Should You Edit?

If you’re reading this blog post, the short answer to this question is: YES.

There are authors out there who’ve been doing this writing thing for a very long time that may be able to get away with writing without editing.  But for most of us, that’s just not where we are yet.

I can say that the more I write, the less editing I require and the less my betas provide certain types of feedback, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve moved beyond editing.  Not at all.

Why am I bringing this up?  DWS had a post that was linked in a forum I read this week about pulp speed writing.  Basically, he talks about a certain breed of writer that writes A LOT.  The lowest level on his list is a million words a year and the highest is two.  Part of how he argues that you get there is that you can’t stop to revise what you’ve written.  You have to have faith in your abilities as a writer and storyteller.

Which is great advice for someone who’s been doing this for thirty years.  But for someone who’s just getting started?


You are much more likely to sell your novels and stories if you go back through them with a fresh eye.  As an example, have you heard about Jim C. Hines’ latest release? Rise of the Spider Goddess  It’s the first book he ever wrote–warts and all.  The one that didn’t get published.  That’s what most new writers’ work looks like.

You do no one any favors if you just release things into the world without a second or third or fourth pass.  Or twenty-fifth, if that’s what’s needed.  Don’t want to listen to me?  Listen to Chuck Wendig.

As he says, for all those Nano folks out there:

“…now it’s NaEdYoShi month — National Edit Your Shit Month.”

He gives some very good advice on what to do and how to approach editing.

Now, having just said all of that…

At some point you have to STOP and SHIP.  (As Seth Godin refers to it.)

You have to get your work out there.  If it’s a turd, no amount of polishing will fix it.  (Trust me, I’ve written a few of those myself.)  And I can assure you that the difference between pretty-damned good and perfect in terms of sales and reviews and all that isn’t worth the time it will take for you to move from PDG to perfect.  (Just like all those hours spent trying to get an A+ instead of an A in school weren’t worth it.)

So, revise, but don’t, don’t, don’t spend ten years perfecting one novel.  If it takes you that long because you have a life that demands your attention and you can only put in so much time on it, fine.  But if you’re working every single day on something for ten years, stop.

Let it go.  Move on to the next.  Come back to it later if you must.

Because the core of the pulp speed advice and the “only revise to editorial comments” advice is to get out of your own way.  It forces you to quit fretting about what you’ve already done.

Now, we’re each special snowflakes here and we all require different amounts of time to write or revise.

But let me give you a few examples from my own experience.

1. I wrote and published a short this week (about 7,500 words).  I spent 1.25 hours on the first draft on Sunday.  Wrote about 2,600 words.  On Wednesday I realized that I’d started it at the wrong spot and in the wrong POV.  I threw the 2,600 words out and wrote for another 3.75 hours to get a first draft of 7,300 words.  I set it aside for a couple hours, reread and revised it for another hour, added 500 words and published it.

It didn’t take a lot of editing, but it did require a second pass.  And right now that story is selling better than any other story I’ve published has sold in the first few days of release.

2. I finished a novel this week.  I first wrote the novel over the course of seven weeks in early 2013.  I set it aside for a couple months and did another pass over the course of ten days.  And then another pass a month later.  And then another two passes for what I like to call my Strunk & White review and spellcheck reviews.  I then set it aside for fourteen months because I realized it had a fatal flaw related to its genre expectations and I either needed to make it conform or change it to a new genre.  Last month I rewrote it to fix that issue.  And then yesterday I did a final pass.

(Which was definitely needed.  Why?  Well, in this case, I’d had a character named after a month, April.  I decided to rename her and just did a copy and paste.  Only problem was, I had also referred to the month of April in the story, so the replace changed all of those references as well.  Was it fun to spend five hours yesterday reading a novel I’m so done with I can’t stand it?  No.  But is that better than having some reader or editor or agent find that mistake? HELL YES.)

Why so much more time on the novel?  Because a novel has so many moving parts that there are many more things that can go wrong in writing it.  Someone somewhere once said that novels were easier to write because you can make mistakes in them whereas you can’t in a short story.

I call bullshit.

A short story can succeed if one aspect of it is really strong.  Fascinating idea?  Riveting action?  Vivid world building?  People will like it.

But a novel can have all of those things and fall flat on its face if the writer fails to weave all of those pieces into a coherent, cohesive whole.

Personally, I require multiple passes on a novel (and short stories to a lesser extent) just to make sure all the layers that need to be there are present.  I tend to write events and dialogue in early drafts and then have to go back and flesh out scenery and movement in later drafts.

We all work differently.  Some stories come easier than others.  But most for most of us, require a second look if not more.

The bottom-line about editing is this:  You want as clean a product as you can make it.  It shows respect for whoever receives it next–your betas, your agent, your editor, your reader, that short story market, etc.

When you’re new, this will take more time and you will miss things no matter how much time and effort you put into it.  As you gain experience, the time and effort required will drop significantly, but you still need at least a quick pass.

Just don’t let editing and revising be the reason you never move forward with your writing.

As in all things, find the balance.



About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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