followed this rule. At the time, it made sense to me and seemed to work.

Until I tried to write a novel.

People say first drafts always suck, but mine really sucked.

Most of this probably had to do with the fact that it was my first time actually trying to write a novel at all, and I still had a million things to learn.

But over the years, I have found that I work much better and tend to be much happier if I edit as I write.

I've talked about this before, but I prefer to write scene by scene, chronologically, generally speaking.

Even my "writing" approach is a little wonky, because I usually write in passes.

So first I might write mainly just the dialogue and literally put things in like "insert several lines of setting description," where I need it.

Then I might go through and write the viewpoint character's thoughts.

Then I might go through and write the blocking.

And on and on. Usually one of the last things I put in are the descriptions.

During this, I'm sort of going back and editing as I go. This helps me get the pacing and flow right.

But then I also edit the scene once it is complete.

It's like I start with scraps and vague pieces and slowly take passes over and over until everything becomes specific and precise.

Then I prefer to largely polish the scene and go on to the next one, where I start the process over again (beginning with brainstorming and organizing content).

Absolutely things will be cut, changed, or rewritten through the process, but even then, I find that this is how I produce my best work.

For me, I find if I just have largely crappy content, it's harder for me to come up with good ideas. But if I have a rather complete scene, I can build off that, sometimes in things as small as descriptions. I find I have more to play with to help me come up with future ideas. As Editor Lisa Cron says (that I very much agree with in my experience), "Specifics beget specifics."

If I don't take the time to get the details right, I have vague stuff, which leads to more vague stuff. Vagueness begets vagueness. And if everything works off cause and effect, then how do I know how everything is affected, if I'm not solidifying each scene?

But I think I should mention, that I also have a rough outline or idea for where the story is going before I write anything.

This is what seems to work best for me. But it took me years to figure that out! It could possibly take you years to figure out which method seems to work best for you.

I just find that if I write a bunch of crap, I also feel like crap. And produce more crap. 😅

So do you need to follow this rule?

Absolutely not. I don't follow it . . . like at all. I'm like clear on the opposite end of it.

It's probably just going to take experience to figure out how you like to work.

These days, before I even start a new chapter, I like to go back over what I've written so far again. It helps me with creating cohesion.

But here's the thing--I prefer to "front load" as much of the work as I reasonably can, which means doing lots of prep and editing as I go. Others prefer to "back load" the work--getting something on the page and then fixing it all afterward.

I'm sure a lot of people like to do some of both.

I know others prefer to only go back and fix a few things here and there that are bothering them, before pressing onward.

And I've heard of some writers scrapping everything that isn't working and going back to the starting. In fact, recently, I learned that Philip Pullman restarted His Dark Materials 15 times because he couldn't get the beginning to work right--this is actually what led to him coming up with the concept of daemons, which sounds pretty crazy when you think about it, since that ended up being one of the most important and most striking elements of the books. His protagonist didn't have anyone to talk with, and that was becoming a problem, so he gave her a daemon, which altered everything. If he had followed this rule, we'd probably have gotten a much different story.

So basically, if not editing during your first draft seems to be doing more damage, then please go back and edit! Consider this post as permission to do just that.


  1. Hi :) I just discovered your blog today, and I'm glad I did! I really like your "How Structure Affects Pacing" post especially. My pacing is something I'm working on at the moment as I endeavour to write a much longer work than I am used to.

    I've never actually heard of this rule, but nevertheless it's interesting to read your perspective on it. I've think I've found myself progressing further out of my 'beginner stage' of writing recently, caring more about my work and putting more effort and research into actually completing my work at a standard I'm happy with as opposed to just abandoning something I got bored with.

    I agree with what you've mentioned about vague content only fuelling more vague content. I've definitely experienced that before. My motivation to write stalled about a ten months ago when my content became vague, which I've only recently realised as my motivation came back in force with this self-isolation business. As an unashamed beginner I found I leant very hard into the quantity vs quality concept; that creating a lot of content is better for your skills than trying to create one thing absolutely perfectly on your first try. Now having improved my skills from absolute beginner I can try and write that "perfect" thing. So I can agree with and am familiar with the concept of not editing a first draft as a beginner, and especially as a perfectionist!

    I like terms front- and back-loading. In those terms I personally do a mix of both; working with an "ideas" document for world building and suchlike and a "wip" document for my actual writing, and bouncing between to the two as ideas fuel writing and writing fuels ideas. Figuring out that system has definitely helped me write more, as I have a messy space to dump all of my thoughts and a clean space to arrange them properly into sentences, without having to worry about writing it down perfectly the first time. Furthermore this process is seeing me develop longer works than the short stories and character studies I usually write.

    If I had found something like this post a few years ago I would be much further ahead as a writer, I'm sure!

    Thanks :)

    1. Also I forgot to mention your note about "insert several lines of setting description" has helped me immensely since I discovered the concept a few years ago. It's so much easier to stay in the groove of writing when I get stuck on something, to just dump in "insert this here" or "character saying something about xyz" and keep going. I find that my focus and motivation for writing comes in bursts (I don't want to always force myself to write, lest it become a chore and I don't enjoy it anymore) and so milking those bursts of energy for all they are worth is super necessary. That trick has saved me many times!


    2. Hi Izzy,

      Thanks for visiting! I apologize, it has taken me a few days to reply. I'm glad you found my blog too! (And better yet, found it helpful.) I have been focusing more on pacing on a project I'm working on as well.

      Sounds like you are making some great progress. Yes, and not editing a first draft works better for some than others.

      Oh, and finding your process is really helpful. I used to think I had a pretty good process, with how I organized things, etc. But over the last six months or so, I've improved it a ton. Part of that is because I read "Story Genius" by Lisa Cron, and she recommends a way to organize everything, and I'm trying it out (along with my own stuff), and I'm really liking it.

      I'm so glad that works for you--it definitely helps me, especially with description, which usual makes me pause and change gears.

      Thanks for commenting!


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