How to Know If You’re Editing Too Soon

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My clients fall across the entire spectrum of writers. I coach people who are writing Memoir, Young Adult, Literary Fiction, Zombie Apocalypse, Paranormal Romance, and everything in between. Almost all of these writers come to me with the same issue. They’ve started their novel but can’t finish it. They don’t know what’s going on or why they’re blocked or what the problem is.

Much of the time these writers are confused. I talked about this in detail in my last post The Number One Reason Writers Give Up. But there is another problem lurking that most writers don’t even think of as a problem.

Too many writers are trying to edit the hell out of their manuscript before they even have a completed manuscript.

It usually happens after the first third of the book is written. The initial burst of enthusiasm for the story carries writers through the setup and into the meat of the book. But when they hit the meat they stall out. Things start to get unpredictable and they panic. To soothe themselves they start picking at their book like a scab. They start editing, and it’s too soon.

Here are the top 3 signs that you’re doing this with your own book:

You haven’t finished the sloppy first draft of your novel, but you find yourself line-editing chapters and looking for typos.

I’ve heard all of the excuses on this one. It actually hurts you somewhere deep inside when you see a grammatical error. You’ll be able to think more clearly when your manuscript is cleaned up. You weren’t ready to write the next chapter today, so you spent time editing what you already have instead.

Stop it. Put the red pen down. Back away from the red pen.

If typos make you cringe you’re just going to have to get over it. Writing a novel is not the same thing as writing an essay for an English class. It’s impossible for any great work of art to come clean and polished right out of the gate. After you finish your sloppy first draft—yes, the whole thing—then you will edit. It’s normal for writers to revise their drafts 3 or 4 times, and sometimes even 10 times. So rest assured, you will have plenty of time to clean up those clunky sentences.

You’re forcing yourself to write in chronological order when your creativity is calling for you to write the scenes showing up in your head right now, chronology be damned.

This isn’t technically editing, but it is related. Every book has a structural order to it that is necessary for the reader to comprehend the story. This is exactly as it should be. However, nailing down the sequence of your narrative and inflexibly demanding of yourself that you write the pieces in only that order will stifle your creativity and dampen your inspiration.

Write the pieces as they show up in your head and then stitch them together later, when you have all the pieces out of you and down on the page.

It can be helpful to create folders to organize the different pieces. For example, if you’re writing a story about Jake and his buddy Albert who go off to fight a dragon together, and you want to include the back story of both characters as well as their present adventure, you might name your folders: Jake’s Story, Albert’s Story, Quest for the Dragon, and Misc. Scenes.

You haven’t finished your novel, but you’ve read and reread what you’ve written thus far so many times that you could probably recite much of it by heart.

We writers love to read our own work. Even if it makes us cringe, part of us still gets that delicious thrill of satisfaction when we read a finished chapter. But it’s so easy to go overboard with this. The more you reread pieces of your work, the more problems you will find in it.

Read over finished sections only to briefly check back on things you need to know or where you are in the timeline. Everything else needs to be stowed away from your prying eyes.

When you have a finished sloppy first draft in front of you, then you will read the whole thing straight through and it will be magic, even if it makes you cringe. Every time you read it after that will be less magic. By the time you reach the fourth round of edits and revisions you will most likely be sick of reading your book and not want to see it ever again. So cherish that magic stage. Don’t waste it by rereading sections over and over before you’ve even finished writing the damn thing.


If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out:

Writing vs. Editing

Taking Emotional Risk in Your Writing

Why You Finishing Your Novel Is Exactly What the World Needs

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  • Reply K. M. Alexander 14 May, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Fantastic post as always. It wasn’t until I learned to stop doing basically everything you listed that I was able to complete my stories.

    Follow Heinlein’s Rules, especially #2: Finish What You Start.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 14 May, 2014 at 11:04 am

      I agree. Finishing what you start is probably the most essential rule for writers. Because even if you decide to scrap the finished product, your self-esteem as a writer benefits so much more from actually finishing, rather than giving up halfway.

  • Reply Catherine North 14 May, 2014 at 11:58 am

    This is great advice! I am 20,000 words into a new novel and it’s growing rapidly and organically as random scenes occur to me. I’m going to press on to the end before giving a structure to the mess. After that, I’ll rewrite it maybe 10 times or more. And then finally show people. 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 14 May, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      Sounds about like me: “I’ll rewrite it maybe 10 times or more.” I do a ton of editing in the after-stages.

  • Reply Rebecca Vance 14 May, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I have been researching, plotting, scrapping, re-plotting, etc. for more than a year. I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go with my first novel. One day, while reading a book on plot, I closed the book, grabbed a paper and s pen and started a bit of an outline. I do mean a bit. I just can’t outline. I can’t decide on all the characters or the murderer or the entire plot. I finally got tired of all the stops and starts, and I hadn’t wrote anything. The day before yesterday, I stopped. I decided I wanted to get started. I wrote out my first scene, longhand. Yesterday, I typed it up on the computer. Now, this is where my question lies. Of course, I tweeked it a bit here and there. Not a lot, but some. I ended up, much to my surprise, with 1,145 words! I didn’t think I had written that much. So, if I start out longhand, then type it, then that is editing, right? I know I wasn’t trying to edit and I’ll have a lot more to edit later, but I’m not sure what to do about that. My initial creativity is better with pen and paper than on screen. Do I write the entire thing on paper longhand first, then transfer it onto the screen? That seems like a lot more work, yet stopping to type up what I have already written may end up stemming the creative flow. What do you suggest?

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 14 May, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      Hi Rebecca, this question strikes a particular chord with me because that’s actually how I write EVERY novel and short story. I write it out longhand and then I type it up. I do try to type as I go (so if I write two sections per week, I try to stay on top of typing up two sections per week) but sometimes it adds up and I end up doing a whole lot of typing at the end.I usually write on Wednesday and Saturday and then type it up on Sunday.

      And yes, I do make small edits here and there as I type. I’m not against editing to the point where it becomes this hard-and-fast rule you can never break. But when a writer is editing their first draft as they write it, so much so that they’re paralyzed and can’t move forward with actually finishing the story, then we’ve got a problem on our hands. If you’re editing as you type, but you’re still moving forward overall with completing your first draft then I wouldn’t worry about it.

      And yes, because I write out my first drafts by hand, it IS a lot more work. But like you, my initial creativity is much better with pen and paper. So to me the extra work is worth it, because I really do feel the quality of the writing I do by hand is just so much better.

  • Reply Rebecca Vance 14 May, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Thank you for you reply. It does reinforce the fact that you can overdo it by editing too soon. I realized after my scene, which was mostly dialogue, that I hadn’t described the room or the teacups or much of the surroundings at all. But I didn’t go back to do this. I could have spent forever doing that. I wanted to get the bare bones down first. I can do all that on the edit when it’s finished. It’s nice to know that my instincts for that were correct. Thanks for the post!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 15 May, 2014 at 9:15 am

      Thanks for reading Rebecca. Honestly, most of the coaching work I do with writers is helping them learn how to trust themselves and their writerly instincts. Writers are strongly intuitive folks, we just also happen to suffer from self-doubt a lot of the time 😉

  • Reply Gisele LeBlanc 14 May, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t write a story from start to finish (in chronological order). It’s so nice to know that there are others who are non-linear writers, too. 🙂

  • Reply Jon Simmonds 15 May, 2014 at 5:12 am

    Oh yes, that familiar feeling when you get two-thirds of the way through, that if you go back and edit what you’ve written so far, you’ll be that much closer to a finished book. I did exactly this first time round and am now paying for it. The last third of the book developed so much that I had to go back and change significant amounts of the first two-thirds of the story. Those being the sections which I’d already edited. Meaning most of that editing time was wasted in any case. D’oh! Nevermore. To quote two extremely diverse cultural icons 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 15 May, 2014 at 9:17 am

      Yup, yup, yup. I find that with each new novel I write I’m getting more experience, exactly like that you described, under my belt. Novels can be wildly unpredictable, and just when you think you know how it’s going to go, everything changes direction. This is such a great point to bring up, thank you Jon!

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 15 May, 2014 at 8:09 am

    I do correct typos all along the way. I think in my particular case it’s the better way to go. You see, I can only type with one hand so there are oodles and oodles of typos. One hand does not stretch clear across keyboard so I may think I’m hitting a ‘s’ but it turns out I’m hitting a ‘e’ or even a ‘c’. Very few words would be spelled right or make any sense if I didn’t correct these errors along the way.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 15 May, 2014 at 9:14 am

      That makes sense. I also worked with a writer before who had a broken “T” key on his keyboard. Many a time we found “the” had been turned into “he” and everyone was confused!

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 17 May, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I started reading this, thinking, I’m a good girl, I don’t do this. By the time I finished I thought about the book I am supposedly working on at the moment. This is a mess of scenes and each time I return to it I rewrite one of them in a different voice or I change the tense. I can’t even decide in which order to tell the story. I’d better get back to writing and stop moving the deck chairs. Thanks.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 19 May, 2014 at 10:59 am

      I love that! “Moving the deck chairs.” That’s a great way to put it.

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