Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

70. Writing an ugly draft vs editing as you write.

The people behind National Novel Writing Month would have a field day with this one.

There are a lot of arguments for both sides of this conflict, but mostly it comes down to personal preference. Most writers I know tend to edit as they write because silencing your internal editor can be a herculean feat that hardly feels worth it. Then again, there are plenty of writers out there who subscribe to the NaNoWriMo method, which is basically “worry about quantity now, quality later”. I’ve also been told by fellow writers that there’s a specific way you should go about writing a novel: planning, ugly first draft, revised second draft, any number of further revised drafts until your story plays out exactly as you want it to, and final editing. I don’t know about you, but just looking at that system makes me want to gather up everything I’ve ever written and sacrifice it to the god of bonfires.

Like I said, it mostly comes down to preference. Some people can follow steps like the ones above and be perfectly happy and content. Other people completely lose the ability to move on with the story if their internal editor is screaming at them to go back and change things. Additionally, some people can revise their work a hundred times and still find stuff they want/need to change, while others manage to hit the bulls-eye with the first shot and just have to worry about editing. It all really depends on what kind of writer you are.

As for myself? I’m still working on exactly what kind of writer I am. When I was younger I could never finish anything I wrote because I would regularly find major issues with my plot or decide that I wanted to make a significant change, and instead of dealing with it as I continued to write, I would start the damn thing over from scratch. In fact, my current work in progress is a story that I’ve completely rewritten from scratch no fewer than six times over the years. I’ve never reached the end. In fact, until about a month ago I’d never even reached the middle. My internal editor is just that powerful…she is a cruel witch who should be burned for her crimes.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. So as I was saying, my default setting seems to be edit-as-you-go, but as I’ve just described that’s not always a good thing for me. What really showed me the error of my ways was when I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month. I really wanted to reach that 50,000 word goal, and I knew that my current habits would not allow for that, so for one month I let myself just write. No matter how many mistakes I made or how awful some sentences sounded, I just forced myself to keep writing. Guess what happened? No, I didn’t finish my story. But I wrote 50,000+ words toward it, which was way better than I’d ever done before.

So clearly adopting the “ugly first draft” method was good for me, but even after several more NaNoWriMo’s I determined that it wasn’t something I could strictly adhere to. These blog posts are a great example. I edit these posts as I go, and it works just fine for me. Maybe the wording isn’t always as good, my thought process as organized as it might be if I were to draft my post first and then revise it, but I’m happy with what I produce. Alternatively, I continue to force myself to (mostly) ignore my internal editor (as she screams at me from her burning stake) while I’m writing fiction because NaNoWriMo has taught me that its more important to get the full story written than to make that one chapter absolutely perfect the first time around.

So I guess the short answer is that I do ugly first drafts and I edit as I go. In this, as with many things, I am a rebel. Sexy, huh? Yeah…you know it.

17 thoughts on “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. I’ve written until I’ve had to stop, written and revised, and revised while writing. Tend to do a mix of all three, depending on how I feel, how well the writing is going, and whether I know where I’m going with the story.

    Just as you challenged yourself with with National Writer’s Month, I set up my blog as a challenge to myself: could I write a novel-length story in serial form, with a new chapter every week? The answer, as it turned out, was “yes.” And in the process, I learned a lot about trying to craft chapters with endings that would encourage readers to show up the next week.

    • That’s the trick, really…pushing your boundaries and proving to yourself that you can do things more than one way. I’m still learning this because I have certain habits when I’m writing that are really tough to break, but I need to in order to grow as a writer. For instance, I’ve never written a male main character. But bit by bit I’m learning lots of different writing skills and I hope that means I’m becoming a better writer overall. 🙂

      • Tee hee. I once drew a comic of Ernest Hemingway and George Lucas getting into a fight. I’d like to think Ernest would punch George in the face for Episodes 1-3 were he still alive today. 😉

        • Oh my dear, I’m sure a lot of people would punch George in the face for many reasons if they were to get the chance. In fact, my husband and I just watched Episode 1 last night (he got me the boxed set of blurays for Christmas and we decided to watch them all in order) and we spent most of the movie pointing out all the things that prove what an asshat George is. lol

          Have you ever seen “The Star Wars That I Used to Know”? If you haven’t, first go to YouTube and watch the music video for Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and then search for the Star Wars one. My husband found it and showed it to me and I nearly died from laughing.

  2. oh my god i’ve been wrangling with this exact problem – it took me about 800 years to write my first chapter, and since then I decided to stop self-editing as I go along and be a little more free. I’ve written the next 4 in about half the time and though I know I’m going to have to go back and attack them in edit it’s been such a nice feeling to get some wordcount under my belt.
    I don;t know about anyone else but the way I find I’m doing it is – there are certain scenes I have a strong view on. Tentpole scenes almost. Ones that I really think are critical to the story and need some self editing and care. Others like the protagonist walking to the train station I can just crunch through instead of getting too bogged down in them.
    By the way I should qualify this by admitting I have no idea what I’m doing. But anyway, that’s where I’ve ended up. Great blog by the way – so glad I’ve found my way here!

    • I can understand what you’re saying there. Since I’ve been trying to worry more about a good word count rather than perfect scenes I’ve been finding myself plowing through anything not 100% necessary, but I do still tend to spend extra time on the important scenes. I think it’s because just knowing that they’re important makes it difficult to accept anything other than the best. But improvement is improvement, right? 🙂

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you found yourself here too. I’ve actually had your blog up in my tabs for several days now, waiting for my toddler to give me five minutes alone to look at it. lol

  3. Hi Tracey Lynn I found the ;link to your blog on the L Palmer Chronicles. I really enjoyed this post. I really, really struggle with my inner critic and keep editing and editing and editing, although I do try to write in all down in one hit first while I’m still in the flow.
    I find that I am naturally quite verbose and so I’m trying to cut to the chase, hopiong this will speed up the writing process.
    I also struggle to know when something is finally finished. When is the end actually the end?
    This is sllightly off topic but there is a really good TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame:
    Like yourself, I should also watch some more TED talks.
    Best wishes,

    • Thanks for the link! I’ll be sure to watch it the second my daughter stops throwing Ninja Turtles and My Little Ponies at me. 🙂

      I used to be very verbose myself, and it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve been forcing myself to cut to the chase, less because of the internal editor issues and more because there were just so many WORDS, I think I was losing the point most of the time in my desperation to make it sound pretty.

      As for knowing when something is finished, I seem to have a different problem…I know when it’s time to end, but I never seem to know HOW to end. When I finished my zombie apocalypse novel last year I swear it took me over a month to write the last four or five pages because I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I think it was because I’d never actually REACHED an ending before. lol

  4. I’m an ugly first draft/editor, too – there are some things I cannot leave alone, like typos I notice and really, really clunky words, and occasionally I’ll delete and rewrite whole scenes. But in general, I try to force myself to just keep moving forward and not get too bogged down or I know I’ll lose my momentum and then I’ll be left with a well-edited half a story, and nothing else. The combination seems to work, though. 🙂

    • See, it’s the rewriting of scenes that used to really bog me down because I couldn’t just rewrite ONE scene, I had to rewrite everything around it to fit the new scene, which eventually ended up with me literally restarting from page one. Very detrimental.

      I’ll confess something though…I do still edit typos as I go. When I’m writing on my laptop I just can’t stand to see those squiggly lines that mean the word processor doesn’t recognize the word. Even when I’m writing in my notebook, I write with erasable ink so I can fix a word if I screw it up. I’m just that mental. lol

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