How to Know If You’re Editing Too Soon

Rainbow Bars

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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