You're a few chapters in. Things are going well! Then — shoot, you wrote your main character's sister as being in middle school, but she really needs to be in elementary school for that plot twist later to work out. You scroll back and fix that line. Okay, back to writing! But wait... if she's in elementary school, that homework scene needs to be completely overhauled. That was middle school homework! Okay, you rewrite the homework scene. Thirty minutes later, you're ready to move on. But... dang it, no! You said that they moved here three years ago, and if the little sister is in elementary school, you have to eliminate that flashback to your main character having had the same math teacher! Now that it's an elementary school teacher, that doesn't make sense anymore.
Next thing you know, you've spent four hours rewriting your opening chapters and you haven't made any forward progress. Sound familiar?
For some people, the compulsive need to go back and edit as you write is a nuisance that lengthens the writing process unnecessarily. For others, it's debilitating and can stop you from finishing a piece at all. No matter if compulsive editing is slowing or stopping you, it's a bad habit!
There's a simple way to nip it in the bud — just don't do it! Just stop editing as you go. But that's the whole point of the editing being compulsive: You can't stop! In my case, I do it because I'm terrified that if I don't perform an edit now, I'll go back to my completed draft two months later and have completely forgotten what was going on. "But Charlotte is in middle school!" I'll yell aloud to myself, alone in my fancy study that I totally have. "This novel doesn't work at all and must be completely abandoned!" I will then light the manuscript — the only copy, since I guess I wrote it on a typewriter? Whatever, go with it — on fire and sob dramatically at my wasted life.
That isn't a likely scenario, but it's the one that I imagine whenever I tell myself I can edit later.
Good news, compulsive editors! I have a super simple way to avoid both the compulsive editing and the dramatic, fiery study scene.
the "edit notes" document
Okay, don't kill me, because this is literally the simplest solution to this problem that could ever exist and you could very easily have already thought of it on your own. But it's been working very well for me, so I wanted to share it just in case you hadn't thought of it already!
I make a second document (I work in Scrivener, so it's just in my "research" section where I can click to it easily, but if you're working in a regular word processor I suggest creating a separate document and keeping it open in the background while you write) called "edit notes."
This document is literally just a list of things that I think of editing while I'm writing. Some are quick, simple edits, and some are huge overhauls. Here is a sampling of the edit notes I've compiled in the first 30,000 words of my current draft:
- Slow down the timeline/add space… or else this is all happening in the span of like four days.
- Eliminate character of Austin
- Charlie needs to be less indecisive. She’s being a total Katniss.
- Why did I do that thing with the empty park & the closed road?? stupid and pointless, fix that
Here's the key — no matter how easy or hard the edit is, you take enough of a note to remind yourself later, and then you move on. You don't look back. I have almost 6,000 words with a character named Austin bouncing around in the background. I made the edit note about eliminating him, and he doesn't appear in a single word written after I made that note.
Of course, this means that your draft is going to be in some ways incoherent when you first finish it. If someone were to read what I have now, they would most assuredly be confused. But I also firmly believe that a first draft should be fairly private. Give yourself the space to do whatever you have to do to get it on the page. Write long, elaborate dream sequences that will never make it into the final draft if it helps you understand how your character is feeling. Add two adverbs to every dialogue tag if it reminds later-you, the you who is editing that draft, what emotion you want to ultimately evoke.
Remember: All a first draft has to do is exist.
No one is expecting a masterpiece except for you. Cut yourself some slack, and let future-you deal with the plot holes.