NaNo Tip No. 16: Edit as You Go

I know I wrote a whole tip telling you to ease up on yourself and expect badness in your first draft. I encouraged you to just pound it out and leave the editing till later.

Sadly, that doesn’t work for every writer. Nor does it work for every book. Although I bashed out a crappy zero draft for the majority of my books, I wrote Liar editing as I went. I don’t think it would have worked to have written it any other way.

I wrote Liar scene by scene. Working on each one until it was polished and gleaming and then, and only then, moving on to the next one. The scenes in Liar are pretty short so it was easier to write that way than if they were longer regular chapters. (You can see an extract here. I talk a bit more about the writing of Liar here.)

The other approach to editing as you go is to start each new session by going over the last bit of the book you wrote. This is an especially good technique for those people who struggle to get going with their writing. Instead of beginning each new session with the scary blankness of what is not yet written, you begin with the comfort of words already on the page. Go over the last couple of chapters, fix what needs fixing from typos on up, reacquaint yourself with your characters and story, and write from there. By the time the draft is finished you’ll have gone over the majority of the novel two or three times and your novel will be in much better shape than if you’d just banged the whole thing out with nary a glance backwards.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach. Like I said I’ve written many novels that way.

You’re now more than half way through NaNoWriMo. Congratulations! And good luck for the next 14 days!


  1. Philip on #

    Ooh, I could not do that. I’ve tried. For years I’ve always hit brick walls when writing anything larger than a couple pages because I would caught going over what I had already written and trying to tune it up, revise things, add more details to descriptive parts.

    Since I started NaNoWriMo this month I’ve made myself put backwards-blinders on so I don’t get bogged down with going over what I have already done. It hasn’t been perfect, there have been times when I’ve had to alter something I already wrote because an idea came to me and I needed to adjust things so it all fit. But I’ve gotten over 27,000 words already, rather than just 10,000 “perfect” words. I know I’ll have a lot of editing to do, especially as characters become more fleshed out in my head and I think of more of the minor details for the plot itself, but I’ve had far more success just in these 15 days than I’ve had at any other time in my life.

  2. wandering-dreamer on #

    I just had to spend a week going back and adding in more stuff to my Nano so I’d make the word count in the end and did a little editing as well. Although nothing has really changed from my original idea, just some phrasing and trying to make the characters sound different when they talk. The only thing is I’m really scared to cut out stuff so I usually put a strike through it instead.

  3. Candace on #

    For me, personally, I have learned that I absolutely cannot edit as I go. I am the kind of person who will go over every detail over and over, and if I allow myself to edit as I go then I find myself constantly editing instead of writing. I just set myself forward and don’t look back- I only go back if there is a major detail that I need to remind myself of. And for this years NaNoWriMo, this is super important because I have decided to just crank out the words for the word count, then when i’m done I am planning on plotting the entire story from the beginning and rewriting the entire thing.

  4. CKHB on #

    Thank you for the validation! This is how I write.

  5. kristin cashore on #

    I’m an incurable “edit as you go” writer, and suspect I always will be :o). (Though I’ve found it’s so true that each book teaches you how it needs to be written, so the process can always change!) I outline the future parts of my books like crazy, but then usually find that I get more ideas and forward momentum from going back and reading/revising what I’ve written so far than from paying attention to my outline. It means that my official first draft does tend to be more of a second or third draft by the time I get through it, which is nice… unfortunately, it also means that I feel like I write at a crawling pace compared to a lot of other writers.

    Hi Justine! It was so nice to sit between you and Scott at Books of Wonder the other night! I’ve been going back and enjoying your NaNo tips, particularly the benefits of procrastination and the dangers of the Internet. Both so true. Liar is near the top of my TBR pile :o)

  6. Jude on #

    Editing makes me happy, so this advice works for me, but my best friend falls into editing hell and never finishes his writing. He was assigned an article to write by a musician friend and because there was no deadline, he was completely blocked. I’m his editor and coach. I sent him some of your earliest articles and tried lots of other techniques to get him unstuck. What helped him the most? The brackets idea. The second section of the article was filled with brackets, including two that made me laugh out loud [I sound like a first grader] [That paragraph sucked] At least he didn’t keep trying to rewrite them until they died. I’m excited about our next step–we both signed up for Google Wave, so when he finishes the final portion of the article, I’ll be able to edit it in real time with him watching. He can reject my edits instantly, and we can discuss problems and fix things. I’m hoping that Google Wave will set him free from his restrictive edit/re-edit/never finish the darned thing habit. A doctoral thesis lies in his future, so he needs to get something written before we can polish it.

  7. Summer on #

    I think I’m kinda a mix between ‘edit as you go’ and ‘don’t look back’.

  8. Justine on #

    Each of you are proving that every writer does things differently.

    Philip: That’s a pretty common experience. I suspect the reason most of my novels have been written by slamming down the zero draft in a hurry is because I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.

    Now, though, I know I can finish a novel so I’m not so worried that looking back will hinder me.

    Candace: Yup, it’s absolute key to figure out what kind of writer you are. But it’s also good to be aware that that could change.

    Kristin: Though I’ve found it’s so true that each book teaches you how it needs to be written, so the process can always change!

    Absolutely. This is the key thing that I try to tell everyone.

    Lovely to meet you too!

    Jude: You know the very first long piece of writing I finished was my PhD thesis. Before that I’d begun millions of novels but never finished any of them. So maybe the same thing will happen for your friend?

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