Have you ever seen the movies Misery or Romancing the Stone? Both feature writers banging out the final paragraph of their books before they triumphantly type THE END, culminating with either an elaborate ritual or an all-encompassing snif of enormous satisfaction. Now although it’s true that most writers look more like Kathleen Turner sporting a red nose and a dirty bathrobe than James Caan with his Dom Perignon, it’s also true that if there’s a writer out there who is really and truly done when she types THE END, then I’ve yet to meet her. The fact is it’s the rare person who emits perfection the first time. My best writing usually comes through in the rewrite, which I’m sure is true with most: it’s all in the editing.
But there are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to the nip/tuck of the edit (perhaps more, but I’ll just focus on two, or we could be here all day.) The first is the “just write it!”, the second is to edit on the fly. Both have their merits, and neither method is wrong.
The average novel is anywhere from 75,000 to 125,000 words, or 300-500 double-spaced pages, most falling somewhere in between. For a work of this length, I’ve known “just write it!” writers to pump out 200,000 to 300,000 words before they finally take a breath and fan the smoke off their laptops. Many take their inspiration from such methods as Book In a Week or NaNoWriMo which instructs participants to just get it out–no editing, no going back over what’s been written. The point is to get the words down and create a first draft, and worry about the revising later. The main thrust is to get the ideas out. I believe this method works well for people who plot their story out beforehand, who work from outlines, or, to take the opposite tack, who write best in stream-of-consciousness. Like a virulent case of verbal vomit, “just write it!” writers throw it all against the wall, deciding to see what’ll stick after it dries.
I prefer to fix on the fly and edit whiile I write. Unlike my plotting, I’m deliberate in my revising. Usually I go back to edit before starting another writing session, whether that session is a couple of hours worth or from the day before. Most of the time I do both, and always if I set it aside for a while, as I’ve done now by revisiting the novel I put aside last year. The advantages to this is it keeps the story fresh in your head, lets you and fix plot or continuity problems, and you’re certainly writing more concisely and compactly, as you’re choosing your words more carefully, not just pumping out the first thing that flies into your head. Of course, there’s always the chance, with constant revisiting, that you’ll drain the life out of your prose. The last thing you want to do is beat it into an over-processed, mechanical bore. But this method does help if you tend to lose track of your story, working even better if you’re actively writing every day and on a deadline.
Neither method is right for everyone, and you may work best under a combination of the two. The important thing is you’re writing, and if it takes a bit of the nip and tuck, or more than a few Joycean interior monologues to get you going, then damn the Spell Check–full speed ahead!