What’s the best way to write?

This question reminds me of the problem we were asked to discuss when I was an undergraduate engineer. In those days, knowledge of structural analysis was rudimentary at best and no-one was really sure about whether it was safer for a train to race over an unsafe bridge or to cross it somewhat gingerly. Lacking in the knowledge of what was needed to repair the structure, they decided to run empty trains over a defective bridge at varying speeds to see what worked best.

I won’t bore you with the answer but hopefully you see how that relates to writing. The question for authors is: should you race through your writing and then go back and check it or should you write each sentence and paragraph as if you might never have the chance to edit it?

Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages but, either way, the finished work must be polished and slick. No-one wants to read stuff peppered with errors, be they grammatical or story-related.

Let’s look at both extremes.

There is a clear advantage in getting to the end of the book as quickly as sensibly possible (note the use of the word ‘sensibly’ because presenting your readers with the first thing that came into your head will not impress them). Writing without worrying about spelling or grammar will improve the flow of the work because it’s being done ‘apiece’. Unfortunately it also means that you will face a major final editing session during which you must pick up all these errors, correct them, and then make any adjustments to the story that become necessary as a result of your modifications.

On a positive note, if you’re a new author, getting to the end of the book (even if you have a mountain of editing to do) will give you a real feeling of achievement.

The problem with self-editing is that it easy for your brain to see sentences as it would like to see them rather than as the the way you’ve written them (as per my double ‘the’ in this sentence). This extensive final editing is often glossed over by new authors and such sloppiness gives their work an amateur look.

On the other hand, taking it slow and steady means that you can carefully craft each sentence and each paragraph so that it reads well. You can think about your choice of language, carefully comb through loads of possible synonyms and ensure that the rhythm of the sentences makes for a good read. The drawback is that the slowness of the writing can make it difficult to keep track of the plot – by concentrating on the small picture, one can very easily lose sight of the big picture.

Following the slow path can also be perilous for first-time authors who will often either get bogged down in some technical detail or simply give up because it has started to look like the novel will never be finished. Of course, if you’ve checked, double-checked and triple-checked each chapter, your final editing will be relatively minor meaning that the time lag between completion and publishing should be small.

So, what is the best answer?

Naturally, I risk being accused of ‘copping out’ when I say that it really is a case of personal preferences, however I would emphasize that whichever method suits you, you should always see your goal as a finished book which is devoid of errors and professional looking. Nothing less will suffice.