Why You Should Self-Edit Before Finishing Your First Draft—Gasp!

As soon as you step outside in the morning, you see that raccoons overturned your garbage bins and left piles of trash all over your driveway.

Cleaning it up left you frazzled and running late that you hit traffic. After an hour’s commute, you get to work and realize you forgot your security badge to enter the office.

By mid-morning you spill coffee in your lap and have to wear your long coat to a meeting to hide the stain, but now you’re too warm and sweating, trying not to pass out from a self-induced heat wave.

Can the universe just give you a do-over?

We can’t control the craziness of life, but we can control what happens in our manuscript.

I’m a believer in finishing a first draft. Methods like NaNoWriMo and bloodshot-eyed determination allow us to power through our writing, getting as many words on the page as possible, and not look back. Sometimes we’re even afraid to look back.

But in my recent writing project, I felt that something wasn’t working as well as it could’ve been.

My heroine was being hunted by an outlaw and found temporary refuge in a small town. Immediately, she was accepted and encouraged by the friendly women there. I thought this would balance out the danger aspect I was slowly building and the love-hate dynamic with the hero.

Wrong.

When my heroine didn’t have her occasional encounters with the outlaw, the story was too comfortable. And stale. The town was too nice. The hero too charming. The danger too infrequent.

Despite my earlier plotting and planning, I was only 10,000 words into my novel when I felt that some important things weren't clicking.

So, I did the one thing that makes many writers gasp and wrinkle their noses: I went back and revised those 10,000 words, instead of going forward and promising to fix it later.

Why? Because the magic of early self-editing actually pays off later in second- and third-draft revisions.

Nathan Bransford says, “There is one very simple and important reason why you should self-edit: problems can snowball."

If a character has to start with an entirely different mindset, all of those inner thoughts and interactions need to be changed. Or if we decide halfway through that our protagonist should have an injured leg for most of the novel, we have to adjust all of his actions. This becomes an incredible amount of work to do while ensuring the story still makes sense and that the foundation isn't shaky and broken in places.

I followed this advice firsthand and got great results.

Granted, sometimes we don't see the problem until we finish writing the draft. But if we do see it early…self-editing is all about preventing chaos later.

Like that day from hell, mistakes pile up and we want a do-over. Luckily in novel writing, we get plenty of do-overs.

Need help revising your novel? It’s what I do.