Should You "Write First, Edit Later"?
The first rule of writing advice is there is no universal writing advice.
Posted September 17, 2017
As a perpetually struggling wannabe-writer, I read a lot of writing advice, especially about generating motivation, scheduling time, and keeping a book journal or diary. Most people who offer writing advice do it in the spirit of YMMV, “your mileage may vary,” meaning that most advice will be useful to someone, no advice will be useful to everyone…
…with one notable exception. One piece of writing advice is often given as an absolute, with no qualification or YMMV at the end. It takes many forms, including:
Don’t edit while you write.
Write first, edit later.
You can fix a first draft but you can’t fix a blank page.
Writing is revising [implying that the real work comes at the editing stage].
Even John Steinbeck, who convinced me to keep a book journal, recommended to “write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.” Other famous writers have said similar things, but none more forcefully and unequivocally than Steinbeck did.
I bristle whenever I see this advice given in books, articles, or social media. (As it happens, the Steinbeck quote was offered recently by Steven Shaw on Twitter, prompting a friendly chat that inspired to this post.) It isn’t that I don’t understand or see why this would work for a lot of people. But it breaks the cardinal rule of writing advice: there is no one guaranteed rule for successful or productive writing other than “do it." Any advice is worth considering, some more than others—that’s why I read so much of it learn so much from it. But no advice works for everybody, including “write first, edit later.”
Absolute universal statements are dangerous to make because it takes only one counterexample to disprove it. In the case of "write first, edit later," I offer myself up as the counterexample. (I may be the only one, but I doubt it—I'm not that special!)
I always edit while I’m writing. It’s the only way I can feel good about what I’ve done. I make sure every sentence sounds exactly as I want it to sound; I make sure every paragraph is structured in a way that makes my point as well as I can; and I make sure the paragraphs flow in a way that makes my argument as clearly and carefully as possible. I can't move on from words I'm not happy with, promising myself to fix it later; instead, I need to get each sentence, paragraph, and section right so I can write the next one in a way that flows from it. Luckily, I'm no perfectionist, but I do have to be satisfied with each bit of writing before I can move on to the next.
There is a downside to this: I end up writing my first drafts more slowly than someone who gets the words down “as rapidly as possible” and edits them later. But there's also an upside: when I’m finished writing something, it needs very little editing or revising before it’s ready to submit. In the best cases, it just needs one final read-through to catch obvious omissions and typos. More often, it does need some substantial work—tightening up prose, adjusting structure, and so on—but usually I find that at least 90% of what I’ve written is fine (to me).
While discussing writing process with Shaw and others online, I’ve been told that the way I write wouldn't allow them to think ahead. They prefer to get all their thoughts down on paper or screen and later go through them in detail, fleshing out prose and ideas and getting them in shape. I struggle with getting my thoughts together too, of course, but I usually try to get them down in a rough outline before I start writing, and if I think of anything else while I’m writing, I’ll add it to the outline, or skip a few spaces in my document and make a note about what comes next. I often spend a lot of time developing that outline, and when it's ready, I write straight through, crafting my work as I go.
Another good reason to write-first-edit-later is that it may make it easier to motivate the writing in the first place, especially if you’re staring at the blank page or screen. Making sure you have the first sentence right before starting the second, as I do, might seem to put a lot of pressure on that first sentence. It might be better to just get some words down, even if you end up deleting them all for something better. This makes perfect sense—believe me, I have a lot of trouble starting writing too, and that first sentence rarely comes easily. Nonetheless, once I do get started, I edit as I go; it’s just the method that works for me.
There are other great reasons to write-first-edit-later, to be sure. It wouldn't be so popular if it didn't work for a lot of people. My point is not to argue against it, but only against the belief that it is the only way to write. It may work for many people, perhaps most people, and by all means, do what works for you. But it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone—YMMV—and it definitely doesn’t work for me.
The few times I’ve tried it, for various reasons, it ended up being a dispiriting experience. I would look at the words I put on the page and I couldn’t bring myself to edit them; they were horrible, irredeemable, and made me doubt that I could write at all or that I should ever write again. (I'm prone or negative or "all-or-nothing" thinking, so this is a huge problem for me.) When this happened, I would inevitably end up starting over from scratch, and although you could argue that the first draft I discarded was a necessary step to get me to a second draft that was acceptable—which is a process many people use deliberately—I would argue that with a little more advance planning, I could have written it better the first time. As I said above, I tend to put a lot of time into planning what I’m going to write before I start, and when I'm ready, I write fairly straight through. Oftentimes the work goes in different directions than I planned, or entirely new possibilities occur to me while writing. When this happens, I incorporate these new ideas on the fly, often going back to edit what I wrote earlier so it leads to the new ideas, getting the old stuff right before moving on. Again, this is what works for me, and it may not work for anyone else.
I will continue to read advice on how to be a better, more productive, and more satisfied writer, and I encourage you to do the same. (A great place to start is this post from Brain Pickings.) But there’s no secret, universal trick to writing well, in terms of quality or quantity, or being successful or happy with what and how you write. All you can do is try different things, adopt what works, and ignore what doesn’t. If “write first edit later” works for you, that’s fantastic! But don’t do it just because someone tells you it's the only way to write—even if that someone is your favorite writer, a bestselling novelist, or a Pulitzer Prize winner. What works for them won't necessarily work for you...
...unless it's coffee. Coffee works for everybody. (But you already knew that.)