NaNoWriMo #20: To Edit or Not to Edit…

… that may not be the right question.

Perhaps the most omnipresent, simplistic advice circling the NaNoWriMo world is this: don’t edit as you write.  Never hit the backspace key. 

The implication is that you should just keep typing, madly, passionately, and hopefully with the right goal in mind.

This advice is everywhere, endorsed by “winners” of NaNoWriMo.

Today’s tip: put a filter on that advice.  And keep reading here.

The right goal shouldn’t be 50,000 unvetted, randomly assembled words.  The right goal is 50,000 words that actually work as a story. 

It’s the difference between a pile of rocks and a beautiful, sturdy rock wall assembled around a garden.

I’m not going to attempt to contradict the do-not-edit advice.  But I will attempt to put a fence around it, to break it down into what will serve the right goal, and what won’t. 

There are two flavors of editing. 

The advice to avoid one of them as you write during November is absolutely spot-on accurate, with a couple of caveats.  The other… will send you spiraling into that pile of rocks like a chorus of sirens.

The first type of editing, the one you should probably avoid, is copy editing.  Literally correcting typos.  Fixing grammar mistakes.  Polishing your words.  Trying to make your prose perfect.

The advice to avoid doing this is solid.  Unless you are fast — which you might just be if you’ve planned your novel well, and completely… in which case you will have the time to fix all this copy-level stuff in the last few days of November.  Or, if you get ahead of pace (1700 words per day), at the end of each writing day.

By the way… 1700 words a day isn’t all that much, or that tough, if your novel has been adequately planned.  Frankly, if that’s the case for you, you can bang out up to 5,000 words a day without skipping your trip to the gym. 

That’s how powerful effective story planning can be.

The other level of editing — the one you absolutely shoudn’t ignore — is story-level editing. 

That is, seizing the opportunity to optimize story physics (dramatic tension, character empathy, vicarious reader experience) through tinkering with your scenes as you go (again, this only becomes valid advice if you’ve planned your story and are ahead of pace)… and, to make story-level course corrections.

The latter does happen.  Critics of story planning — who usually haven’t really tried it, and who are likely the folks advising you not to edit as you go — like to claim that planning takes the spontaneous creativity (and/or the joy) out of the actual writing process. 

To that I say… planning your story IS a critical part of the writing process, and the need for — and glorious bliss of — creativity and spontaneity is every bit as much a rewarding part of it as it is with drafting.  Trust me, there’s nothing more rewarding than knowing your story is solid before you begin a draft.  But you’ll find that, even with the best of story plans in place, you’ll come upon ways to embellish, deepen and even shift your story as you write it.

And that’s precisely what you should do during November when the urge strikes you.

The more you understand about story physics and the six core competencies, the more confident you’ll be in your story plan.  And the more valid this contradictory advice becomes.  If you’re unsure about what you’re doing, chances are insecurity will be your partner during both the planning and drafting phases… which is one of those life lessons that will come the hard way: the basics of storytelling are essential, and they will set you free. 

Free to enjoy the process with confidence.

Here’s another wonderful consequence of effective story planning:

Almost always, when you’ve done it well, those mid-draft shifts come as improvements and enhancements, rather than rescues or panic-induced doubt.  Which means, implementing shifts as you write is a good thing.  Doing so absolutely does serve your higher NaNoWriMo goal.

So edit away, at the story level, as you write your novel in November.  Consider it a safety net here in October as you plan your story… you’ll enter the draft with something good, and what happens from there is improvement, not ignorance-induced doubt.

Benchmark test: are you beginning to sketch out your beat sheet (scene sequence, as defined by scene identification, mission, and then treatment/content)?  You should be doing this by now… this is where you connect your vision to your plan.

If not… I suggest you go back and re-read this series from the beginning.  A second read always yields more than the first take.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

18 Responses to NaNoWriMo #20: To Edit or Not to Edit…

  1. Thanks for your interesting articles. I have discovered your blog last week and I have started planning my story. This will be my very first attempt at NanoWriMo, and I feel more confident in having a good experience out of it now that I know a bit more about how to plan my story. For me, my personal goal is not to achieve 50,000 words. If I can layout a good draft of my story, i’ll be happy. Be it 40,00 words or just 35,000.

  2. Annie

    New reader here, “cramming” before NaNoWriMo begins. You have a ton of good information here, so thank you!

    Somewhere in the series, I wonder if you could elaborate on scene identification/mission. It’s been mentioned several times, but not really explained. I googled and found — does that cover it, or is there something more to consider?

  3. Hi Larry,

    I plan to have a solid outline/beatsheet in place by Halloween, so I’ll have a good map to guide me through the month. The thing that really scares me though (wooo!), is that “mid-draft shift” thing you mentioned. New ideas creep up from the basement and hijack the plot line, characters with backstories and biographies six feet deep decide they don’t want to behave, and the story starts veering off into the ditch. I often find that I don’t really get to know my characters and where the story’s going until I start writing down the story, outline or not.

    How do you keep the story on track, when those awesome ideas pop-up half way through? Someone recently suggested (I though it was here on that when you get hijacked by a new plot line or character, just open a blank file, type out that alternate plot/characterization, just get it out, then save it away and get back to the story you were planning to write.

    Seems like a reasonable way to deal with divergence, but, what if the alternate story is turning out better than the one you planned? Do you go back and rewrite the outline in light of the new development? Or do you keep digging away blindly at the new vein, hoping you’ll hit gold in the end?

    Anyone else?

    Love your tips, Larry, keep them coming!

  4. Ben

    Excellent advice, as always. I’m a terrible, compulsive editor, and it’s a struggle to turn that guy off. And it can be even harder to turn off only part of that guy — the copy editing side, and not the story editing side. It’s a slippery slope.

    Regarding the benchmark test… I’m a little behind. I’ve got some of the milestones roughed in, but haven’t started the actual beat sheet. This is my first time not just planning a story, but writing a story. Ever. My first novel. And I’m a little unsure of how to do this beat sheet thing. I know the scenes are supposed to be fairly easy to figure out, given the context of the milestones and the four parts they divide the story into… but it’s a little harder than I thought to figure out nice, mission driven scenes. Maybe I’m just a bit unsure how to decide what the mission of any given scene really needs to be. Any advice on that would be greatly appreciated.

  5. @Annie – yes, that link is the answer, but maybe I can help clarify: the ‘mission’ of a scene is, literally, what it needs to accomplish – chip in – to the narrative. Not just characterization (that’s part of every scene), but… think of it as moving a chess piece. New information. Each scene needs to DO something, contribute to the forward motion of the story. The best story plans identify each scene, both in terms of what it needs to do (mission), and how it will play (the creative/dramatic approach taken). Example: remember the opening scene of Notorious Basterds, Tarantino’s movie of last year? Scene lasted 9 minutes. But it only had one mission: to show that the bad Nazi was there looking for hidden people, that he already knew they were there, and he’d come to execute them. The scene’s “drama” was how he was messing with the character (the one doing the hiding) before he pulled out his gun, and the overriding mission (the rest is just execution) was to show her escaping (go rent this if you haven’t seen it, it’s a clinic). So the mission would read: “need to show her (heroine) escaping clutches of the bad guy.” Once you “get” the mission down, then (and only then) can you create the best possible creative/dramatic solution, or means, toward that end. Hope this helps. L.

  6. @Philip – you ask a great question. All I can say is… with a story plan in place, you’ll find that the changes that pop up are ‘because’ of the path you’re one. Chances are you won’t want to reinvent the story with a new/better idea, but rather, you’ll come up with better ideas on how to execute the plan you started with. Which usually means minor course corrections, or additions that effect where you go from there. You need to trust the process… this is the result of solid story plan you believe in, are excited about and can trust. If you don’t trust your plan, if you haven’t already fallen in love with the plan you’ve created pre-draft, then you’re asking your subconscious mind to sabotage it. If you do believe in it, you’re asking your subconscious mind to help you knock it out of the park. Trust. Hope this helps. L.

  7. @Ben – go here for a tutorial on the “beat sheet” —

    A beat sheet is just a step-by-step outline told in bullets, rather than paragraphs (the idea is to expand the bullets into paragraphs once you understand how to accomplish the “mission” you’ve describe with the beat sheet bullet.

    There are examples in the post I’ve linked to here. Hope this helps you. L.

  8. Larry, thanks for the excellent advice. Last year I wrote 15000 words before I decided that I needed to write in first person instead of third. I *had* to go back and rewrite, because otherwise I wouldn’t have the main character’s voice clear in my head. My friends thought I was nuts for doing this — but, hey, I was the one doing the writing.

  9. Gotta say what you’re really providing here, much more than how to make the most of NaNoWriMo, is a primer on how to write a story. Appreciate the advice. (I also want to say that I’ve been enjoying these 31 posts because your tone is a bit less, uh, strident than it sometimes is. Appreciate that too. :))

  10. I’m getting my circus tent filled out (they’re easier for me than the normal beat sheets)…though it’s slow going this time around. I normally don’t have any issues getting the main points down, but hopefully it won’t take too much longer if I’d just sit down and do it.

    This is how I handle wanting to change a scene halfway through (and I do this in my writing all the time, Nano or not). I do everything in the same document because I really hate having to keep track of multiple ones when I’m working a first draft, so this advice hinges along those lines.

    When halfway through a scene and I realize I want to make a few changes, I highlight the “old” scene and change the font color (usually red or blue). Then I insert a line break divider and start over with the new scene. Sometimes some copy/paste action if there are bits of dialogue and such that I like and don’t feel like messing with.

    This is a quick and easy way to keep track of everything you’ve written — specially for Nano since both versions of the scene can assist towards the word count goal. And you don’t have to track down a different file when it’s time to edit either as both scenes are pretty much right next to each other so you can go back and forth between them. 🙂

  11. Copy editing should probably be one of the last things to “worry” about. By the time you’ve tweaked your story line and beat sheet several times and have re-written (banged it into the word processor) the differences, probably at least 25% of the first run gets cut or replaced anyway.

    Better still is to spend the time up front trusting the process of design and ensuring all the preliminary work (both “mechanical” like character backstory, plot points, pinch points, etc., and creative like thinking them up in the first place). Tons of room for creative work there.

    By the time you’ve done several passes on your beat sheet, you should have a 90%+ idea of what should go into a scene. Just looking at the beat sheet line should remind you of it. Then your actual draft writing goes full speed ahead while knowing exactly where the sandbars, rocks, and shoals are — and how your story uses them to make itself even better.

    Do the up-front work and let the fingers rip during the actual writing. Yes, Virginia, until you’ve done _lots_ of words, your fingers will make mistakes. That’s what the copyediting will fix. That should be at the very end when you know everything else works.

    Now go write something great.

  12. Have had my beat sheet and tent completed for almost a year now. Guess next month is as good as any to start some serious writing. been putting it off because of lack of confidence in being able to complete the goal (i.e. the novel)

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  14. Margaret

    Absolutely brilliant advice. Though I’ve never heard of story planning being referred to as editing. Something new everyday, right?
    And for those anti-planners: Having an outline doesn’t mean that you can’t be spontaneous and make changes as the story grows. I think it actually helps you to do so. Knowing all the big pieces of your story makes it easier to fit in those moments of genius without getting lost. My outline has scribbles all over it where I’ve made notes about the plot changing. In fact, I’d actually had the outline “finished” and was several chapters in when I realized that there was a whole scene at the end that I needed to add in. All I had to to do was add another bullet and adjust the scenes afterwards and it was good to go. Keeping everything together and having one place to keep all the plot notes is probably the greatest advantage that an outline can give you.

  15. @Margaret — thank you, amen, halleluja, look to the heavens and scream “YES!” . Absolutely. Perfectly said. Thanks for the exclamation point. L.

  16. Bang on post and one that I want to see taped to the walls and glued to books on writing lore.

    Plotting in advance is akin to writing down the details for a holiday in advance. I don’t imagine we often hear, “I’m going to Rio” or “Honey, we’ve got tickets to Paris and we’ll stay a week,” and leave the planning at that. I also doubt most people holidaying for pleasure draft up an iron-clad itinerary they follow exactly to the letter, allowing for no variations for fascinating side trips. Why shouldn’t novel writing be the same? You’ve hit the concept right upon the head in literary terms. Giving flexibility to open yourself up to following a sudden subplot that flowers brilliantly, either in the planning phase or while you’re hip-deep in your story, is not a bad thing at all. Why? The rest of your story will accommodate that. You know the concept, the departure date if you will, and major milestones you intend to see along the way.

    The fear of departing from the beaten path is very real, and from my own experience, stems from a worry I won’t know where the written route will take me or concern I’ve just sabotaged my novel’s carefully crafted outline. Yet in every case, a little pause and tinkering to fit in the sudden revelation did not destroy my outline or the story flow. The new developments enhanced my story, tightened loose areas, and strengthened characterization. I think it’s healthy to be open to changes and remove bits that don’t work in favour of those which do.

    Thanks for touching upon this to give permission.

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