The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is revising while writing.
Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is revising while writing.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Revising While Writing
Last week, the wonderful Robert Lee Brewer wrote about why it’s a mistake to refrain from revising your project. But with writing, like anything else, too much of a good thing can become destructive.
Many writers can successfully revise while working on a project. I’m not familiar with any, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. However, I want to talk about what happens when you find that you’re only revising a project or maybe even getting stuck in the endless cycle of writing a few chapters before scrapping them and beginning again, never getting yourself over that finish line to your draft’s completion.
I’ve talked a bit about the period in my writing life where I wasn’t completing a single project I worked on. The root of my issue was self-doubt; however, I used revision as a way to keep myself from finishing the project. If the project was never finished, it couldn’t be bad, right?
Some of my revisions were necessary. I remember being 60,000 words into a romance novel without even reaching the middle of the plot. Yikes! Obviously, something had gone off the rails. But most of my revisions were simple nit-picking. I wanted to age a minor character up, so I paused writing and went through the whole manuscript to reflect that change. I wanted to be sure that the sensory details of a particular scene were just so. I thought maybe this section of exposition should be dialogue instead. The list goes on and on.
The point is, I was spending time doing revisions that weren’t wholly necessary for me to finish the draft—they’re things that could have waited until I had the entirety of the first draft written and then could go back to revise.
Writers can get stuck in a revision cycle for any number of reasons; whatever it is keeping you in a non-productive pattern, there are ways to ensure that you keep moving your project forward—without the constant temptation to revise.
Mistake Fix: Keep it Short
Revising while writing can become a nasty habit that keeps you from seeing your project’s completion. However, there are a few things you can do to resist the impulse to spend more time revising what you’ve written instead of writing what you haven’t.
1. Set a timer for the beginning of each writing session
If you know you have an hour to write, only allow yourself the first 15 minutes to revise. Set a timer and keep yourself diligent to that deadline. 15 minutes only. That way, you still feel satisfied that you’re leveling up your work, but you’re spending the majority of your time creating new material instead of fiddling with what’s already on the page.
2. Make notes as you go
This has been the most helpful tool for me. If I realize that I want to age up a character, I simply pop a note right into the document and then continue to write as if that change has already been implemented. It will give me an idea of where the manuscript shifted once I’ve completed the draft and are ready for heavy edits. I’ve even done this with something as huge as a character death; when I realized that I should have killed this character off two chapters ago, I simply noted it in the text and then continued writing as if he was already dead and gone.
This will keep you moving forward in your plot without creating unnecessary difficulties when you want to want to dive into heavy revisions later down the road. I recommend using track changes in Word or the comments feature in Google docs to incorporate these notes.
3. Utilize the Pomodoro technique
When it’s hardest to focus on writing, using the Pomodoro technique can be a lifesaver. It is a time management technique that has you work for a determined amount of time and then take a short break before getting back to work. The idea is that you work diligently during your “on” time—no breaks, no distractions, no switching over to Google to research something.
I’ve found the 25 minutes on/5 minutes off style best for my workflow, but you can use the shorter 15 minutes on/2 minutes off style if you find it hard to concentrate for longer periods of time. Doing this keeps me from scrolling up through my document or sitting and staring at the blinking cursor; when it’s time to write, I just write.
No matter how you do it, getting the draft of your manuscript completed should always be your top priority. Especially for smaller, more nit-picky edits, you can save those until the work is completed for you to dive back in and shore it up. Instead of shooting for perfection as you’re drafting, it’s best to keep yourself focused on making sure that all the time you’re spending revising isn’t keeping you from actually writing.