I am of the opinion that it usually pays to get something-anything on the page and to try and revise later, on the grounds that it’s much easier to revise and polish than to conjure out of thin air.
But there is a very real potential dark side of exercises like NaNoWriMo where you push forward at all costs Namely, that it leads you to abandon self-editing in the name of racking up words.
Some people actually need to shut off the self-editing switch because it’s easy to fall in a state of paralysis when trying to write a polished final draft on the very first try. Letting go and just letting the words flow can be freeing.
But abandon all hope ye who completely abandon self-editing. And there’s a very simple reason for this: problems can snowball. A problem that is brushed over in the first few chapters can progress from there and worm its way through the novel in such a way that it can become very very difficult to fix later on. You can’t build a house on a creaky foundation.
It is definitely good to get words on the page, provided overall things are working. And how do you know if things are working overall?
It’s tough for everyone to be a self-aware writer and to spot your own flaws. But stopping, thinking, trying to imagine yourself as a reader, remembering the writing advice you know, and asking yourself very honestly, “Is this working?” is absolutely crucial.
And chances are you know when things aren’t working. There will be a quiet, tiny nagging voice that you’re shutting off or deciding not to worry about for now. It usually manifests itself as a sneaking suspicion.
Listen to The Voice, which speaks quietly and almost imperceptibly. The Voice sounds way more like, “Um…Hi! So sorry to bug you, I mean, only if you want to listen, but um, well, are you sure about the cow aliens? I can wait…” than “Duh! Wake up, this is wrong!”
If only The Voice were more assertive.
So yes. Get those words down, keep on plugging away. But don’t stop editing as you go. And listen to The Voice.
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Art: A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch by Henriette Browne
Reading everyone else's comments, I think there's a balance that needs to be struck. In the YA I just finished, I promised myself, I would not go back and edit the small stuff, but I would go back and add and delete passages as necessary. In fact, what happened was, as "I need to change that" ideas popped into my head, I'd simply insert them in CAPS in the first draft passage I was working on (even if they referred to three chapters previously) and keep plugging ahead on drafting. The result was that I was infinitely more productive, while at the same time satisfying the obsessive voice in the back of my head that said, "If you don't change that NOW you're going to forget it."
Sheila Cull says
NaNoWriMo makes no sense to me at all.
"You won't believe it! It was NaNoWriMo, as in month, and not only did I finally get started, I got published and will be in Borders soon! All because of NaNoWriMo. If it weren't for that."
"Are you high?" The reasonable person asked.
Elaine AM Smith says
But my therapist says I must ignore the voices in my head. We can never get everything right, can we? Nope, we thought not 😉
Ishta Mercurio says
This is a really good point. I think the trick is in knowing how much to self-edit. Are you going back and changing "house" to "home"? Probably a waste of time at this stage. But are you realising that the story would work better if you removed the secondary love interest? That's a major plot-point, and you don't want to write a whole draft based on a premise that isn't working, so if your inner editor is talking to you, you should listen.
Good food for thought.
Jen P says
Does 'the Voice' work with "you don't need any more shoes or that last piece of chocolate cake," too?
I just bought 'the t-shirt' making a contribution to NaNoWriMo – now I *have* to take part.
(busy looking for the minor-edits-managing-otherwise-known-as-procrastination-monster off switch…)
Cassandra Frear says
Wise perspective. It does depend on the writer.
I've been working on a manuscript with an editor I trust. He understands the rough draft phase, so he isn't overworking my pages. But his feedback is important.
Seeking input as I go keeps the project from straying into a bad place and getting lost there!
Chuck H. says
So, you're saying it's okay to listen to the voices? Allllll Riiiiight!!!!! Excuse me, I'll talk to you later. I have somebody–er, I mean something to attend to.
Rane Anderson says
This is exactly why I don't participate in NaNo. One of the perks of the competition is to be able to say at the end, "I did it! I wrote a novel in a month!" But, I know if I wrote a novel in a month, I'd retire it to a shoebox and leave it for dead under my bed. I like to self-edit as I go. It makes for a much less challenging rewrite.
Draven Ames says
I would self edit at the end of each chapter, if I had it to do all over again. Sometimes, like you said, a small plot hole can turn into a gaping cavern, leaving rewrites as your treat. Smart advice.
The only problem with that is that the edits I make tend to be major changes in which I have to go back and change a bunch of other stuff and pretty soon I've written myself into the proverbial corner and gaaaahhhhh.
It drives me crazy just thinking about it. If you have any suggestions for me avoiding that (besides not writing all together), I'd appreciate it.
Pete Pescatore says
Listen to the voice, fine, but what if there are several? If you start listening to them all you go nuts. People demanding space on the page, your Aunt Vera for example, back from the grave & trying to wrest control of the plot–at some point you have to tell her to take a hike or she and her ilk will hijack the whole thing and you'll be left with a bunch of incomplete and incompatible stories instead of one finished first draft. So my view is, try and stick with one main character and what s/he wants and have the character deal with the usurpers.
Miss Aspirant says
Hi, Nathan. Great series of posts. I haven't had much luck at NANO, although I do get a good chunk of work done each year on this or that project.
As to inner editor itis, even when I write a first draft during a NANO, I edit last thing and first thing, that way it gets at least two full edits a day. Outside of NANO, I tend to over edit, spending enormous amounts of time going over the same material, with the thought that if I can get it right, I can then move on. I know I should just do a surface edit and save my energy for just getting the story down, but it's hard.
Author Guy says
Just so you know, there is a perfectly marvelous YA scifi story about a boy who inherits a starship and has to head off an invasion of Earth by a race of Killer Cows. It's called Killer Cows, by Dave Anderson.
I've discovered my best way of doing NaNo is to start each day's writing by reading what I wrote the day before. (I limit myself to one day's reading for time and limit the urge to edit too much.) This keeps me focused on the story while eliminating issues before they become major issues in a completely first draft.
That's good advice, Stephanie. I shall try that.
J. T. Shea says
In the movie MARS ATTACKS! the Martians set a whole herd of (earth) cows on fire. Though at least they didn't rape them or stampede them through the Vatican (as far as I know).
My gift for self-editing only gets to the "WTF is WRONG with this!" point. But I am learning to do a search and destroy where the word "had" is concerned.
I now need to stop the humiliating habit of adding every adjective I know to help describe a snowflake. I must learn to just say "it's white, cold,and tiny." and be done with it.
Donea Lee says
Hi Nathan – long-time follower, first-time commenter here… 🙂 Great advice, though. It's taken me years to get through even a first draft. I think I over-self-edit – trying to make the little things just perfect (like the first 10 pages) before I move on. But, I'm trying to adopt of healthy mix of just getting it on the page and spot-checking here and there until it's done. But, going to take the Nano challenge on a newer project. I think it will help me get past the whole "it just takes to long" mentality I seem to have… thanks!
I'm glad to see someone NOT hating on self-editing. I definitely still self-edit during NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words are useless if they don't make sense. I also like rereading my words to get back in the "mood" of the story, and I absolutely can't reread without editing. It's my job.
The trick is not to get consumed with editing. Edit for a few minutes, then go back to writing. Writing is the focus!
Rebekah Ruth says
Oh I'm sooo glad I just read this post. I joined NoNoWriMo last night at about 11:30 pm. I hadn't planned it ahead of time so I feel behind the game. But I wanted a jump start to write my second novel.
When I read that you weren't supposed to edit, I got a little freaked out. I finished 1800 words this morning but I found it incredibly distracting to NOT edit. I need to edit as I go through. It's part of my writing process and it helps me write more! I don't get bogged down by it. I enjoy it and still put out plenty of words. So this was just the permission I needed.
I feel so much better now. 🙂