8 Unexpected Writing Lessons: Why Edit-As-You-Go Doesn’t Work

A high school English teacher taught me some fabulously unexpected lessons about writing.  Did you cringe when you read that?  It’s okay if you did.sxchu_statianzo_waywrong

Plenty of you have great memories of English class, and many more have terrible memories, memories of red corrective ink, of the asphyxiating five-paragraph essay, and of annotating Madame Bovary to the point of insanity.

These are the kind of lessons that are like eating brussel sprouts, or broccoli, or drinking kombucha.  You don’t do it because you like it.  You do it because it’s good for you.

When we turned in papers, we were required to submit all of our drafts and notes.  These drafts were part of our grade.  She wanted us to show that we didn’t throw something up on a text document the night before and call it a term paper.  She didn’t grade us on the quality, and it wasn’t a huge part of our grade, but we had to have something.

Now, because I loved English class and was a huge nerd, it wasn’t hard to convince me to do that kind of work.  When I started doing a crazy amount of re-writes and edits, I developed habits that follow me to this day.

But for my peers this was challenging.  In high school I was in an honors program.  Some of my friends had demanding extracurriculars on top of a heavy academic workload.  For some of them, writing a paper at the last minute was not procrastination; it was a survival strategy.

When I talked to my partner about the topic of this post, he said that he had to do the same thing in high school.  He edited as he wrote, so he made up drafts to turn in for his English class.

Edit-as-you-write is a terrible habit, but it’s so common among writers that it’s an acceptable practice.  We’re not in high school anymore, and there are no English teachers to police us.  We’re as busy as ever, so we think that as long as we get it done then that’s all that matters.

This is especially true for bloggers.  Sometimes we just need to throw up a blog post.  But if you want to be a better writer, then you have to do a lot more than that.

Yes, it’s more work, but writing and re-writing drafts benefit you in a way that the edit-as-you-go method can’t.  It can teach you a myriad of lessons.  Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Complete a draft.  The first draft is always, always, always the hardest.  You have a good idea, but it’s a little hazy and only vaguely resembles something.  When you edit-as-you-go, you only see the idea in separate parts.  But when you finish the draft, you see it’s shape as a whole.
  2. Complete another draft.  Like moving from A to Z, each letter reveals the next one.  Sometimes we find our best ideas on the fourth or fifth step, but we need the three steps that come before it to get us there
  3. Write imperfectly.  Being really bad is a crucial step in this process.  We have to be at comfortable with our awkward writing as we try to find the right words.
  4. Practice.  A lot.  You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule wherein a person has to practice for 10,000 hours to get really good at something.  This applies to writing.  With the edit-as-you-go method, you cut so many corners that you maybe clock in 2,000 hours.  You’ll get to the 10,000 hour mark, but it will take you a lot longer.  When you write drafts over and over again, you get the benefit of seeing your progress.  You watch a piece of writing evolve from the ugly duckling first draft to the elegant swan of the fifth draft.
  5. Come back with a fresh pair of eyes.  It is universally known that walking away from writing and coming back to it makes it infinitely better.  Those edits your making will be a lot better if you sleep on them first.
  6. Keep moving.  There are some species of sharks that have to constantly move.  If they stop moving, then they stop breathing and they die.  When you don’t edit-as-you-go, it keeps the blood moving.
  7. Identify redundant language.  One of my editing techniques is to circle words that I frequently use.  It gives me a visual of when I use certain words or phrases too often.  It then challenges me to write something different.
  8. Be your best.  If you don’t care what anyone thinks, then you can write anything you want and call it a day.  But if you want to be truly proficient, then you have to do more than get by.

It’s more work, but we don’t do it because it’s easy.  Like anything else – marathon training or playing the piano – you have to practice writing to get good at it.  Maybe you could get away with cutting corners when all you had to do was the pass your English class.  But if you really want to be good at it, this is what it takes.

Completion is critical.  When you complete drafts before editing them, you get the benefit of seeing who you are as a writer.  You see your ideas and your language through each stage of the process.  You make all these wonderful mistakes, and then you learn from them.

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20 thoughts on “8 Unexpected Writing Lessons: Why Edit-As-You-Go Doesn’t Work

    1. I think writing shitty first drafts and then try to rewrite them into some shape, is a terrible habit that only produces mediocre texts, as the best. And because I see this crap recommended again and again, here are some things to consider for beginning authors.

      1. EDIT WHAT YOU KNOW IS WRONG IMMEDIATELY. Many times, you know something doesn’t work as soon as you write it; if you force yourself to go on, you will forget what was wrong with it; when you return to it later, you won’t know what was wrong about it. And so you’ll leave it as it is. Are you really happy to leave it at that? Edit things the moment you know they don’t work. Don’t hesitate to return to the previous paragraph or a chapter.

      2. WRITE AS WELL AS YOU CAN. Push yourself to your limits. Pay attention to every word, every sentence, every paragraph. Don’t console yourself that it’s okay to write imperfectly. Unless you’re okay with producing a cheap, mediocre novel no one will really read. If you want to write well, you need to work hard on it. Use your brain as you write – be aware of every word, think about the purpose of every sentence, and soon you’ll see you’re improving. If you write a shitty first draft, all you’ll see is shit.

      3. TEN TIMES POLISHED SHIT IS STILL JUST SHIT. Ten times rewritten pile of imperfect crap is still a pile of imperfect crap. See the point 1.

      4. WRITING IS NOT A RACE. It’s okay to write slowly. It’s okay to have 1000 words of a polished text, rather than 10 000 words of crap.

      5. QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. In the number of hours you practice as well. 10 000 hours of beating the keys won’t make you a pianist. After 10 000 hours of writing shitty first draft, you’ll still be only able to write shitty things. You won’t be any better. Instead, even if you only have a half an hour a day, pay close attention to what you wrote. See what gives you trouble: is it dialogue? Description? Action scenes? Focus on them. Do writing exercies, again as well as you can – and let someone more advanced (e.g. in an online writing workshop) have a look at it.

      6. COMPLETE A TEXT, NOT CRAP. When you finish your text and it’s already edited, you can feel as a writer. You will see your ideas and language in a perfected form. You’ll see all those wonderful, working sentences, the text that flows and is a pleasure to read.

  1. Some really useful tips here. I must admit that I don’t usually draft and re-draft… maybe that would be a good thing to think about for the future. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

  2. Interesting. I am an edit as you go person, I just can’t leave mistakes and move on without correcting and correcting again and correcting again until I’m satisfied. I hadn’t given much thought to the benefits of writing multiple complete drafts. Great post!

  3. I wish I’d written this blog! I’m the writer who agonizes over every word and edits the first paragraph ten times. Actually, I’m getting better, but the point you make about time being a factor is so true–when pressed for time, writers tend to edit at they go, which in the end is a pretty inefficient way to go. Great post!

  4. Brilliant post. I do both, but it always turns out better – even though it takes longer – when I just vomit out the first draft, then go back and edit…and re-edit again. Sometimes, on the second reading, I’ll say to myself, “What was I thinking?” Turns out so much better during that process. It also give me a chance to write notes and post them on my bulletin board to add later. I write non-fiction (well, at least for now) and write in a style that has to be interesting and entertaining. This will get me to move forward with more zeal and truly enjoy the editing process. Thanks! I’m following!

  5. When you say second or third ‘draft’, does that mean a complete re-write or taking the first draft and improve on it.
    If the latter, isn’t that an “edit” rather than a draft?

      1. I was probably meaning whether writers do tend to have major structural re-rewrites and whether this was common, or whether writers can go from writing to copy-editing (grammar, tense and spelling etc).
        I am finding that sometimes my writing needs a complete shake-up and I have put too much work into letting the first version go.

  6. Hello there – I’m one of those dreaded high school English teachers but have been making a living writing for thirteen years now. And maybe most amazing of all, I agree with every single point you’ve made here. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks P.C.! When you’re that age, it’s hard to have the perspective that the process is more than a tedious exercise in understanding Tom Sawyer, but can in fact actually help you in life.

  7. As composition instructor and writing tutor, I approve this message. 🙂

    Seriously, though (or more seriously), great advice for all writers regardless of genre, fic/non-fic, whatever.

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