Early in my development as a writer, I bought hook, line, and sinker into the idea that the way to write a novel was to get it all down on paper, and then get it right. You cannot revise a blank page! all the writing guides said. But a manuscript, now that’s something you can work with! Anne Lamott’s proverbial “shitty first draft” was a feat to be celebrated.

Indeed, I wrote my first two published novels with an infant, a toddler, and a more-than-full-time day job at Writer’s Digest. Every night when my family was asleep, I’d sit down at my computer, read over what I’d written the day before (perhaps making a few tweaks, but mostly reorienting myself to the story) and begin the next chapter. A thousand words onward, come what may.

And it worked. I still swear by it. This post is not at all about challenging that approach.

But it is about recognizing it’s not the only way.

Because some days there was something a little less than noble about the way I was forging ahead. My less inspiring motivator was this:

I was afraid to stop.

With good reason. Not only was that fear supported by a plethora of accepted “best practices” about writing, it was also fueled by self-awareness of the traps I am prone to falling into. I am the sort of writer who, if you put me in front of the same chapter of my own novel every day, could spend an hour revising it. Every day. For infinity. I am also the sort of writer who has told my agent my draft is not quite done even when she has insisted it is (“Don’t make me come over there and pry it out of your hands!”)—and who has simultaneously known she was right and begged for more time anyway.

In short, it’s dangerous for me to revise as I go because I may never get to the go part.

Yet as I’ve learned to trust myself as a writer—and to trust the creative process—I’ve begun to recognize there are indeed times where it makes sense to pause, look over my shoulder, and take stock of a work-in-progress before I’ve reached The End.

I’m not talking about reworking the last thing I wrote: I’m talking about going all the way back to the beginning and seeing what’s working and what’s not, what could be steered back on course before it veers more widely off.

Note: I’m also not talking about turning half a draft into an editor or beta reader and getting feedback halfway through. That’s a whole different can of beans, another post entirely, and I’m not the person to write it, as this very concept makes me break out in a cold sweat. But I digress.

A Shift in Mindset

It has always helped me to hear other writers talk about what works for them, and there are indeed plenty of authors who revise as they go… they’re just a bit quieter than the shitty first draft camp (and perhaps a bit lacking in the buzzy catch phrase department).

In fact, when I landed an interview with one of my own favorites, Liane Moriarty, at Writer’s Digest in 2017, the part of our conversation that left the biggest impression on me was the idea that she is not afraid to stop driving, pull over, and check under the hood at will. In fact, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I tend to revise as I go,” Moriarty told me. “I’m a little bit all over the place—I don’t have a system. I might sit there one day and see where the document opens and just start rewriting whatever’s on the page in front of me.

“I’m definitely not one of those who does one full draft and then another full draft. I like to finish that last scene with a feeling as if: It’s done. I will hold off writing the last [chapter] if I know there are lots of things I need to fix.”

That may sound like the kind of freeform process another writer couldn’t emulate, but it doesn’t have to be. I still remember the first time I talked revision with my friend Sharon Short (who also writes as Jess Montgomery). I knew she was both more of a plotter than I am and a faster writer. So imagine my surprise when she explained how she systematically stops to revise in thirds: By the time she reaches the end of the last act, she’s already revised the first two acts at least twice.

I let that sink in. She was reaching the finish line ahead of me by… stopping and backtracking? If that was possible, was it also smart? Was it even… gasp… a better way?

An Adaptable Strategy

Now, as I approach the contracted deadline for what will (writing gods willing) be my seventh published novel, I can say that I’ve done it both ways. And the answer as to whether it’s a better way is, as with most good questions in writing, an emphatic: It depends.

The biggest shift, in my case, was to give myself permission to stop and revise if the situation called for it. To trust that stopping to revise did not mean I would never finish. To budget my time and creative energy, and to listen to my gut.

Here are three good reasons, in my own experience, why you might want to mindfully pause your forward progress to revise as you go.

  1. You’ve figured out something important about the plot or the characters.

With Moriarty, it was the characters who often sent her flipping the pages backward. She spoke about feeling as if they’re typically flat at the start of a first draft. “By the time I’m about halfway through, they’re moving for me and talking properly,” she told me. “I always have to go back and rewrite those early scenes once I know them.”

For me, because I’m not a detailed outliner in advance, it’s more often a plot point that will click only as I write. I’ve found that going back to incorporate this new twist or clue or key element of backstory into earlier chapters is a good way (perhaps counterintuitively) to get a stronger handle on where I’m going.

I’ve also found that I don’t enjoy writing past a point where I know that something needs fixed as well as how to fix it. (That last part is an important distinction.) As soon as I can visualize a solution, I often itch to implement it before I lose sight of the best way to connect the dots.

  1. You are writing through a lot of distractions.

The messiest first draft I ever wrote (for my third novel, Forget You Know Me) was the year my father suffered a stroke and my mother was diagnosed with early-onset dementia. I was overwhelmed emotionally as well as logistically, navigating unfamiliar territory in advocating for two patients from out of state, making a lonely and anxious ten-hour round-trip drive through harrowing winter weather as often as I could manage.

My approaching novel deadline suddenly seemed to be simultaneously 1) the least of my worries and 2) cause for total panic. In said panic, all I could think was to force myself to keep going, keep going, keep going, not even letting myself reread whatever mess I’d managed to put on the page before.

When I got to the end and looked back at how much work the draft still needed, I almost buckled under the weight of it. Thankfully, I still had time to get it right, but there was little doubt I was doing it the hard way. I’d done myself a disservice by not taking a more measured approach that was better suited to the situation at hand.

Now, when I’m writing through periods of heavier distractions, such as in the summer when my kids are home from school and my daily word counts go down, I stop and take stock whenever I start to feel unmoored in the story. It helps me feel anchored to where I am in the manuscript, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

It used to be that when school started up again and I could hear myself think, I’d hit the gas pedal and go, go, go. Now, when that yellow bus pulls away on the first day, I step away from my keyboard. Instead, I reread everything I have so far. It’s still go time, but it looks a little different than it used to. More thoughtful, more strategic.

  1. You’re way off your target word count.

When you start to get a sense that a manuscript is going to be either way shorter or way longer than you intended, stopping to course-correct (say, eliminating an overcomplicated subplot, or beefing up a minor character’s role in a story that’s feeling too slim) only makes sense. Especially if you can already see how it will save you more work later.

What works best for you? Do you let yourself revise as you go? Visit Career Authors on Facebook to join the conversation.