Every writer has his or her own preferred method for writing a book. Some will tell you they write a little every day at various times of day; others sit down when the muse strikes and churn out page after page. It can take months or years to write a book. Some edit as they go along while others like to push through until the end before revising. There’s no right answer. I find there are many reasons why it’s better, though, especially for beginning writers, to complete your rough draft before you begin revising it.
Opening up the creative floodgates and letting the words pour out of you may seem easy at first, but how easy does it feel after 10,000 words, or 40,000? It can be difficult enough to get your characters or argument from point to point without stopping to tweak sentences or reorganize things, which is why new writers tend to begin more books than they finish. If you can use that initial burst of creativity to rough out the entire book, however, you can at least get the bones down before the juice runs out. I see writing as a messier rush of magic and revising as the more meticulous sculpting. You gotta let the magic run its course before you try making sense out of it all.
Stop Signs are Just Suggestions
I’m not alone in this opinion. In fact, a whole movement has grown up around it: ever hear of NaNoWriMo? The idea is to write a 50K word novel in the month of November, and no editing is allowed! You must complete your rough draft, and at a pretty quick pace, too. Editing definitely slows things down. Just try writing at that speed and you’ll see immediately that to maintain the pace (approximately 1,600 words a day), one really can’t pause to revise. Stephen King advises in his memoir On Writing that you shouldn’t even stop to look up definitions or spelling—it’s more important not to interrupt the flow of creation. King suggests using a simple placeholder like brackets or parentheses around a word approximating the meaning you’re looking for. I’d take that one step further and say you could make notes to yourself this way, too, so you can keep writing and have a handy way to spot places you wanted to revise later.
The Forest for the Trees
It’s another truth of writing that you sometimes can’t see what isn’t working until you’ve seen it all the way through. This is especially true in novels, but even with nonficion you may not realize that you haven’t laid the proper foundation for a certain concept until you’re writing that particular chapter (one reason why I advocate for the use of outlines). Waiting to revise until after you complete your rough draft will help your revision be more effective because until you know for sure where your book is headed, you can’t effectively shape your earlier material.
Last but not least, I’ve found that writers (including myself!) sometimes turn to revising before a story is finished as a subconscious, or conscious, method of procrastination. You could spend those same months and years it would take to finish your book rewriting the same chapters over and over again past the point of conscientiousness and into the realm of neuroses. Especially if you feel it’s keeping you from finishing the story, I recommend you complete your rough draft before revising, even if the final chapters are only outlined.
But Don’t Complete Your Rough Draft First In This Case (The Exception)
I can think of only one real exception to this suggested plan of attack: if you feel you’ve totally lost direction and need to rethink the material you’ve written before you can get the ending back on track, then you may want to pause to revise and get your bearings. At this point, I would recommend you make some notes about the decisions you’ve already made and any new decisions you make as you get your house in order. If you find yourself in this situation and haven’t already made an outline, consider writing one: It will serve as a roadmap when you return to writing, and help avoid veering off course in the future. Some writers don’t like outlines because they feel they’re inorganic or somehow stifling, but you can change an outline as you go along to reflect any new developments in your story or new ideas you’ve had for your nonfiction. You needn’t view your outline as confining or set in stone.
Rather than taking time out from writing your rough draft to revise, why not just make a note to yourself either in-text as suggested previously or in a notebook so you won’t forget your brilliant idea? When I realize I’ve just written something that requires a change earlier on, I make a short note in the text AND jot down lengthier explanations and thoughts in a notebook, then keep moving forward as though I’d already made the necessary change. That way I’m still on the right track with the story or thought, and I’ll remember what needs to be fixed in my early pages when I’m ready to revise.
Do you often find your writing going astray from your initial idea? Is it a happy surprise, or a source of frustration? Tell us about it in the Comments section below!
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.
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