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I am beginning to write original novels after writing fanfictions and posting them online for about six years. My usual process is: write chapter, edit chapter, post chapter, repeat. This means that once I reach the end, there is very little editing left to do (I think!) because each chapter is edited as I write it. At the end I do an overall edit of the story as a whole, but it's often a very short phase. I usually have a good outline before I begin and the stories aren't very complicated, so I've never had any consistency issues using this method and have never had to rewrite the entire thing. My works vary in length, some novel-length (90,000 - 150,000 words) and some more like novellas (~30,000 words). So far this technique has worked fine for both.

However, I'm avoiding this technique for the new stories I'm writing because I think that it would improve my writing to have a more obvious editing phase and draft/rewrite process. I also think it's potentially disastrous if huge edits are needed at the end because I'll end up being too attached to the bits that need to be scrapped.

I'd like to find some middle ground, but not sure if I should just scrap this method entirely. In an attempt to break the habit, I completed NanoWrimo last year, but now the rewrite process seems so colossal that I just can't bear to go back to it.

I was wondering if this edit-as-you-go method is a common way to write (from reading other questions and answers on here, it doesn't seem to be)? Is it definitely to be avoided, and why?

  • Welcome to the site! Reading your question, I was reminded forcefully of myself. I've been writing fan fiction for 6-7 years, and we both seem to be plotters (see my answer below). Well met! – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 5 '17 at 17:14
  • @ThomasMyron Thank you very much! I've been lurking around this site reading questions for the last week and finally made an account. I'm looking forward to making use of this resource a lot going forward! – sudowoodo May 5 '17 at 20:35
  • I'm not much of a writer, but I listen to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, and he describes writing styles that are all over the map, from carefully outlined and edited page-by-page as written to writing straight through with no outline and no editing (not even at the end). It's whatever works for you. – Hot Licks May 7 '17 at 13:07
  • I have done it that way. So the answer is, yes. In my case, the novel in question was like a TV serial, in which each chapter had a certain independence from the others. – user23046 May 7 '17 at 23:11
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The only bad ideas are the ones which stop you from finishing the book.

Write and edit if you like. Write halfway and edit. Write the whole thing blindfolded. Write only at night, or only during a full moon. Write in the morning and edit in the evening, or vice-versa. There are no restrictions.

If the thought of editing an entire book at once makes you panic, but editing one chapter at a time is easy, congratulations! You have found the method which works for you. Stick to it.

  • 1
    So encouraging! Thank you! Now I feel extremely grateful for having found a method that works for me. – sudowoodo May 5 '17 at 20:49
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A story is an experience, but it is an experience in which all the threads of that experience point at something, like the pattern the iron filings assume around the head of a magnet.

If you have a very strong sense of how the magnetic fields of your story align, then I think you are in a position to write each chapter and immediately edit it to tweak its alignment to the pattern that is clearly in your head.

But if you as yet have only a vague idea of how the overall magnetic field of your story is shaped, then I suspect there will be little value in tweaking each chapter as you write it. You won't have any strong sense of what you are aligning it to.

This distinction is not the plotter/pantser distinction that Thomas describes. Someone in search of the magnetic field of their story could search for it by exploring the terrain in detail by writing chapters or they could do it by attempting to make a map of the terrain in the form of an outline. Either way, they are searching for the magnetic field.

I find that in some pieces of writing (and I think this applies to fiction and nonfiction alike) the magnetic field of the piece is clear to me from the start, and for other pieces it may take many drafts before I find it. Thus I think a chapter by chapter edit may make sense for one piece, where the magnetic field is clear, and make no sense at all when it is not. When it is not, it makes more sense to hack away at the writing -- or even to switch back and forth from outlining to writing -- until you start to feel the pull of the magnetic field.

So I don't think this is inherently about the habits of different writers, I think it is about the nature of different ideas.

  • I'm confused. You say the distinction between having a vague idea of the field and having a strong idea is not the plotter/pantser distinction that I describe. But right after that line, you then follow with an excellent example of what I was talking about. How is it not what I described? Am I missing something? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 5 '17 at 18:29
  • @ThomasMyron: if I may, I think I understand what Mark means. You're not necessarily plotting, you're just scribbling ideas until they become something tangible that allows you to write on. I do that a lot: I want to write about something that resembles an A but isn't quite an A. So I go around and around until I decide I want a triangle in the middle of a circle. Now I just have to write and discover how everything is going to fall in order to bring that vision into a proper tale. – SC for reinstatement of Monica May 5 '17 at 18:42
  • @ThomasMyron: What Sara Costa said. If you are searching for a pattern you can search for it by writing until it emerges or you can search for it by outlining various scenarios until it emerges. – user16226 May 5 '17 at 19:02
  • I love the simile of the iron filings and the magnet. Thomas Myron is right, I am a plotter, but I experienced this distinction recently when I plotted and plotted for a story but never found the direction of the magnetic field. I had an outline, but no meaning as to why any of it was happening. It was incredibly frustrating when I started trying to write it (and tweak as I went along) and realised I had no idea in what direction I was trying to point it. Thanks for your answer! – sudowoodo May 5 '17 at 20:47
  • @MarkBaker I think I see what's going on here. The plotting you are describing, I still consider pantsing. True plotting doesn't involve searching (at least not on that scale). It involves uncovering. I think of writing a novel in terms of how Michelangelo described sculpting: setting the statue free of the stone. It's already there; I don't need to find it. I just need to find the best way to get to it. That's what my outline does. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 5 '17 at 20:51
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Writer Preference

You'll find that a lot of the 'rules' of writing can be boiled down to what works for you. There are different ways to write. When giving advice, writers tend to assume you write the way they do, and offer rules for that method. Those 'rules' might work for them, but not for you. So it always comes down to writer preference.

For example, some writers (in my opinion, most) write on the fly. I call these writers discovery writers, or pantsers (as they write 'by the seat of their pants'). They get a general direction for the story, and then write it out. They wait a week, scrap everything they didn't like, and write it again. Repeat a few times, edit, and you have a novel (disclaimer: highly simplified). These people don't want to edit chapter by chapter, and neither should they. It interrupts the flow of writing. It removes them from the story. That can be disastrous for a writer.

A different kind of writer plans out their novel extensively beforehand. They get a very detailed outline, they develop their characters, they work on the plot, and then they start writing. I call these writers plotters, and it sounds like you might be one to some extent. I am as well. For plotters, it can be a good idea to edit chapter by chapter, making sure everything is fitting where you know it should go. Make sure you included everything in chapter B that you needed. If you find the flow of the story is going somewhere else and you like the direction it's taking, you might want to go back to your outline and see if you should rework some things.

But again, it simply comes down to what works for you.

I will say that you should always go through the whole thing when it's written, at least once. No matter how simple the story, you will find things that need some fine-tuning. Bits of dialogue won't match up, you'll find loose ends you didn't realize were there, and sometimes facts will outright contradict each other.


Plotter vs. Pantser

If you are a plotter (and I suspect you are), then do not assume you need to write the drafts of a pantser. Writing drafts is an automatic part of writing for a lot of people, but plotters are different. When we create an outline and go over and over it, we are creating a very rough draft. The more times we go through it and tweak things, the more we are narrowing down those first few drafts. When we finally start writing, we have a very good idea of where we are headed and how to get there. The most rewriting you will have to do is removing/adding/redoing a few chapters. But not the whole thing.

The reason for this is simple. When a pantser writes, they have only a very general idea of the story. They write to discover the story (hence the term discovery writer). Their first few drafts are there simply to figure out the plot, get familiar with the characters, and determine motivations and such. As a plotter, you've already done this.

All that being said, if you feel you need to rewrite the whole thing, do not hesitate to do so. There is always going to be a difference between how things play out in your head, and how they actually happen on paper. It could very well be that you have to redo the outline, and then rewrite the whole thing. But this is rare.


A final note: you mentioned that you can get too attached to your writing. That is something that you need to overcome. You need to practice looking at your writing objectively, and knowing which parts are genuinely helping the story, and which parts you just want to keep around because you like them. Fearlessly cut what you have to, and fearlessly keep what helps the story.

If it helps, tell yourself that when your novel is published and successful, you can release the cut parts to your avid fans. I do it (the telling, not the releasing that is), and it hasn't failed so far.

Good luck in your endeavors!

  • 1
    Great answer. I am definitely a plotter! I had never thought of my outlines as rough drafts before, and it's very helpful to think of them that way. I was very much bogged down by the idea that there had to be multiple drafts, so it's a relief to know it doesn't have to be that way. Thanks for your advice on staying objective as well, this is something I'm intending to work on and I'll be keeping this in mind. – sudowoodo May 5 '17 at 20:35
  • @sudowoodo I'm glad you found it helpful. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 5 '17 at 20:52
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I was wondering if this edit-as-you-go method is a common way to write (from reading other questions and answers on here, it doesn't seem to be)? Is it definitely to be avoided, and why?

I write fanfic (and originals) too and I also edit in a similar way. It's true: it's not common. In fact, I feel pretty lonely in my approach. But it works for me, so I'm not thinking of abandoning it anytime soon.

Likewise, if you feel comfortable with that approach, don't change it (which doesn't mean you can't try a different approach to see if you're even more comfortable with it). Do try to perfect your approach though.

Let me present my approach so you can see whether you identify yourself with it and whether it can give you ideas to perfect your own.

I'm a perfectionist and I cannot move on to the next chapter until I feel that what I have has the right tone, that the plot is moving in a tight rhythm and that the characters are behaving and evolving realistically. I don't know if that's why you edit chapter by chapter but, for me, if I don't go over the chapter and look for potential problems and fix them, the idea that I might be writing the new chapter in a wrong direction actually brings on a writer's block.

When I write fanfiction, I do not upload any chapters until the entire story is written, though. That way I can always go back and further adjust little problems I hadn't yet noticed and, if need be, I can even decide to scrap an entire chapter. Moreover, as new ideas develop, I can go back and add foreshadowing (eg. I decide later on a character has a nervous tick, so I can go back and add the gesture in previous chapters).

My advise is for you to keep the approach of 'write chapter' > 'edit chapter', but as you move on to new chapters do not think you can't go back and further edit them. The first edit is usually making sure the foundation for the next chapter is as stable as possible by getting rid of big problems. A later edit is usually getting rid of small problems.

I also advise you to get a thick skin: you do need to be able to scrap unnecessary events if they do not advance the story or if they aren't natural developements (it may be cute for the shy girl to explode and passionately say everything she's thinking to her crush only to revert to type the next day but... is that really likely? Perhaps the explosion should be toned down to a one sentence slip that leaves her embarrassed to death). Keep them on a 'scrapped folder' (I used to do it all the time) so that you don't have to agonise over destroying something you enjoy reading. In time, it becomes easier and we start saving less of the scrapped material.

An important particularity of my approach is that, as I move on to chapter 8, I'm still going back to re-read chapters 2 and 3 and so on. If I start getting fed up with something, it's because it's not quite right and needs to be fixed. You see, reading an event over and over kills the excitement of 'this is so cool' and then you can see the flaws underneath. This 'second editing' is when I sometimes scrap an entire chapter and make sure that the new version makes a better bridge between the previous and the following one. Or it's when I scrap a few chapters in a row.

Adding this step to your own process may help improving your stories without waiting to get to the last chapter to go back for a massive rewrite. If you rewrite half-way, rather than at the end, you still have that urge to end the story to help you make it through the rewrite. Also, if you find the problem early on, you'll have less to rewrite.

However, you cannot get hung up on re-reading past chapters. You've written chapter 12, you've edited it. Now plan the next chapter and write it. When it's over go back to chapter 8 and read them all in one go till chapter 13. Edit it. Plan the next chapter and write it. And so on till it's all done.

If you start getting doubts about the story, don't get into re-reading it over and over. Stop and make diagrams, plot graphics, evaluate how the characters are growing, verify if plot and subplots are well balanced, make sure the archs are well drawn out, check the timeline, make sure everyone has the right motivation. But do it on the side in order to get away from the written part and identify the problem. Once you've identified it, go back and rewrite what needs to be rewritten to fix it.

I hope I've given you ideas to develop your own method. Good writings!

  • This is excellent. It's great to hear that you do this as well. I feel a little less lonely in this method now myself! I am a perfectionist as well, and I definitely think that posting the chapters as I write them tends to bog me down with details even further so I'll be bearing that in mind. I'll also be following your advice on going back to previous chapters to keep revising them as I go (I do this a little already, but probably not enough). I feel like I can properly pin my process down and improve it now, rather than starting from scratch, so thank you! – sudowoodo May 5 '17 at 21:16
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I don’t think it’s a bad idea per se, and if it helps you get stuff done then that's the biggest hurdle to overcome.

What’s bad is doing only that, and not reviewing and editing the work as a whole, later. If getting chapers out serial style is good (for a work that’s not a serial) for getting them into the hands of your test readers, then plan to take feedback from them and edit based on that.

Returning to something later than “right after writing it” can be helpful, and let you see things you missed on the quick-turnaround edit pass.

Editing the whole thing for continuity, consistently in characters and their dialog, etc. is also important.

So, yes to editing a chapter immediatly. No to presuming that’s instead of editing later. Look at some web fiction that was published as serials — preferably not your own. Do you see the issues that are left behind by finishing each chapter? Don’t leave those issues in your novel.

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To build on Thomas Myron's answer, the only real rules are what works best for your readers.

If your story is good, nobody will care how you wrote it.

If your story is bad, then your approach may shed light on how the story came to be that way.

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