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

BY TED BOONE 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. But I have a confession: I edit during NaNoWriMo. Here's why and what you should think about when you take the NaNoWriMo challenge.
Publish date:

BY 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.

Get prepared to write an entire novel in November with
a little help for our October 9 webinar: How to Pre-Plot & Complete
a Novel or Memoir in a Month (comes with a bonus ebook).
Register here


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.

The 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.

ted boone

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.


New Agent Alert: Tasneem Motala of The Rights Factory

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Tasneem Motala of The Rights Factory) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Timothy Miller: The Alluring Puzzle of Fact and Fiction

Screenwriter and novelist Timothy Miller explains how he came to write historical fiction and how research can help him drive his plot.


Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido: Entertainment and Outrage

Authors Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido explain how they came to co-write their novel and why it's important to them that the readers experience outrage while reading.


Incite vs. Insight (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use incite vs. insight with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


Jane K. Cleland: On Writing the Successful Long-Running Series

Award-winning mystery author Jane K. Cleland describes what it's like to write a long-running book series and offers expert advice for the genre writer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: #StartWrite, Virtual Conference, and New Courses

This week, we’re excited to announce free resources to start your writing year off well, our Novel Writing Virtual Conference, and more!


20 Most Popular Writing Posts of 2020

We share a lot of writing-related posts throughout the year on the Writer's Digest website. In this post, we've collected the 20 most popular writing posts of 2020.


Carla Malden: Writing With Optimism and Innocence

Screenwriter and author Carla Malden explains why young adult fiction and the '60s go hand-in-hand and how she connected with her main character's voice.