You don’t need me to tell you this, but, I’m going to say it anyway.
A novel is a long, long project.
Even if you’re some kind of phenom who can bang out a book in record time, it takes weeks to get it done.
For most people it takes months or even years to get from the beginning to the end of just the first draft, never mind a polished, edited revision.
I’ve been keeping a daily writing log here on Medium the last week, and I had to start adding a kind of “here’s what I learned about writing today” section because otherwise it would basically be I’m still writing this one book and I’m still editing this other one.
Day after day after day. For months.
A novel is also a living, breathing thing. There is no way, no matter how diligent you are with plotting and planning, to know exactly how the story will unfold until you’ve written it.
Even if you start with a really solid plot in mind, big changes happen during the course of writing a novel. Almost always. It’s nearly impossible to know your whole story until you write it.
You get to the second act and realize your main character has a best friend who’s been absent so far.
Or you have an epiphany: your story should be set in London instead of Los Angeles.
Or some new scene pops up out of no where and is so perfect, you have to put it in — only it needs to go in back in the part of your book you wrote weeks ago and it changes everything that’s been written from that point forward.
When that happens, you have three choices.
You can make your edits when they come up.
Or you can make note of your edits and write forward as if you’ve made the changes and then use your notes during revision when your first draft is done.
Or you can decide not to make the change at all and just finish the story the way you started it, then decide on edits during revision.
There are pros and cons to each method and which you choose depends greatly on you and your writer personality.
Editing now means stopping forward motion and going back through what you’ve already written to incorporate your big change.
If you get 10,000 words in and decide, for example, that your Main Character should be married — if you’re an Edit Now person, you’d stop writing and go back through the first 10,000 words of your story to add in a spouse.
Some writers consistently start their writing day by reading what they wrote the day before and editing it. Or they don’t continue writing until each page, even each paragraph, is just how they want it.
And if some big edit that changes the story comes up, edit-now writers have a hard time moving forward until they’ve aligned the whole work-in-progress with their new idea.
Pros: Your finished first draft will actually be like a first-and-a-half draft, or even second or third draft if you wind up making more than one big change.
When you’re done writing your story, you’ll have a much cleaner copy than other writers might create.
You’ll have far less to do when you get to revision. Also, you’ll make the changes while they are fresh in your mind, which might be easier.
Cons: Your writer brain will try to convince you that revision is writing. It can be very easy to get so caught up in editing a not-finished first draft that you never actually finish the first draft.
If you are a perfectionist who has trouble moving forward when things aren’t just so, you might find yourself working on this manuscript for a decade — or your whole life — without ever actually finishing it.
You also might find that you make another change later that counters the first change…and now you’ll have to go back and change things AGAIN.
Editing later means making a note about your big change and moving forward as if you’ve made the change already.
So, if your MC aquires a spouse as you’re moving into the second act, you’ll write from that point on as if the spouse has always been there, and then in revision add the spouse to the first act.
Pros: You’ll get your first draft done faster. Maybe much faster. This may the difference, actually, between finishing and not finishing. And really, a finished manuscript is pretty much the only true requirement for being a successful writer.
Another pro for this is that if you change your mind, you’ll have less work to do in revision if you’ve left what you’ve already written alone.
If you like revision more than you like writing a first draft, then you’ll love being able to move on to revision more quickly.
Cons: Your revision process will be longer and more complicated. This is the trade off for getting through the drafting process more quickly.
The end result of an Edit Later effort is a first draft that is less coherent than an Edit Now first draft. That can be confusing and it makes it so that you’ll have to make an editing pass before you can do a real read-through.
If you prefer drafting to revision, then you might find the revision process after using the Edit Later option daunting.
You have to keep very good notes, so that you don’t forget what changes you wanted to make. If you’re not a natural note taker, you might struggle here.
Don’t Make Big Changes at All
In theory, this means not making big changes to the trajectory of your story while you’re writing it. Not through editing, and not by making a note and moving on as if you’ve made the change.
If your MC isn’t married at the start, they stay single all the way through — even if you’re pretty sure your story would benefit from giving them a spouse.
When you’ve finished your first draft — just moving through it the way you started out — you’ll be able to read through it all at once and figure out your changes.
Pros: Well. It’s easier. You don’t have to shift gears at all.
Also, if you’re the type of person who is easily distracted by shiny new ideas, so much that making a change going forward will throw you off, this might be an option for you. Refusing to even consider big changes to the way you’ve planned your story will help you finish writing it.
Cons: The biggie is that once you’ve finished the first draft of your story, it can be very, very difficult to decide to make huge changes to it. Especially if you don’t have to.
I mean, if in half the book there is no spouse and the other half there is, you don’t have a choice. You have to finish that edit.
But if you have an entire spouseless novel? Your writer brain starts to convince you that it’s just fine the way it is — even if it would be a better book with that big change.
Another problem with this method is that you might end up having to chuck a bunch of your work. Because if you’ve written it with an MC who is single, maybe you have a date scene. Or a scene where that character talks to their best friend about how happy (or miserable) they are being unattached. You’ll have to cut those and write something else.
I’m an Edit Later girl.
Drafting is stressful to me and I need to get through the first draft of my manuscript as quickly as I can without any huge breaks for editing. In fact, no editing while I’m drafting is pretty much my only hard and fast writing rule. It’s totally okay if you’re wired so that editing while you write works best for you.
The only real necessity is for you to make consistent forward motion on your manuscript and actually finish it.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.