How To Avoid Getting Stuck In The Editing Loop!
This week I’m talking about a particular issue that you might be suffering from… being unable to get from outline to draft. Have you ever been stuck in an early chapter, and received any of the following words of advice…
- “Don’t edit! Just write!”
- “Don’t worry, all first drafts are bad!”
- “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.”
- “Just finish the damned draft already!”
…then, after you acknowledge the need to get on with adding new words, you STILL find yourself polishing away at the words you’ve already written?
Perhaps you have already developed a decent outline, and that has led you to a perfectly slick, stylish, literary Chapter 1, yet your Chapter 10 is still a ragged skeleton and has remained that way for months?
If you are the kind of writer who edits your opening chapters again and again and again, to the point that you lose your writing momentum and you never quite make it further than Chapter 5 before quitting, even when you have an amazing outline mapping it all out in front of you, then the following method may just work for you.
I’ve encountered this very problem myself. My problem is that I’ve an eye for detail, I’m fussy (hey, I’m an editor), and there’s nothing that feels easier, safer, and more important than to open up whatever I’m working on… and promptly head for the previous chapter to give it just a little more polish.
Inevitably, two weeks later, I’m still polishing that same chapter.
But I have established a method to beat that problem. It tricks me into drafting, not editing, and it has proven a godsend to my own writing progress. I hope it works for you too!
Firstly, this is a plotting method, not a pantsing method. So let’s sort out your outline. Just how detailed is it, right now? This method requires that you flesh it out and work from it directly into your manuscript. So what should it consist of?
This method requires each chapter to consist of about 8-12 sentences. Not fancy ones, just plain, simple, action points. Written with energy, essence, and enthusiasm! Why is that? Because it’ll help you believe in the drama even within a sparse, early draft.
In a 30-chapter novel, that’s a total of about 300 sentences. Can you write 300 sentences? I’m pretty sure you can. Here’s an example of Chapter 24 from my current manuscript, the scene where my protagonist discovers the villain’s real identity.
- Bond enters the secret lair cautiously
- He met Scaramanga and threatened him confidently
- Scaramanga stepped aside, in walked Christian Grey arrogantly
- Grey is the mastermind behind the plot!
- Grey indicates he was totally going to kill them both
- B shocked that actually Grey’s behind everything!
- G gloated, asking B how he could possibly win
- Scaramanga tearfully approached Bond, apologising
- Moment of Bond’s grief
- Grey deploys the robot pterodactyls
- Bond throws a widget (?) at Grey
- Exciting chase!!
- Bond and Scaramanga narrowly escape with their lives
Ahem. OK… that isn’t really my manuscript (but tell me it isn’t PURE GOLD).
Do this for every single chapter. Ensure each contains the following:
- basic motivations for each character
- basic conflicts between characters’ needs
- the disaster that changes the protagonist’s situation
- general scene blocking (the general action points)
- broadly covered plot holes (you’ll fill them in as you go)
You may have noticed that the outline looks decidedly non-literary. That’s because you should NOT care about the style of language. It can be sloppy, clumsy, non-literary. It doesn’t matter if you have any of the following:
- typos (my verb tense is all over the place)
- vague descriptions (“exciting chase”)
- excessive apostrophes
- “bad” words your editor hates, like “very”, “totally”, “actually”
Any of these are fine. In fact, it’s more important to have an emphatic, alive, overwritten, character-driven series of actions. Exclamation marks are great! That way, we’ll have a clear sense of what kind of experience we’re planning for the reader, when we get deeper into it.
Even this step for your whole draft could take days, weeks, or even months. Getting the motivations and conflicts into your extended outline is no mean feat. But get this done, and your outline is now your manuscript. Yes, you heard that right. Your Outline Is Now Your Manuscript. Those 10 sentences per chapter for, say, 30 chapters, is now your early draft. 300 sentences. Should be a couple of thousand words already. Feels good, doesn’t it?
Ok, so your manuscript doesn’t look too literary at the moment. But don’t worry about that yet. We’re still working on it! What I didn’t tell you before is that Step One was the hardest step. Once you have that nailed, this one and every one after it is a breeze. I promise.
In this step, go to each sentence of your manuscript, and turn it into two. Flesh out those actions a little bit. Lop off a bad word, add a good one. You’re still not finishing any prose off, just padding it all out a bit. That’s all. So the first sentence of my Chapter 24 becomes the following:
Bond stumbled through a secret door in his bedroom (he’s excited and cautious). He found himself in a vast cavern with computer panels (?) — it must be Scaramanga’s base!
Notice this is still not very literary, and completely unedited. But it’s sounding (a little) less childish, and more complex. I still plan to describe the base in more detail, and Bond’s emotional state. Not to worry just yet.
Work through the whole manuscript, and turn every one of those sentences into two sentences. You’ll hopefully find that this comes rather easily. A lot more so than Step One, in fact. And at the end, you’ll have a manuscript of double the length. Perhaps 4-5k words. Cool, huh?
Well, there really isn’t a Step Three. What you actually do here is go back to Step Two and do it again. That’s right: for every sentence in your new draft, turn it into two. Do the same as before, and tidy it a little, pad it a little. Doing this, the opening sentence of our beloved Chapter 24 now becomes a small paragraph:
Bond flipped the suspicious switch in his bedroom, and a portion of the wall slid away. Excited, Bond couldn’t resist exploring further. He cautiously felt his way through the dark until he found himself in a vast, dimly lit cavern filled with technicians working at computer panels. It could only be one thing — Scaramanga’s secret base of operations!
Do this through the whole manuscript again, until you now have at least 4 sentences for every one of your original outline sentences. You could be up to about 10k words by now.
Well, from here, you can pretty much guess the rest of the process, so I will spare you the awesomeness of my example Chapter 24.
That’s right, you’re turning each sentence into two again. But from here on, you can switch it up a bit. In my experience, at this point, some of your sections will be near-complete, and you won’t need to fill them out further. That’s great! Move on to other parts.
From here onwards, it’s also ok to go deeper into editing while you’re writing, and aim for some literary text if you so choose. This is the point where you may get into the flow with your fancy words, your emotive immersion, your metaphorical subtexts. So if you want, you can spend time fleshing out a paragraph here and there into a full first-draft-like passage. If that happens, then by all means stay working on one part of a single chapter the whole session.
Just one thing, though: tomorrow, when you open it, make sure you head to a different section. DO NOT go back to polishing today’s section again. If you’re a victim of the over-polishing habit, it helps to tell yourself you have to seek out another horrible adverb or a tell-not-show disaster in another chapter, and fix that baby up instead.
Rinse and repeat. At some point, you’ll find yourself writing final (first draft) prose, and feel fantastic in the process! Then, you can edit to your heart’s content. But what you’re working on is a full first draft, not a skeleton.
“Just finish the damned draft already?” You got it!
Do a bit of this padding/filling process EVERY DAY. Well, you are your own boss, so you can decide your own routine. But if you feared opening your manuscript because of the editing addiction, then fear no more! Trust me. If you stay engaged with your story, you’ll WANT to go in and improve something. And for the closet editor who is addicted to polishing? Well, in this method, any time you’re WRITING, you are also EDITING. Feels good, doesn’t it?
You know why this works? I can open my manuscript at ANY point in the day and turn one sentence into two. They don’t need to be literary — they just need to be more detailed than they were before. I can devote just 15 minutes to this, or longer if I have it. But I almost ALWAYS find it easy to get into the flow.
Well, that’s the gist of it. If you’re a pantser, you may not enjoy this approach. If you’re a plotter, you’ll find it right up your alley.
This is not dissimilar to the excellent Snowflake Method devised by Randy Ingermanson, though it skips a number of his steps in favor of a more quick and dirty approach. Preferable if you really feel the need to be adding words to your script at all stages!
I hope other authors find this approach helpful. Feel free to message me if you want advice, encouragement, or a (supportive) kick up the butt. Good luck!
This post was originally written as part of the Editing Tips and Tricks series in the Facebook group The Indiepreneur Writers Collective. I'm one of the editors who contributes to this series of posts for authors. Every week we provide advice on an aspect of writing, including articles about technique, editing, motivation, style, character, plotting, and marketing. New posts come out every Wednesday.