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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.

Q: At what point do you finally shove a finished draft at your editor/into the world? I’ve had a fic sitting in my drafts for six months. I keep reading it and thinking “oh not bad, just needs a little polish”–but then I do a little tweak and then abandon it again to my google docs. How do you draw the line where you stop tweaking and say “good enough, now get on with it”?

A: It sounds like you know it’s ready. I think that’s probably why you asked this question. You’re doing the classic writer thing of waiting for someone in a perceived position of expertise or authority to give you permission to send your work off in the world. We all ask our friends or editors or betas, “Do you think this is good enough to publish yet?” even after round after round of edits because we want someone to assure us that our work is legitimate and we deserve to think of it as such. Yes, editing is important–you don’t want to be that writer who believes that once you “get good enough,” editing is optional–but you can also edit a story to the point that you’ve removed any authenticity or voice, or you can get so hung up on editing that you never actually finish the damn thing. I say publish the fic. You’re ready. But for a more generalized answer, see the next question.


Q: How do you get through a first draft without constantly editing as you go? Are there techniques you use to get yourself to just write the damn thing?

A: “Editing as I go” is a dangerous trap that is the ruination of a lot of writing careers before they’ve even begun. I know someone who started writing a book…I want to say seven years ago? Maybe eight? Two years after she started, she had four chapters. Not because she was a slow writer, but because she would constantly stop writing and start re-editing. And though many of her friends have said, “You need to stop editing and just keep writing,” she’s still editing. I’m not sure the first draft is finished, but I do know that she’s currently editing what she has.

Never edit before you’ve written the last pages unless there’s some huge development in the plot that is going to affect the story going forward. If that happens, go back only to the point where that development actually affects the story. For example, if chapter ten involves a bomb being planted in the Tsar’s throne room, but you realize that it would be more effective for the story if the Tsar’s chauffeur shot him, instead, by all means, go back to chapter six where the characters outlined the bombing plan and change it to the shooting plan. But don’t go back to chapter one and painstakingly correct your grammar and typos and maybe Yuri’s name should be Gregor and maybe change everything to first-person present from third-person past. Because that, my friend, is a loop that you will never escape from.

I’m fairly certain people who edit the same pages over and over are doing so because they’re uncomfortable with the idea of their work existing in a state of imperfection, even for a little while, even if no one sees it. And it’s almost like writing becomes a treat that they earn after a good hard edit. But then the new stuff they wrote needs editing. And thus, it keeps going on and on. If you find yourself riding the constant-editing-as-you-go hell train, try the following:

  • Instead of Word or Pages, which load the entire document at once, use a program like Scrivener or a site like to write. They display only one chapter or scene at a time, so you won’t have an excuse to “just skim” while scrolling down to where you left off.
  • If you’re using Word, Pages, or Google Docs, make a separate file for each chapter or scene. Give them ordered file names and put them all in the same folder so you don’t have to do some panicked search of your entire computer or Drive when it’s time to compile them into one. But this way, you won’t have to open to the first page of the whole manuscript and be tempted.
  • When you’re done with a chapter or a few chapters, email them to a friend. Make up your mind that those specific files are the ones that will ultimately end up in your compiled draft. Back them up in online storage, then delete them from your computer. Now you don’t have access to them, so there’s no point in changing anything in the copies you have. You can have them back when the final chapter is written.
  • If you’re afraid of forgetting something you’d like to change in the second draft, write down the change you want to make either in a notebook or a notes file. It will still be there when it’s time to actually edit, and you’re free to go forward.

Obviously, all of these tricks require you to have some self-control. You could always just open chapter1.docx or ditch the plan of compiling a draft from chapters being held hostage. But at least this way, you know you’re sabotaging yourself, and there’s a lot less room for you to explain away why you absolutely must stop writing in chapter five and start over with rewrites from chapter one before you can even consider writing chapter six.

Remember: you are the only person who sees your first draft. And when you hire an editor or you send it to a beta, they know it hasn’t been edited. They’re not expecting perfection. If we were capable of producing manuscripts with perfect content, continuity, and grammar on our own, a lot of people would be out of jobs. You can’t edit your own work all that effectively, anyway; most of the time, you’re going to read what you thought you’ve written and not what’s actually on the page. So you’re pretty much wasting your time at that point. Even if you could edit your own work from an objective standpoint, you’ll never reach a point where it’s good enough to publish (unless you’re one of those authors who thinks you don’t need editing…which is a whole different ball of wax).

First drafts look messy and unfinished. They’re supposed to. They’re in the building phase. If anyone is still unconvinced, go to a construction site and watch how a building is built. It doesn’t look sleek and polished while they’re pouring concrete. Nobody goes, “Wait, wait guys. We got this wall done. I know the rest of the house isn’t done yet, but we really need to put up some siding and get some shrubs planted before I can feel comfortable going ahead with the rest of the job.”


Bonus Question: I know you and everyone else in the world is pissed with how over involved EL James was in the movie versions of 50 shades, but as a writer would you wants some creative control? I know I’d at least wanna give ideas on casting. What about you?

A: Honestly? I wouldn’t know where to begin with any creative control anyone gave me. I don’t know enough about how casting works to say, “I want so-and-so to play so-and-so,” because I don’t know what the production budget is, I don’t know who the director has worked with before with good results, whether or not they were right for the part, that sort of thing. It’s so not my world. So if I had a book that had been optioned and it was going into pre-production, I wouldn’t expect anyone to come to me for those decisions because I have no expertise in anything having to do with movie stuff. If they did and they valued my input, awesome, but I don’t think authors should maintain much if any creative control once they’ve sold their rights. Input, sure, but control? No.


Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!

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  1. On the creative control thing, some authors also don’t realize that film, as a visual medium, can be so fundamentally different from a novel that certain things either don’t translate or must be altered to obtain their original meaning. How you build mood in a chapter vs. a scene in a film is completely different. Dialogue can radically alter depending on the inflections of the speaker. Things that can be ambigious in a novel must sometimes be shown in a film, and vice versa.

    As a writer, of course I’d want to have some creative input on the making of a film adaption. But as a film buff, I’d want the people who actually know about making films to be allowed to do their work.

    April 27, 2017
  2. Sadie

    Oh my goddess, that editing question came just in the nick. I wrote five chapters, then edited, them wrote five more, then went back to the first five and edited those. Then I wrote five more and edited the first ten, then edited the next five, then edited 5-10 again.

    This morning I started with chapter 16. I got two pages in and then went back and edited chapter 10 again. ENOUGH ALREADY!

    okay, now I’m going to edit this post.

    April 27, 2017
    • Mel

      OMG you’re me. You’re totally me. And thanks, Jenny, for the tips on how to avoid editing-as-you-go. Trust me, I’m my own worst enemy. Luckily I’m now doing a BA in Professional and Creative Writing and getting enough positive feedback that I know that my work is good enough to show to people and I don’t have the panic attacks I used to have about workshopping.

      April 27, 2017
  3. I’m taking part in the AtoZChallenge this year and just wrote a post on the first (or, as we like to call it—vomit) draft. I’ve written some tips that satisfy what’s left of my inner editor after I choke her and lock her in a closet during the writing process.
    If I had to go back and edit as I write, I’d never finish the damn book.

    April 27, 2017
  4. fluffy

    I think I just identified one of the (many MANY) reasons I never finished my masters thesis– when you send chapters to your faculty advisor/editor it is not ok for your work to be a mess, it needs to be as polished as you can possibly make it before using their precious time.

    April 27, 2017
    • Luisa

      Yeah, the process of writing for an academic advisor is a mindf**k of its own, and it can foster really bad writing habits. It took me *years* to figure out that my first draft of a chapter (the version only I got to see) could be a mess, and that it was actually a *good idea* to get all the ideas on the page first, and then do a second or third pass. The fact that I was always doing stuff ridiculously close to the deadline didn’t help, of course.

      May 17, 2017
  5. Sarah

    As an (education-related) editor, I can say even the pros don’t do one big fat edit on one go, and don’t go back and back and back to the same text until it’s (their idea of) perfect. Yes, I’ll polish grammar as I go along, but it takes several read-throughs and a holistic view of the content before I’m happy to pass it back.

    Also, we’re all human. There are reasons your dev editor is almost never your copy editor, and neither should ever be your proofreader.

    Let your work breathe a bit and come back to it with a fresh head. It’ll never be 100% perfect, which is what makes us all human. (And while it’s very hard to accept, is a freeing realization.)

    May 11, 2017
    • Sarah

      *in one go. See?

      May 11, 2017

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