The worst thing you can possibly do as a writer is begin to edit before you have finished writing; you’re not an editor, you’re a writer.
This might seem like a trite thing to say, a little tired and worn (maybe even soap-box-ish), but hear me out; the roles of writer and editor are so distinct and separate that I really can’t believe we attempt to do them both at all, let alone trying to do them both at the same time.
Writer (Ri-ter); One who writes, especially as an occupation.
Editor (Eh-di-tor); A device (or person, in this case) for editing film. Consisting basically of a splicer and viewer.
To write is to create, to edit is to change, remove, restructure, or otherwise manipulate; the latter requires the former job to have been completed. This is why editing as you go is the worst thing you can do if you want to create something which is coherent, cohesive, and true to the idea from which it sprang. In order to edit you have to have something to change, manipulate, and otherwise polish.
Here are some of the things that can happen when you try to “wear two hats”;
- You obsess about format and style over content.
- You get bogged down in word choice.
- You hit a “chapter loop”*.
- You focus on technique instead of storytelling.
The overall result can be stagnation, frustration, and endless re-write loops. Of course, I’m not saying you should edit nothing before the book or story is finished; if you see a gaping plot hole fix it, if you absolutely must restructure do it, but leave the small things, the minutiae of grammar, tense, syntax, and spelling for after the meat has been firmly placed on the bones of your idea.
This consistent and constant push forward, this progression, is so much more important when working to a deadline.
Drawing the (Red) Line
If you started as an editor, or if you moonlight as one like me, it can be hard to draw the line between your writing hat and your editing one. There are some things that you can do, however, to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, between one task and the other.
Firstly, you can make a physical change; the surroundings in which we work have a lot to do with our mental state. If you have the luxury you could write and edit in different locations (i.e. edit at the kitchen table and write at your desk, or write at home and edit in the library etc). If you can’t do this make a point of changing your physical state. When you stop writing and start editing you may wish to take the time to relax, perhaps eat, even shower, and change your clothes. Tie your hair up instead of leaving it down, or switch the format in which you work from electronic to hand written.
Secondly, you need to make a philosophical and intellectual shift; distance yourself from your work and begin to think as a critic rather than an artist. If you want to lose that connection you can take the time to read something else, or edit chapters out of sequence. The key is to stop thinking about what you were trying to do and start asking yourself if you actually managed to do it.
Once you have achieved these steps, and moreover made a habit of them, you will find it easier to switch between the two states without so much trouble or bleed-through. One of the best results of this will be the fact that you will be better equipped to judge where and when to break this principle for best effect.
Like all guidelines and rules there will always be an exception, learning to separate the two stages will allow you to notice, deal with, and mitigate the exceptions which do arise with more skill and efficiency, and I can promise you that (if nothing else) this will lead to less wastage in your writing.
* A chapter loop is when you write a chapter, read it, edit it, and re-write it repeatedly without making any real progress. Otherwise known as Writing Purgatory.