The Dangerous Power of Editing As You Go

“But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power…It must follow knowledge, and serve need.” ~Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea

I have a jar of quotes my mother gave me one year for my birthday. It has quotes from a lot of famous (and slightly famous) women. From writers to actresses to world leaders to saints, there is encouragement that speaks across generations. The idea for this jar was that whenever I needed support or encouragement that I would pull a quote from the jar and read the words I need to hear. It was a beautiful and inspiring gift, and the above quote is the one I pulled out today.

I am a huge Ursula K. LeGuin fan. I discovered her in this series of books I bought in the 90’s edited by the wonderful Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her Earthsea series is one of my favorites and the above quote comes from the first book in that set.

As I read it, it actually made me think about the writing process. Our fearless Borg leader, Amanda, is constantly telling us to write without editing. Just get it down. As a prolific writer, she knows what she’s talking about, and so I do my best to listen to her advice. After all, if you’re going to build a rocket who are you going to ask for advice, a garage mechanic or a rocket scientist? But I struggle with not editing as I go.

When I sit down to write, I do begin just writing and not focusing on anything but that. But then, invariably, I stop and go back to read what I’ve just written and find either it’s missing information I have in my head, or it needs grammar fixes or oh, wait! I just thought of more dialogue! Thirty minutes later I am banging my head on the table (or desk) because I just spent all that time editing and I forgot where I was going originally. Or I have totally messed up the atmosphere I was trying to create. Or, I wrote myself into a corner and can’t figure out how to get out of it. AMANDA!!! HELP!!!

Yep, that’s how it goes. Well, except that, fortunately, I haven’t written myself into a corner…yet. *knocks on wooden head*

We are wizards, we writers. We summon up worlds and people who don’t exist yet. We are the gods of our unique universes, and as such, we create something from nothing. But with great power comes great responsibility. We have to be omiscient. We have to know whether one single word or phrase will change the way readers will view our creations. Will this scene read better if I leave it, or does it need some revision to make it more visual, more understandable? Will my protagonist be relatable or do I need to humanize my antagonist more? What happens to the story overall?

But, as Ms. LeGuin says, you must not change a thing until you can see the effect that change will have on the story overall. Minor changes are just that. They don’t affect the world you are creating. But a whole scene change can (and does) affect an entire storyline. How would Harry Potter’s world have been, say, if J.K. Rowling (the author for those not in the know) had made the Dursley’s more likable? Would you have related more with Harry if they had been nicer to him?

What about the Hunger Games? Let’s say Suzanne Collins had made Katniss less distant towards Peeta in the beginning. If Katniss had been less antagonised by the thought of killing Peeta, how would you have felt towards her character?

There are so many ways your story can go, but before you begin to edit your story, you need to write it first without changing one pebble, one grain of sand. That can be done later when the story is written and you can see the full scope of the tale.

For now, just sit down and write.


4 responses to “The Dangerous Power of Editing As You Go

  1. Oh, good one. Great quote to start the piece off with, too. I know this is all true and yet I find that it’s one of the hardest (if not THE hardest) rules to follow.

  2. Beautifully written and so eloquently expressed and explained. Amanda is absolutely right about just getting the story or article down and worrying about the editing for later. But, with my background, that is WAAAY easier said than done. I am working to get past it, but fixing an edit promptly has become such an obsession over the many years that it is hard to continue or focus if I leave it undone. The errors cry out, “Fix me, David, fix me!”

    • Hahaha! I don’t have that same kind of background. I’m just a perfectionist where my writing is concerned. And if it doesn’t meet my standards it’s off to the chopping block right away. But I am learning.

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