It’s easy to be afraid of editing. You’ve written a draft, and it was an intense and arduous process that seemed to take forever — and then you have to go through the whole thing and change it. But that’s exactly the wrong perspective.
Editing, comparatively speaking, is easy. It’s the writing of the first draft that’s the hard part. By the time you reach the editing stage, you’re on the home straight. The bulk of the really tough and annoying work is done, and now you get to play with the pieces, tweak things, tighten it all up, and turn it into something that’s polished and ready for the eyes of others.
Every time I write a first draft, all the way through I dread the editing. And every time, when I finish the draft and actually start to edit, I realise that the editing is by far the easiest part of the process.
Rearranging scenes is easy. Removing scenes is easy. Rewriting scenes is easy, too, because you know exactly where you need to start and where you need to end, and you have a refreshingly limited word-count target in which to do it. Adding scenes is easy for the same reason. And fixing typos and issues of punctuation and grammar is so easy as to be almost mechanical. You can even outsource all that stuff if you want to. You’ve done the hard part already.
Larger changes are just combinations of those smaller ones. Reworking plot arcs, fixing continuity problems, and all the rest of it are really just lists of tweaks like rewriting a scene, appending or removing something, or moving a scene to another place in the overall text. These are discrete, manageable, concrete tasks that you can knock out in even a brief working session — entirely unlike writing the first draft of a novel.
In a way, the first draft is the only real draft, because all later ones are just the first draft plus a set of tweaks. You’ll never have to write a full draft again, until you start on the next book. Once you’ve got it, you’ve over the hump and you’re going downhill again.
A high-level editing task like “flesh out this character’s backstory”, or “clarify how they managed to escape” can seen intimidating in its vagueness, but in real terms it’s just three pretty easy things: read what you’ve got, think about how to address the issue, and then add or modify a few paragraphs in the right places. Yes, determining what exactly you need to do can require a bit of pondering, but it’s nowhere near as taxing and debilitating and stall-prone as creating the whole story in the first place.
Editing is nothing to be scared of. You’ll also find that, in most cases, there’s less editing to do than you’re anticipating. Things are readily fixable, and you can almost always use most of what you already have. Your first draft is the raw material that your subconscious is working with as soon as you decide you need to tweak it in some way; the edits you think of will be in the context of what’s there right now.
The first draft itself is a feat of perseverance — and [you should write a crappy first draft] — but once it’s done, you’re making improvements and alterations, not reinventing the bulk of your work. There’s freedom in that, too.
You can absolutely write a first draft of your novel, and once you’ve done so, you can absolutely whip it into shape more quickly and easily than you might think.