One of the polarizing subjects in the writing community is the question of whether or not to edit in the first draft. The first group believes editing in the first draft helps get the draft to a “good enough” state, which allows the writer to move on to the next section without worrying the previous part was trash and the whole draft is inherently flawed. The second group believes editing in the first draft is Sisyphean in nature since most final works are significantly different from the first draft. After the first draft is complete, entire scenes, chapters, characters are cut and left behind, and any time the author invested in perfecting those sections of the work is, in a way, wasted.
I have seen a first draft referred to as an “exploration,” which I feel captures the nature of drafting a story: it’s a journey into other worlds, other people’s lives. What will you find? What characters will you meet? You might start with a clear idea, but things become fluid and change. As I write, I discover new characters, new plots, and new relationships, and sometimes there are quite a few surprises along the way.
An example of change which comes through editing comes from when I was working on The Joining: late in the editing process, I realized I needed to swap two characters’ roles and genders. Suddenly, entire sections had to be cut or reworked because what had worked for a male character did not work for a female character and visa versa: any time spent on editing those sections no longer mattered.
“To edit, or not to edit, that is the question.”
When writing my own first drafts, I aim for more writing, less editing. For the most part, I approach drafting rather loosely, focusing more quantity over quality. I stop to fix spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, major grammatical errors, or errors related to character or world building, but I let most of the other issues slide. My first draft is about getting the bare bones of the story down, building the skeleton on which to drape the flesh and skin of the rest of my creation.
If I notice a major flaw in my first draft, I try to let it go until the first round of edits. For example, a couple months ago, I repeated the word “gold” an obnoxious number of times in a single paragraph. Rather than take time then to work on rephrasing the offending passage, I highlighted each instance of the word. Highlighting allows me to move forward and continue writing. I trust I won’t forget what the problem was when I return in the editing stage, especially for an error as glaring as the above example (though it has happened).
This being said, I do allow myself to jump back later if I think of something “perfect,” but I don’t dwell there continuing to edit or thinking, “Now that I changed this, maybe I should change that.” I believe in limiting these spur of the moment edits to a word, a phrase, at the very most a new paragraph—any more than that and I make notes for the editing stage and return to writing.
In the first draft, don’t get buried in editing
Another issue with editing in the first draft is editing can be a never-ending process. All stories could probably be improved upon, even once they reach a publishable state. When a writer gets dragged into editing during the initial writing stage, he is entering a realm from which there is potentially no return.
Remember too all writing starts in an imperfect state. Resist your inner critic, that voice curled up in your ear whispering harsh judgments. I don’t push editing in the first draft because when you start looking critically at your writing and trying to address its flaws, it can be easy to lose heart and give into your inner critic. Too much of this, and you might abandon the story altogether.
For a first draft, don’t focus on the flaws: just focus on the story.
And if you can’t resist editing in the first draft?
If you absolutely must edit, either schedule a specific day for editing—such as once a week—or consider waiting for the days when you are faced with writer’s block. In drafting, as long as you have a story to tell, you should keep on sketching out your story, but let’s face it: you will have a lull every now and then. These days are a good time to return to a scene you were not happy with, a character description you want to flesh out, or phrasing you want to tweak. A slow writing day gives you the time to expand a scene or mull over word choice. Additionally, editing can be a good cure for writer’s block: as you hammer out the flaws in your earlier writing, you might find new inspiration therein.
But, again, remember when editing a first draft: for some people the editing process gets bogged down in being “perfect.” Getting that aha! moment, where everything comes together, where the words just sing on the page like an angelic chorus. But a first draft cannot be perfect, so learn to settle for “good enough.” If you must sit and tweak, get it to the point of good enough, breathe easy, and move on to the next part of the story. Perfection comes many steps later in the writing/editing process (if it comes at all!).