Writing vs Editing: The Great Debate

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on my fiction blog about why I love editing.

Some of my author friends thought I was mad. They told me that they much prefer writing the first draft: the buzz of creativity, the excitement of revealing the story.

For me, the first draft isn’t where I do the bulk of the creative work, because I’m a plotter.

The Novel Planning Workbook by Rachel McCollin

Before I start on the first draft of a new novel, I use my Novel Planning Workbook to plot the story out in detail. I make notes on characters, theme and of course plot, and I plan things out to chapter level. That way, when I start writing I have a roadmap. It makes me much more productive.

But it does take some of the fun out of the first draft. Which is probably why I prefer the editing process, which is when I get to hone that draft and make it something I can be proud of. I write first drafts fast, and it can be hard work and very tiring – editing, for me, is a more considered, leisurely process.

But there are plenty of other writers who disagree with me, and love that first draft. I thought it would be interesting to find a bunch of writers, some of whom love editing, some writing, and get them to have a big ol’ argument about which approach is best.

This being writers, my argument didn’t ensue. In fact, it turned into a perfectly civilized debate about the merits of each approach. It was still interesting for me to see why different writers write the way they do, and discover if anyone would change their method afterwards.

So here it is. Starring Misha Herwin, Louise Palfreyman and Charlie Benton: the great writing vs editing debate.

Rachel: Hello everyone! Thanks for agreeing to take part in my debate about the merits of editing vs writing. Let’s start with this: Writing is so much more fun than editing. True or false?

Misha: Can’t choose which I prefer, writing or editing. Love the buzz of writing when it’s going well. Hate the slog when it’s not, but there is something very satisfying about the process of honing a story/book, lingering over the choice of a word, making sure the narrative flows and everything hangs together. I even like finding and sorting the typos and puzzling over the punctuation. Not to mention the odd bits of research.

Charlie: Editing makes me want to blow my brains out. It’s a painful necessity, obviously, but I can’t comprehend people who enjoy it! The thrill in writing for me is the creation, I hate then having to go back and highlight all my mistakes and flaws, even if it is important to do so you can learn from them.

“Editing makes me want to blow my brains out”

Charlie Benton

Rachel: Interesting. Would anyone like to counter Charlie’s argument that editing makes him want to blow his brains out? Personally I love it, it’s much easier than the prospect of the blank page.

Louise: I was an editor long before I was a writer. So editing feels more like my natural home. Fiction is a coat that still doesn’t quite fit at times, whereas non-fiction and journalism come so much more easily. There is a joy to shaping words, and I consider it an absolute privilege to take a piece of writing and steer someone towards perfection. Of course, no piece of writing is ever truly finished. But we can edit unitl we get it as right as we can. I think what I’m getting at is I don’t do precarity so well. The creative act feels so precarious. Editing, for me, feels certain and precise.

“editing feels more like my natural home”

Louise Palfreyman

Rachel: I’m interested in whether there’s a correlation between pantsing/plotting and people who love editing/writing. Can you all tell me whether you plot before you write or if you’re a discovery writer, and if you think that has any impact on your love (or hatred) of first drafts?

Louise: I’m a pantser, and one of the reasons for this is I trust my editing skills.

Charlie: I’m a mix of both. I do do chapter plans but a lot of the story comes up as I write. Then when it comes time to edit I’ll usually come up with more story to stuff in.

Misha: I plot chapter by chapter, then write allowing for things to change if they must. Love the process of planning, then writing, then editing. Some days, when it feels like wading through porridge I hate it all, but in general I enjoy everything to do with writing. Now marketing is something else and perhaps a topic for another discussion.

Charlie: That’s an interesting one, I work in marketing and hate marketing my own work :). I hate editing and marketing. Come to think of it, I may just be lazy and have a short attention span.

Rachel: I can see how if your day job is marketing, you’d hate doing it for your writing. We must have another debate about that someday! I’m interested in what Misha said about trusting your editing skills. What proportion of the writing time for a book do people spend on plotting, writing and editing?

Louise: I work in marketing too, and apply journalism and PR to self-promotion. I do it on autopilot and am grateful for that as it is something so many writers do badly or worry about. In terms of plotting, I don’t…

Misha: Plotting comes quite quickly. Once I have the original idea, or more often the lead character, plot follows fast. Writing can be reasonably quick too. Editing for me is long and slow.

“Plotting comes quite quickly… Editing for me is long and slow.”

Misha Herwin

Louise: Thing is, editing should be long and slow. It should take repeated rounds, with space inbetween for thought and reflection. Of course, it is longer and slower for those who don’t enjoy it. I love what editing reveals. It’s like sculpting, with the final form gradually becoming apparent to the artist.

Charlie: I can definitely see an inkling of the positive vibes people talk about when editing but I never really get the full force. I might experience minor frisson when I move a scene around and it all clicks together, but it’s nowhere near often or noticeable enough to be a ‘thing’. It’s the same with exercise. Where the hell are these endorphins everybody keeps talking about? I’d rather eat a burger. Drafting is my burger.

“Drafting is my burger”

Charlie Benton

Misha: I agree with Louise. There is something very satisfying about honing a ms. Wrestling it into shape might be more accurate. I love searching for the right word too.

Rachel: Do you spend a lot of time on first drafts? Do you consider them fairly polished?

Charlie: Definitely not! First drafts are almost universally awful unless you’re an incredibly talented and focused writer. Unfortunately editing and redrafting has to be done, and with the right amount of respect, otherwise your lack of interest in it really shows in the final product.

Louise: I always say to friends who are budding writers that they need to get past at least seven drafts and then, if they can afford it, employ the services of a freelance editor if they are serious about getting their ms published. I’ve seen several people fall at the first hurdle – i.e. not securing an agent – because they gave it a couple of edits and thought ‘That will do.’ It isn’t enough, and it’s a terrible waste of time and energy to send your novel off too early. I don’t think people understand just how much work is involved in being a writer.

Charlie: Wow, seven drafts is a lot. Is there a science behind why you picked that number, Louise?

Misha: It’s definitely a hard slog.

Louise: Oh, the seven drafts thing is an average, based on all the published writers I know. You could poll the published… ask them how many drafts it took.

Rachel: Thanks for your thoughts everyone. Any final words?

Charlie: Don’t be put off when you see people talking about how they’re working on their seventh, eighth or ninth draft. I think you definitely reach a point of diminishing returns with editing and for some (not all) it can become a procrastination thing because they are avoiding actually releasing the story into the world.

Your story is ready when you feel it’s ready, whether it’s second draft, third draft or tenth draft, but don’t feel you HAVE to have a certain amount of drafts. There’s no magic number. And remember, if you’re going the traditional route, you’ll have a proper editor picking over your story and making changes anyway!


Thanks to Misha, Charlie and Louise for taking part. I still prefer editing though!

Posted in Writing and Plotting
Tagged , , , , , , |

Leave a Reply