Why “You Can’t Edit A Blank Page” Isn’t Always Good Advice
One of the most oft repeated pieces of writing advice is “You can’t edit a blank page.”
This is intended to be a cattle prod to the butt to get writers over the hump of page fright and to just WRITE SOMETHING to get the juices flowing. It’s the justification behind fast drafting, and for pushing through to the END just to finish so that you have something to work with.
But I’m here to tell you, this is not always good advice to everyone.
I’ve heard this maxim credited to La Nora. Dunno whether she was the first to say it or not, but it’s fitting coming from her, as she’s got a fan-fricking-tastic record of success. Nora has literally HUNDREDS of books under her belt. She has formulas that work and has so thoroughly internalized those structures that I’m pretty sure that while her first drafts might be thin on detail, I’m sure they’re pretty solid on all the salient points. So the editing of whatever she spews out in her first draft is probably mostly deepening, adding detail, color, clarifying motivation, etc.
But the downside of this advice, if you’re someone who does NOT have a good instinctive grasp of structure and character arc and the other dozens of salient points necessary to put together really good fiction, is that once you have word vomited out a draft, there is this instinct to want to FIX THAT DRAFT. The implication of “You can’t edit a blank page” is that what you have ON the page is something worth editing in the first place. That it’s actually FIXABLE by editing. There’s a resistance to getting rid of things because you PUT IN THE WORK and you DON’T WANT TO WASTE IT.
And really what’s necessary is to excise the diseased flesh that’s making the rest of your manuscript a sick, non-functional system.
I think of this kind of stuff as my manuscript being infected by flesh eating bacteria. Gross, I know, but go with the analogy. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve amputated large chunks of manuscript and then suddenly seen the way out of a massive plot struggle. Because I stopped trying to save what was there. And every time, those large chunks of what was there were products of my following the whole PUSH THROUGH! YOU CAN’T EDIT A BLANK PAGE!
I needed to live with that blank page a while. To be still and figure out the RIGHT thing to put down rather than moving forward for the sake of moving forward.
And maybe for some people, this isn’t so much of a thing. The idea of writing a book and needing to write another draft is just par for the course and The Way Things Are Done. But it just seems so…wasteful and unnecessary to me. I want to work smarter, not harder, and get a better product in the end. YMMV.