Creativity · Writing

Editing on the Fly

When I write, I like to get the idea on the page as quickly as possible. It’s never pretty. Most of my first drafts end up looking like word salad…bits and pieces of narrative and dialogue and random thoughts and ideas strewn across the page as if the OED got sick to its stomach.

But it works for me. I look at writing stories as if I’m solving a puzzle. I have some characters, a bit of plot, and a general idea of where everything is headed. I just need to get it all on the page and arrange and rearrange until it makes some sort of sense.

Is it messy? Absolutely. Is it fun? Definitely. Is it the most efficient use of my time? Probably not.

But as I told a younger writer recently, there’s no right way or wrong way…there’s just your way. But his questions got me thinking about drafting stories and a writing session I watched online many years ago. This was back in the early 2000s, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler hosted a web series where he streamed himself writing a short story from start to finish. And he did it while answering questions from viewers.

What I remember most from the series is that Mr. Butler edited the story as he wrote. It was…interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s an amazing writer and his collection of short stories, Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is probably one of the best collections ever published (won the Pulitzer for it), but it blew my mind that this was how he wrote.

Basically, he went line by line. He’d write a couple of sentences, then edit, tweaking them to better fit the narrative he had in mind. He didn’t have any plan when he began. No notes, no outlines. He simply took an idea and ran with it. But he never wrote more than a short paragraph before he’d stop, go back, and edit what he just wrote. I found it fascinating and a bit frustrating.

I don’t like to overthink when I’m writing a first draft. I don’t outline or create character sheets. I have an idea and run with it. No looking back until I hit the finish line. Then, once that first draft is in the can, I usually take a short break to work on something else – maybe a few days or a few weeks – then I go back and begin the process of rewriting and editing. It works for me.

But to go through and edit as I write? After watching Mr. Butler’s online seminar I gave it a shot. And no, it didn’t work out very well. I found it frustrating…when going back to edit what I just wrote I found that I was losing my momentum. I’d have  a decent idea of where I wanted to go with the narrative, pause to edit a couple of lines, then when I tried to continue I found that I wasn’t sure where to go. Basically, I kept getting lost in my own story. “What was I going to do next?” I must have asked myself that a dozen times on the first page.

Apparently, editing on the fly works for some writers. Hell, it won Mr. Butler the Pulitzer. But for me, well, I guess I prefer a messier method.

It also got me wondering about other artists, not just writers, but painters and sculpters and other creative types. Do they edit on the fly, constantly tweaking things as they go? Or do they create their basic foundation and then go back and clean things up?

Maybe I just don’t have the patience to edit while I write. Or the discipline. But like I wrote above, there is no right way or wrong way. We just have to find what works best for us and run with it. Still, I find it interesting to see how other writers work, what their creative process looks like. There’s always an opportunity to learn something new, a new trick or technique that will help me in my writing.

I know it won’t be on the fly.


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