Authors, Stop Fighting Your Instincts!

I was talking to a friend on Facebook today and he mentioned that he is working on an old project and having a hard time fighting the editing-while-writing syndrome. He said it’s really slowing him down. I know exactly what he means because I do the same thing.

Write a paragraph. Read it. Read it again. Tweak. Read it again. Finally move onto the next.Write a page. Go back to that paragraph up above. Edit it some more. Then edit the page.

Ten times.

Soon, three hours have passed and all I’ve written is a freaking page. Waste of time? Maybe. I know many writers have said that if you write like this you end up with better drafts – meaning less revisions in the long run. This means that your writing time ends up being about the same either way. This is true for me, at least. I’ve tried to fight editing while writing, but what do I end up with? Stifled creativity.

It so happens that if I follow my instincts and edit while I write new material that I actually get more inspiration. I realize things I wouldn’t have realized if I had plowed on through. This is how MY brain works. Some famous authors (I won’t name any names) say this is a WRONG way to write.

Excuse me?

Last time I checked, there was no RIGHT way to write for every single author. There is only a right way to write for you. And to figure out that right way means you need to do a lot of writing. A lot of revising. A lot of reading. I get a lot of people asking me what my advice is to new writers. Well, that’s my advice, right there. Stop fighting your instincts. Instead, let them flourish. Stop comparing yourself to others. Stop trying to follow rules that feel completely wrong for your style.

Rules are not bad. All these little lists that authors and agents keep throwing up on their blogs (and I’ve done it, too) with rules about what makes good fiction good and what YOU should be doing to fix your fiction drive me kind of batty (hence the saying on my blog header). But that’s only because I have my rules figured out right now. Sometimes I throw one out and replace it with another. Sometimes I forget all of them and just do whatever the hell I want to do and amazing things happen. Sometimes I desperately need them. But they are my rules – the ones I’ve tried and absorbed into my instincts because they work for me. Most of them I made up on my own.

So rules aren’t bad, but I do want to stress that the greatest rule is to figure out what works best for you and follow your own instincts. Pay attention to what works elsewhere, what other people suggest, but do not let any of that rule you or your writing. Ever. 

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

29 comments

Michael Offutt

Agreed. Each writer needs to do what is comfortable. I'm also an "edit" while I "write" type of person. I think it helps my first draft be a lot clearer.

Wendy L. Callahan

Well-said! Everybody must do what works for them.I'm the kind of person who needs to get the idea *out* of me and written down in as much detail as possible. That is how my first draft is born. I usually return to revise after it is complete.If a writer has the urge to revise as they write, then they should go with their instincts. Fighting whatever instincts we have is frustrating and mostly pointless.

DanielleQ.Lee

Rules are an illusion. A fence to keep sheep. I write what my soul tells me. Nothing less.:)

I think if one looks at the vast number of super bestseller authors that each give different advice, it is clear that your point is very true. I think the only point writing advice has is for people to try out. The method might work for you, or it might not. Either way is right, depending on your own preferences.There is no spoon, i.e. wrong answer.

Angela Felsted

I agree with you 100% on this. Editing while I write is what I do. Now, does that make the process slow, um, yeah. But so many times I get my most creative ideas gradually in the many many months it takes me to write the story whereas if I whip it out like instant pudding, I miss the thicker creamier stuff that comes as I dabble.

It is true that every writer has his or her own way of doing things and all that really matters is that it gets done in the end. I don’t think anyone can claim that editing as you go will prevent you from producing just as good of a book as someone might produce by saving the editing until later. That being said, I think it can be said that people who write first and edit later will tend to produce better books. This is essentially the same problem that software developers call premature optimization. The assumption is that if the programmer optimizes everything as he goes that the end product will be as efficient as possible, but what usually happens is that the code is bug riddled and difficult to maintain. Furthermore, the developer may have spent a lot of time working on a section of code that he doesn’t even need.The problem the novelist faces is an increased chance of inserting inconsistencies. Also, the structure of the store tends to get off balance. So when then novelist reaches the end of the first draft there are much larger chunks that must be redone or even deleted. That paragraph he spent two days perfecting may have to go away. Like I said, it isn’t that you can’t produce a good story using a bottom up approach, but it may require more effort.

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Michael: My drafts are definitely clearer with the way I work than if I tried to fight myself on it. Wendy: In a lot of ways I wish I could just get the whole story out! I kind of do that already with my loose outline, but still. I'm happy you know what works best for you! A wonderful thing.Danielle: Hah! Yes! Definitely fences when it comes to certain things. Glad there's rules for things like driving. 🙂Jake: Rules are great to pass around. I have no problem with that at all – just when there's a general agreement that they should be followed or your writing will suck. You're right that it is completely preference.Angela: Yeah, it's slow and sometimes, but I've tried both so many times to know which works best. I'm getting more patience for it. I like your description of missing the cream!Timothy: I think you missed the point of what I said in this post. Everyone is different. I've written a first draft with no editing. Monarch was that book, and guess what? I ended up chucking the entire thing and starting over from scratch. THAT time I edited as I went. And it worked. And it got published. Why? Because I figured out what works for me. Of course it required more effort doing it the "slow" way, but it sure looks like the fast way made it even worse. For me.

Anne R. Allen

Great subject. I'm a little of both. On some days I just spill words on the page, and other days, I edit each paragraph. When I'm really on a roll, what works best for me is to write three pages, take a break, then come back and give a quick read-edit to those three pages and write three more. Like a back and forth embroidery stitch.Rules are good for newbies, because they make people feel safe. Some people may need permission to spill a bunch of crap on the page. If you're a hesitant newbie, that "permission" rule can help a lot. But once you're a professional writer, I figure whatever works, works.

Valerie Geary

Sometimes I think our creative souls might be connected; your posts seemed perfectly timed to the voices inside my head. 🙂

I don't edit as I go. I just write it all out and then fix it later. But, yeah, there are no rules. You should just do whatever works for you. I remember reading somewhere that Fitzgerald and Faulkner would sometimes write in long intense bursts of awesomeness. I can write maybe an hour or two, tops.

I have to edit a bit as a go. Otherwise, I end up with a story that is way out of control. Now – sometimes I write a messy first draft to explore the story, but toss it.

Stephanie McGee

My natural inclination is to edit as I go, but I've learned from experience that doesn't lead to finishing anything. I've had to squelch that inclination and push through the first draft. Then I can go through and edit.Like you said, Michelle, everyone is wired differently.

Amie McCracken

I always like the advice that you can break a rule once you know how to follow it. That way you've tried both ways and know exactly what works for you.Great post!

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Anne: You always bring up stuff I didn't realize, but you are absolutely right that rules are a great permission thing for new writers. Sometimes they need those walls. Totally makes sense! I know I did at first.Valerie: Aww, I would be honored to be connected to your creative soul. 🙂Cynthia: I'd definitely like to write in long intense bursts of awesomeness! I certainly try! Then my inner editor steps in.Lisa: Messy first drafts sometimes work for me, but that's very rare.Stephanie: Oh, see, you figured out that it doesn't work and had to move on. That makes sense!Amie: Absolutely, yes. That's why rules aren't bad at all. They're only bad if they don't work for you and you use them anyway. I'm not talking about grammar rules, of course. 🙂

Lester D. Crawford

"There is no right way to write a book; therefore, every way is wrong."— Lester D. CrawfordWhat does editing-while-writing mean? I assume it must mean different things to different people since I can imagine many different potential meanings. Just as how every possibility is played out in various universes in the multiverse, each potential meaning of editing-while-writing must exist in someone's mind somewhere.I don't worry about it. I just write."I am a word wright. I write words. The right words."— Lester D. CrawfordOver the years, I have tried every writing method suggested. I think I did this because I was insecure about my knowledge and skills, so I looked for the magic bullet to make me a success. I settled upon doing what is comfortable and natural for me with no concern for how other people say I should write.I seem to have two prongs on which I stick my writing.One prong consists of random ideas. I keep a voice recorder with me at all times, in all places; always at the ready for when those ideas spring forth (I wonder what people think when they hear someone dictating a brilliant idea from inside a bathroom stall). I recorded one last night: "Oh, good, my Dragon's here." Now I am excited to find a place to use it (and I am not concerned what the people in the bathroom thought I was talking about).The other prong is more structured. I use a mind mapping tool (FreeMind) to help me explore ideas and to plan. When people talk about fast writing, I think that is equivalent to what I do as I mind map. I toss ideas on the screen, rearrange them, add, subtract, brainstorm, go crazy, and laugh maniacally. When finished with the mind map, I copy and paste it into a document as an outline. Then the fun of filling in the details begins.I have a mind map of the overall story, beginning to end, with all major plot points planned. For each chapter I make a more detailed mind map that I use as the outline to write the chapter. Occasionally, I mind map individual scenes when I cannot quite get a handle on them. One time I mind mapped a single paragraph that I could not figure out how to construct.As I write the details, I often find I drift from the draft in the mind map, but the mind map is just a tool to help me write in the right direction. As more story details, or story world details, or character details are revealed to me, I sometimes must go back and re-plan; however, I do typically find my way to my destination, although often by a slightly different path than planned.As I write the details, I write as best as I can: proper spelling, proper grammar, proper sentence structures, proper paragraph structures, etc. At this stage, my compulsion for perfection drives me to do as best as I can. I am not saying I create the final product here, but what I write at this stage is something that pleases my inner judge of perfection (regardless of how imperfect that judge is).I also make multiple passes through the story, retelling the story repeatedly, to ensure I have told the complete story, that all secrets have been revealed to me, and that all threads are properly woven and tied. Lastly, I do a final edit and polish thus creating the perfect gem. Then a real editor looks at it and we all know what happens — a portion of my soul is extinguished by editor marks.Now that I have finished self-aggrandizing, I summarize by saying the following.Do not fear experimenting with suggestions other writers make about writing methods, one never knows what one might learn, but ultimately you must create your own, unique process, a process that works for you. I find it remarkable how similar all people are, but within that sea of sameness, there is actually great diversity. Therefore, there is no right way to write; there is only your way.

Janet Johnson

Great post! It's so easy to get all tied up with rules that won't work for us. It can be hard to let go, but worth it.

Neurotic Workaholic

One thing that's always helped me is Anne Lamott's advice about first drafts, meaning we have to write it all down first before we revise it. But I will admit that whenever I think of something I might want to change or add in the next draft, I write it down on a separate piece of paper. That way I can go back to it later when I revise.

Martin Willoughby

There is only one correct way to write: The one that works for you.

Laura Josephsen

I totally agree. I write differently on different books. Some of them, I just plow through, but I've noticed most of the time, especially lately, I'll go back and read through, tweak, edit, tweak some more, and then keep going. It helped me a lot when I wrote my last huge speculative fiction book, because there were so many plot points and threads I had to weave together, and by the time I got through it, I was very, very familiar with what I had written and where things were. I think the ones I plow through tend to the be the ones that aren't quite so heavy, if that makes sense.

This is hilarious because I wrote about the opposite today. Letting go instead of editing over and over again.You are correct, of course. Each author must find what suits them and go with it. I have found that stopping and editing usually gets me sidetracked or stifled. Great post, Michelle! You're not the only one who goes back and tweaks. I've heard authors say it both ways. My view: go with your gut.

Alexander McCall Smith never edits or revises — or so he says. That'd drive me nuts. But it obviously works for him, so who's to argue with success??

Catherine Stine

I write, and edit with my gut. Never forgot the word of a writing teacher: write from just beyond what you know.

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Lester: It's wonderful that you've found your path and what works for you in your writing. I experiment with each new book, but I have to find a book that I wrote completely (and had it work) without editing as I went. I finally realized that if I would just stop fighting it amazing things might happen.Janet: Definitely worth it!Neurotic: I simply have to revise as I go. Don't know why. I don't heavily revise, though, is the thing, unless I run into a huge problem. Outlining before I write helps a lot. I've heard great things about Anne Lamott! Martin: Yep. I'm always frustrated when people ask me how I write. I wonder why they even want to know because there's nothing really to learn from it – it will only work for me. I guess it might be interesting, at least. 🙂Laura: That makes a lot of sense, actually. I have such a goldfish memory that if I don't keep re-reading everything I simply forget all the details of what I wrote from months before.Leah: I should go read your post! For many authors, tweaking is a bad, bad, bad thing. For me it opens creative doors. In the end it doesn't matter to me – every book can be different and it really doesn't matter to me how it's written as long as it gets written well.Lisa: Hey, what works for him works for him! I find it interesting when people say they never edit or revise. I mean, really? Never? Wow. 🙂Catherine: Oh, that's great advice!

Amber Argyle, author

No rules. Just write.

Jennifer Hillier

This is a such a great post, because I was thinking about this very thing the other day. The one lesson I've learned recently is to respect my process. It's part of my process to write a fast, but terrible, first draft. It's part of my process to write another 6 or 7 drafts after that. Some folks can write a great book in 2 or 3 drafts. That will never be me, and that's totally okay.

Great Post! I love that more writers are posting to follow your heart rather than the "writing rules."I can definitely agree that the rules of the "experts" create too many fences and hold back writers. I also know that everyone who writes is on a solitary journey which we share when we publish or talk to each other in forums and blogs. Personally, I still go the old fashioned route of write long hand, edit as I put it into the computer. It allows me to get the basic story out, then add or refresh items as I add it to the digital copy. The shorter the story, the more likely I am to work it through on paper before it comes to the screen. Otherwise, I'd write a half chapter, enter/edit it, and then use that as my continue point for my next writing session.

Anne Gallagher

When I was a newbie writer I broke all the rules because I didn't know them. (Well, that's not true, I knew SOME of them.) Now that I've been doing this for quite some time, I break the rules because I DO know them and I CAN.Not everyone writes the same way and what works for some won't work for everyone.I write all day and don't edit. But the next day, I reread everything and edit that before I start writing again. Works for me. Doesn't work for everyone.

Thanks for this post! As a fellow edit-as-I-go person, it's nice to know someone else does it and that it works for them. I'm still trying to see how well it works for me on the creative writing side of things, but I've always written my academic papers this way and it has always worked for me there. But it's a little scary to hear all the people on the creative writing side of things who blast through 1st drafts and have multiple completed drafts. It makes me feel like I'm working too slow doing things my way. But you're absolutely right – cleaner 1st drafts mean less revision later. I'm trying to find a balance between the two methods – editing as I go and not – but yeah, I'm definitely tired of fighting myself.

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Amber: Exactly.Jennifer: Respecting your process is an excellent way to put it! And I'm happy you are ok with being you and being happy with hwo you write. 🙂Brett: I think Anne up above had a great point about rules being a good thing for new writers and giving them a sort of safety net and protective feeling. Outside of that it's hard for me to swallow any rules that feel stifling and don't work for me. Your writing process sounds really interesting!Anne: See, that's a good reason to break them. It's good to know them first, although some of them are just completely pointless in my opinion. I love the "write what you know" thing, but the last thing that should be spouted as is a rule. Krispy: This is where the comparison game definitely does NOT pay off in the slightest (or ever) because everyone writes SO differently. I get really frustrated with how slowly I write, but in the end I'm so very happy with the end product. That's what truly matters. 🙂