NaNoWriMo Prep Work: To Edit or Not Edit While Writing First Draft

nanowrimoBY TED BOONE NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November) is a brilliant way to jumpstart an aspiring writer’s progress towards completing a novel manuscript. Its goals are clear and straightforward: 50,000 words in 30 days. That goal, while certainly challenging, is manageable for most participants, and the end result is twofold: a solid start to a novel, and the invaluable feeling of accomplishment for “winning” the NaNo challenge.

Given NaNoWriMo’s simple but stringent requirements, many participants adopt some fairly draconian methods to accomplishing their goal. Over the last decade of participation, I’ve observed self-imposed rules like: zero backspace usage, absolute “pantsing” (writing without an outline or plan), stream-of-consciousness-typing, no food/drink/television/whatever before daily word count is achieved (!), etc. The techniques NaNo participants employ to achieve their word-count goal are as diverse as the participants themselves. (For more great tips on National Novel Writing Month [NaNoWriMo], download the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest now!)

The most common technique that experienced WriMos will propose for newbies is the “zero editing” approach. That is, during the month of November, you must resist the urge to edit your novel. The advice is based upon the idea that NaNo participants should always be increasing their word count, regardless of the quality of the words that are appearing on the page.

It’s not a bad plan. Turning off your inner editor during the month of November is often what aspiring novelists need. Getting bogged down in editing can often result in never finishing the manuscript in the first place. Editing is the bane of momentum.

Except, of course, when it’s not.

My confession?

I edit during NaNoWriMo.

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I edit every single day. Sometimes more than once. I probably spend as much time editing during November as I do writing. There. I said it. Now, let me explain.

I have tried, over the last nine years, to adhere to the mantra, “DO NOT EDIT.” The reasoning behind this mantra is that your inner editor always has its hand on the brake lever, ready at any moment to pull a Full Stop on your writing progress and, in the process, scream epithets in your ear about the utter uselessness of your writing efforts during November.

To wit: your inner editor is an asshole.

So, during NaNo, many writers make the conscious effort to lock their inner editors away, in deep vaults under heavy mountains on distant planets, and throw the keys into the fiery furnace of the local star.

No editing = no brakes, and no internal monologue of self-loathing.

Does this work? For many people: yes, absolutely.

For me? Nope. No way.

My stopping mechanism is different. It’s not a set of brakes being applied by a hypercritical inner child whose parents never showed any affection or approval. It’s the natural function of my rusty gears of thought, which need constant and lavish lubrication to allow the machine to even function, let alone move forward.

What’s my manuscript-writing-machine lubricant of choice? My WD-40?

During November, I write for a few minutes. Then I stop. I ponder. I reconsider. I go backwards. I tweak. I add words. I rearrange paragraphs. I interject conversations.

I edit. Line by line. And while, on occasion, that results in the deletion of words, the net effect is always, always, an increase in word count.

Unfortunately, this line-editing process does mean that I move slowly. Sometimes embarrassingly slowly. A few years ago (much to the perverse delight of my local Wrimos) I wrote 67 words during a 15-minute sprint. That’s… not fast. That’s the opposite of fast. Writing 1,667 words a day–words I’m willing to live with–takes me forever. So, when people say they’re busy during November, I tend to roll my eyes. Busy? You have no idea.

It’s my own fault, but every day of November is an exercise in iteration. I have no idea what “linear writing” means. I prefer loop-de-loops and spiralling detours. A self-inflicted molasses-slow meandering path to my daily word count.

And then, the next day, when I first open my manuscript? That’s when I get truly masochistic. Before I type a single new word, I reread my scenes from the previous day. I kickstart my complacent characters. Then I stand back and see how they react to my poking and prodding. If it’s boring, I go back in and do it again. With flair and panache. Rinse and repeat, until my re-re-re-read elicits a grin.

Once I’m happy with my new, revised scene, I rinse and repeat.

Write. Line edit. Sleep. Kickstart.

ted booneThe end result has been, historically, a manuscript that’s passable. Not necessarily a first draft, but not exactly a zero draft either. Zero point five. Zero point seven, if I let my ego speak its mind.

So, yeah. I edit. It’s part of my process, and for me, it works.

Don’t agree with me? Cool. Have your own process that works? More power to you. And if anyone tells you your approach is wrong?

Write them into your novel for a little prodding of their own.

Ted Boone was born in Wilmington, Delaware. An avid fan of National Novel Writer’s Month, Ted has authored numerous SF manuscripts during the month of November, but not yet pursued publication for his novels. Ted currently works as an Instructor for the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University.


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7 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Prep Work: To Edit or Not Edit While Writing First Draft

  1. renegadeimage

    I’m right there with you, Ted. I usually read what I wrote the previous day before starting the new day’s writing. It worked for Hemingway, didn’t it, and it’s a good way to get back into the story and rhythm. I also edit as necessary during my daily writing session. I’ve learned that an incomplete or irrelevant thought can take me down some very unfortunate rabbit holes. I do have self-imposed limits. If I’m struggling with finding a word that I can change later or if the sentence is a bit rough but captures the idea adequately, I highlight it and move on. If I stop and just can’t seem to get going, it’s a good sign that something fundamental is wrong, that I’m approaching the scene from the wrong direction or perhaps at the wrong point in time (and I do plot before writing, but at a high level). To stubbornly continue, which I’ve done, would just result in a lot of wasted effort that will be thrown away when I’ve solved the problem. So I might stop for the day to let everything settle out. That said, there are times when I force myself to plod 200 or 300 words ahead because I realize I need to start somewhere, even if it’s the wrong place or in the wrong direction. Some days I produce 3000+ words a day and others 500 or less. I’ve tried a number of other approaches, including free writing. I’m too OCD for any other method.

  2. Rain200

    Last year I wrote a blog titled “Know Your Characters Motivation” in preparation for Nanowrimo. Before, I believed that no editing whatsoever was allowed, but now I believe that to have a successful Nano experience, you should at least have an idea of where to begin and how you plan to end the story.

    Hopefully, this tip will help me as well if work does not get in the way(no excuse).

  3. Ann Hamilton

    I liked your piece very much. As a NaNo veteran (seven years? eight?) I am the queen of not looking back and not editing until December. But that’s one of the things I love about NaNo. You’re right – there is no wrong way. It really is what works best for you. I’ve never used an outline either, go figure. Do I have an idea for NaNo 2014? Not a clue. And November 1st gets closer and closer…

  4. dsjarvis

    Every writer has his own preferences. I reread what I wrote the previous day, but quickly. I will add details, delete bad sentences, or reword some things if I see it. Otherwise, I move on. I don’t waste too much time editing while I’m writing.

    With that said, I realized I wanted to tweak the plot in my current novel a bit when I was about 25k words in. I went back and revised the previous chapters before moving on. There was no possible way I could move forward without going back. If major plot issues arise, or a better idea takes hold, then I recommend going back and revising to push it in that direction. It’s made my story so much better, and made me more enthusiastic about finishing the first draft by early November.

  5. Linda Maye Adams

    I do move around in the story and add more. But what I do is not line editing, nor is it revision. I’m still creating. I’m an organic writer, and I don’t always get ideas in the right order. Sometimes I don’t have all the information, so I need to research it. Sometimes I need to get most of the scene in place, and then I can add more of the setting. Most of these changes are simply adding more (or correcting typos! 🙁 ) It’s kind of like the sculpturer who is constantly making refinements to bring the whole picture together.

  6. JanelleFila

    I totally agree that editing has a place in NaNoWriMo. The first year I attempted to write a novel in a month, I skipped over any scenes I had trouble with, in an effort to keep the writing juices flowing. I quit after five days, when all I had were a few pages of dialogue and very little else. No description, no feel for my characters, nothing but crappy dialogue that needed trashed. The next time around, I outlined extensively and knew where my story was headed. For me, that was the key. I took my time and got to know my characters. There were days when I didn’t hit my word count, but even on those days I wrote good paragraphs and description that I knew I would still want when my 30 days were over. That novel is now on agent submission and I’m very proud of the work I completed on it during my first successful NaNoWriMo.


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