Over at the NaNoWriMo forums there’s a thread on when to start editing your work. Responses vary, and as with so many other elements of writing, I don’t think there’s any one right answer. The process we go through varies from writer to writer, and even that can vary from day to day. In general I like to edit as I go along, although that’s not a very good use of time when you’re racing through NaNo to meet word count. Most of the advice I’ve seen says to put the book aside for a while, and only you will know what the right amount of time “a while” represents.
As usual, I have other thoughts on this. The general consensus is that immediately after finishing a first draft, we writers are too enamored with or involved in our story and its characters to look at things objectively. This is absolutely true, but it doesn’t mean that right away isn’t a good time to give my story a first (mildly) critical pass. Why? Because the characters and the emotions are all fresh in my mind and while I know I tend to gloss over mistakes and leave things in that really ought to be chopped out of there, looking at the book again right away is a good way to make sure I conveyed what I wanted to convey. It’s also a really nice feeling to read something unexpectedly decent and say to myself, “hey, I wrote that? I don’t even remember doing it, but there it is.”
I’m not talking a complete developmental edit here. I’m talking going back and rereading, making sure my own words makes sense (for instance, if you write with your eyes closed like I sometimes do, or if you write to the point of exhaustion, you might come up with some sentences that are… well, grounds for hysterical laughter, and that might not be what you intended). This is not the time to tell myself I’m going to look at it from a critical reader’s perspective. It’s more like looking at it from the point of view of a gardener who’s nurtured this thing into growing and loves every pointy leaf and thorn and wants to make sure they all look healthy. Typos stand out like… well, like aphids on a rose bush, and catching them the first time around makes me feel productive. Later on is the time for deep pruning but now is a great time for giving what I’ve grown some due appreciation. I might find a lot of things in there that I’m really proud of, that I really love. That means I can take a moment to congratulate myself and stand in awe of this accomplishment.
Eventually I come to the point where I can’t stand to look at the story any more. Then it’s time to put the book down, go read or write something else, and get back to it later. At that later time I will read with a much more critical eye because I’m removed from the intensity of the process of creating these people and their world.