… 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.