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.

9 thoughts on “Why “You Can’t Edit A Blank Page” Isn’t Always Good Advice

  1. I tend to edit as I go. That’s another thing that people say NOT TO DO. Sorry, it works better for me. If I do some editing as I go, then I have a better finished product with fewer things to change. When I do edit, I’m more likely to have to add things rather than cut them. Sometimes I go through a scene too fast, and then I have to go back and flesh it out. But I HAVE to edit if I see something I need to fix. I’m not going to wait until I’m finished.

  2. I totally agree with this. I’ve become somewhat opposed to the whole “nanowrimo” style writing process, and would rather START with quality writing and end with even BETTER quality.

    That being said, I think different things work for different people. And, while some people motivate better under that “quantity first, then worry about quantity over revisions” mantra, I tend to get stuck in a writer’s rut when I “word barf” rather than when I try to focus on the story I want to tell–and tell it well. Plus, daydreaming a little of the story before writing it down helps…
    I like to think things through.

  3. I agree about working smarter. I keep trying and developing ways, just like you. But, I don’t think finding that “smart way” will always be foolproof. Nothing is perfect.

  4. I agree with klcrumley, I think it depends on your style of writing or maybe even what kind of writing day you’re having. I have a nasty tendency to just not put anything down on paper (er.. screen) because I haven’t gotten it all worked out perfectly in my head yet. I’ll put it off for days waiting for the perfect thing write and lose momentum. So, I kind of need the kick in the pants this advice gives.

  5. You make some very good points, but I feel the advice is still good: without something written down, there’s nothing to polish – and the something being polished is the story that it is a part of, not just the page itself.
    They say that writers need to write one million words of rubbish before they get to the real gems, and I think the reason this is is because we can learn from our mistakes. We can learn what didn’t work. We can learn why it didn’t work. We can learn more about our processes – finding a way to approach writing that works for each of us. The more we write, the more we hone our skills till writing becomes second nature and leads to writing smarter, not harder. Everything in its right time.
    There are different stages in any career. There’s the apprentice, the journeyman, the master. La Nora is a master. No question! But I’m sure somewhere back in her early career, she made mistakes and threw away a lot of work…
    I suppose the main thing I’d like to say is, don’t beat yourself up. You’re doing something you love. You write books that people enjoy (and I’m one of them!).
    Claire Legrand’s post on her guardian angel comes to mind – Being patient with yourself, and finding the book inside you.
    You’re so right, though; sometimes sitting with the blank page is necessary. (Try doing this while listening to music and daydreaming. Or listening to music and dancing AND daydreaming!)
    All the best, Kate.

  6. It seems like your argument is not against “you can’t edit a blank page,” to be honest. Your very example IS editing. Removing a huge portion of what you’ve written IS editing. In this case, you couldn’t remove what you hadn’t already written, yes?

    It’s certainly true that sitting and thinking is a great idea before you put any words down, but “You can’t edit a blank page” isn’t about not-thinking or not being considerate of your choices. The phrase exists to encourage those who are so worried about writing something “wrong” that they don’t write at all. It is a battle cry to action over inaction. Thinking is not inaction. Thinking is vitally important. If you’re thinking, the phrase “you can’t edit a blank page” doesn’t apply, unless you are going around in circles in your head and not ever writing anything. 🙂

    I definitely agree with the actual argument of your post, though, which is “Not everything you write can be saved by editing!” Good point.

  7. The concept of “You can’t edit a blank page,” works for me. Writing is definitely an extension of one’s personality. Therefore it’s a sure bet that not every technique will work for everyone.

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