Write fast, edit slow

I just turned in the next draft of Juliet’s School of Possibilities last week. I wrote the manuscript of this time management novella (out March 12, 2019!) in about three weeks during November 2017. I spent the next three weeks editing intensely. I turned it in and got the nod in January.

Then, between January and July, I went through many more rounds of edits. I think in this last one, I solved the issues that had been bugging me. I also found a few more ways to economize on language. The goal is to get a lot done in 21,000 words.

It seems strange to spend a mere three weeks writing a draft, and then 6-plus months editing, but I think there’s a lot to be said for this pace of writing fast and editing slow.

When you write fast, you just get it down. You let the momentum of seeing words add up push you forward. You turn off the inner critic because you’re not trying to create a perfect manuscript, if such a thing is even possible (it isn’t). This is the beauty of the National Novel Writing Month concept, when thousands of people cheer each other on as they attempt to write 50,000 word manuscripts in the 30 days of November. Because you know such a novel can’t be perfect, you don’t hold that up as a goal. Your goal is simply being done. You allow yourself to believe that done is better than perfect because there is no perfect without being done.

But then, you keep coming back to it. I truly believe it is easier to turn something into something better than to turn nothing into something. Writing quickly means you have lots of time to edit. You can think about your story in the back of your head while you aren’t writing. You can see big problems in the first round of edits and fix them. Then you can wait a few weeks and fix the next problems. Then maybe you can start showing the draft to other people and getting their feedback. You can incorporate their feedback (or not) and try again.

By the seventh or eighth time through you’re fixing the things that bugged you a bit at the beginning but you weren’t sure why. And you’re noticing that you used a similar word three paragraphs before and it might behoove you to find a different word the next time.

I love this phrase I heard once in a creative writing class in college: a poem is never finished, it is only abandoned.* Same with any sort of writing. In my experience, writing fast and then editing slow is the best way to move as close as possible toward the ultimate vision. You never fully get there, because no one ever does, but writing fast and editing slow uses time as a tool, and gets the most leverage out of it.

Do you write fast and edit slow? I shared more advice like this in an article first-time book writer Olga Khazan penned for The Atlantic this week (called “How to write a book without losing your mind.”)

*This seems to be a paraphrase of a Paul Valery aphorism

12 thoughts on “Write fast, edit slow

  1. I tend to write fast and edit slowly, too. While I have not attempted writing a novel, I really want to participate in National Novel Writing Month in the next couple of years for the experience. I actually want to write a novel with my friend Michelle who is a writer. I think collaborating would be challenging since we live in different cities; however, I also think it would be fun and exciting. I look forward to reading your novella, Laura.

    1. @Katherine- there is no time like the present! How about this November? And I’m sure you two could come up with a way to work together. Divide and conquer. I hope you like my novella!

  2. Good advice. Edit slow, but also know when to quit. All editing eventually reaches the “point of diminishing returns.” You could work on a piece of writing forever and you’d always find something to change, but the proposed change wouldn’t improve anything. Editing beyond the 98-99% “good enough” point becomes a waste of time and energy, because in writing, nothing is ever “perfect.”

    1. @M Tiro – yep, that point of diminishing returns always comes into play eventually. Recognizing where that point is is part of becoming better at one’s craft.

  3. I love the breakdown of each of the stages. I write slowly, and edit even slower 🙂 Part of that comes down to writing not being my day job, and part to what you describe – making big changes, then finding more big changes after letting it rest. I’m at a point now where I’m wondering if it’s time to abandon, after this next go-through, but am afraid I’ll find yet more big changes to make – again!

    1. @Meghan – it is amazing what we see after letting something rest for a while. Good luck with your next round!

  4. I feel like I never learned this lesson last time I had to write a manuscript, but now, working on two at once, this is so so important. I had to teach myself to get everything I wanted on the page, and then use my editing time to think through the other references I wanted to add, and how they’d fit with my own experiments, or how I’d deal with them otherwise. That’s also editing!

    Also important: making a damn good outline for these sorts of things. My mentor drove me nuts for weeks because he insisted on seeing only an outline with figures and no actual paragraphs. He gave me permission to actually write the thing last week and I banged out 2/3 of the paper in 2 hours. The 1/3 that I’m struggling with-yup, I skimped on the outline…sigh.

    My coworker always reminds me: a page a day is about 300 words. An average manuscript for publication in our field is 15-20 pages. I’ve set myself a goal to get manuscript 1 done in 2 weeks!

    1. @DVStudent – good outlines do magic things for writing pieces. Once I’ve got a chapter outline, I know I can write a book. It really is that straightforward!

  5. This is exactly what I am doing with the first draft of the book I’m currently writing – I’ve given myself a deadline of the end of September to get a “s-ty first draft” done and then I’ll have nearly a year to rewrite before my final draft is due in August of 2019. I have blocked off an hour every day. I set a timer and I write until it goes off. I don’t correct anything and I don’t stop to look up things I have questions about or references (I will check for those quotes later). It’s hard and some of what I’m writing is indeed terrible but I’m often surprised at how easy it is to go back and make it much better.

    1. @AnneL – excellent! The timer is a great idea, and hey, it’s only an hour. How bad can an hour be? But then you’re a lot farther along at the end of that hour than at the beginning.

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