Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Polish From the Start, or Not?

Well, I'm about six weeks into a new novel, and so far the going has been pretty good.  I've been trying to write faster than I have in the past, at least for the summer, when I have a little more time to write than during the school year.  Get as many pages done as possible by the end of August and save all revising till later.  That's the thought anyway.  As usual, despite that thought, I find myself revising and editing and doubling back on myself to change things as I go along.  I never follow a set daily word count.  Sometimes I do a thousand words in a day, other times two hundred, that two hundred, of course, being a reflection of five or ten drafts of the same paragaph to get to that final meager word count. I never do a first draft start to finish, then a second draft, then a third, etc, and have always found it hard to proceed for thousands of words without halfway liking the words I've already written. I was talking with a friend recently about her writing plans for the summer, and she was telling me how she's determined to get a complete first draft done by September.  As a school teacher, she has the entire summer off, so she'll use the time she has in July and August to get the book done in rough form.  "At least I'll have another book finished," she told me, meaning enough done to go back and get to the serious work of making all the needed fixes.

I sometimes wish I could work that way and maybe I should force myself to.  I'm trying to push myself more in that direction.  In any event, I find there's a tension between the need to polish and perfect on the go and the desire to push ahead to make sure pages accumulate.  Also, I wonder, in doubling back so often, do you stunt your own momentum as a writer?  Very possibly.  And a form may emerge in your story, a twist, a structure, just from you letting things flow.  On the other hand, I so hate forging ahead knowing I'll only be going back to fix a ton of things later. Why not fix them now, if I know they need fixing?

It's a tension well captured in these two passages by Annie Dillard, in her great book The Writing Life.  She makes the case very well for editing a lot as you go, and she makes the case just as well for not editing as you go:


"The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses — to secure each sentence before building on it — is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces."
"The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends."
Two viable ways to proceed.  Take your pick.


  1. I have a prolific author friend who does rolling edits--that is, she doesn't outline, she writes her words for a given day, then the next day, before she starts the writing, she goes back and edits what she wrote the day before.

    My process has always been to write the first draft as fast as I can (though I've only written three books so take that for what it's worth). The thinking is that I won't censor myself and I'll just get the work done--can't edit what's not there, right? The problem with this is that I end up with a first draft that feels so unwieldy I don't want to touch it again. My first editing pass on a first draft is excruciating and takes forever. It's a big mental block I set up for myself.

    My current WIP must be finished/polished and submitted before I can embark on any new strategy. But I'm giving serious thought to doing the rolling edits thing the next time around.

    1. Holly, with my rolling editing method, I've had three books published also. Haha. So different route, same result? I don't have the unwieldy first draft problem, but my difficulty is I often feel I'll never ever reach the end. Once I do though, I am very very close to having things as I want. After that, it's minor tinkering. So that feels good, but getting there...that's another story.

  2. isn't POLISH BOOKS a publisher?