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Editing During NaNoWriMo?

I know. I know. NaNo is supposed to be for churning out 50,000 words without worrying about spelling, punctuation, and all the other little details, including plot. If you’re just doing it for the fun or to meet a friend’s challenge, that’s the way to go. As the book says, No Plot, No Problem. The problem is the image of careless writing that’s become a significant source of criticisms of National Novel Writing Month.

I’ll say this just once. If you’re serious about writing fiction, NaNo is a great way to get started. If you’ve already started, NaNo is a great way to focus intensely on just one thing and turn out a fairly decent piece of work in a short time. How you use NaNo is up to you. There’s no rule saying you have to write a pile of crap or that a pile of crap is the only possible outcome. No matter what the critics (who’ve usually never tried it) have to say.

To edit or not to edit. That is the question. Another of those imaginary rules is that you mustn’t edit during NaNo. If this is your first time, it’s probably good advice. You need to keep your eye on your word count and your story, and you don’t need the distraction of trying to edit something that’s still in progress, and that you’re feeling insecure about already. Race for the finish line and don’t let anything get in your way.

But . . . editing is permissible, and can be a good thing. Done properly, it can increase your word count. The reread alone, even if you don’t do much editing, can give you a bird’s-eye view (as opposed to the daily ant-level crawl) and let you see more clearly where you’re going and what the next day’s work might be. If you plan to publish your finished novel, editing during NaNo can give you a cleaner first draft to work with.

But how do you squeeze editing in when you’re already struggling to keep up that word count? The first thing to understand is that the brain needs to rest. Unless you’re in a white-hot flush of inspiration, you’ll benefit by not trying to write during every waking hour. And even inspiration flags eventually. When that burned out feeling tells me I’ve reached my limit for the day, that’s it. I may get a second wind later and write a little more, but as long as I’ve done a good day’s work, I’m not going to kill myself. NaNo is supposed to be fun!

Give yourself some space — rest, eat, read, or watch TV, then use part of that rest time to do some light editing. This isn’t the time to agonize over the perfect word, but you’d be surprised how many little things will pop up that are easy to fix. A little more description where that would pump up a scene. Carry a discussion out a bit further. Tweak a sentence so it reads more smoothly. Fix the punctuation. Fill in or make a note of a plot hole. All it takes is a quick readthrough and a bunch of small improvements to bring the finished first draft a little closer to something you can read without wondering how you managed to make such a mess.

6 Comments

  1. Wise counsel. I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo but the modus operandi reminds me of how I got a draft of my current novel done (okay, it took me a lot more than a month!). Perhaps because I edit professionally I couldn’t help myself–I had to do some editing as I went. It’s sort of like keeping the prep dishes washed (or at least rinsed and stacked) as you’re prepping dinner. If you let everything pile up willy-nilly in the sink, you’ll have a much bigger job when you’re done.

    • Perfect analogy. I almost always let the dishes pile up, but I’ve learned to clean up as I go when I write. I see so many complaints after NaNo is done. The mess makes it difficult to even get into the editing, so a lot of participants just abandon what might have been a good novel.

  2. I agree, light editing is particularly helpful in making sure you’ve captured the story’s nuances in the initial rush of creation. Even if you later end up revising the story into a shred of its former self, the initial light editing makes it all the easier.

    • Good point. A little editing can make it easier to see where the problems are. And if you do it every day, you’re more likely to keep the story on track.

  3. Despite my recent tirade on this topic, I agree. After 10 years participating, I’ve been known to break the “rules” from time to time. I find that the November push is a great way to just focus and get a lot of work done, but when it comes down to it, I’m the only one watching. There are certainly no penalties for editing, nor for spending time preparing prior to the push.

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