Writing is Rewriting

Hand Proofreading a Manuscript beside Laptop You might think it’s a bit early to start thinking about rewriting when I’m only 45,000 words into my current novel, but I’m already looking forward to the time when all those first rubbishy words are down on the page and I can get on with the real work of the novel.

My writing students (those who don’t know me very well anyway!) are often surprised when I suggest they could rework something. ‘But I’ve spent ages on it,’ they’ll say. ‘I’m bored with it now.’ One of them said to me the other week, ‘Professional writers don’t rewrite their books, do they?’

I suppose there are a lucky few whose first words appear on the page sharp and pristine, whose characters come alive in the first instance, whose plots fall onto the page well-structured and complex. But I’d say for the majority the main job of writing is rewriting:

  •  I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied. Ernest Hemingway
  •  I can’t write five words but that I change seven. Dorothy Parker
  •  I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive. Susan Sontag
  • I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. Vladimir Nabokov
  • And the famous one from Stephen King: Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.

So, the FIRST DRAFT is a process of finding out: who your characters, what elements of the plot are important; what on earth your story is about. This is the phase of creation, where you must dig dip into your subconscious and bring out ideas, emotions, experiences, which half the time you didn’t even know were in there. During this gloriously messy phase, you need to be uninhibited as a writer. Roz Morris in her book ‘Nail Your Novel’ writes:

You must go for full-blown operatic drama. This is where you live the book in Technicolour, not in washed out tones. You want it to take on a life of its own, be a bit crazy if it wants to be.

The SECOND draft tends to involve major structural changes. Does the timeline work? Does the plot fall apart in the middle? Are there places where the plot strands don’t hang together? Are the sub-plots bolted on or integrated? Some  scenes must be cut; others expanded. Characters need to be strengthened – you need to go more deeply into their psyche to discover what makes them tick. And, sadly, some characters have to go. They refuse to come alive, or they’re not serving their purpose or they are too similar to another character.

The THIRD draft involves polishing. when you have to decide what is:Choice

This is the moment for honing the prose, cutting repetitions and redundancies, nurturing the images, making sure that every single scene in the novel is vital, every single word has earned its place. This is the time when you have to ‘Kill your darlings’.

Writing a novel is a long, lonely process. Many people dream of the journey, but never set out. Others embark on the journey, but get lost along the way. At half way through the first draft, I’ve got a long way to go. I’m in the gloriously messy, creative phase. I’ve got to go now because I need to get UNINHIBITED.



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  1. Maureen Hall says:

    Great post, Lindsay! It made me want to go and get stuck back into the whole messy process again straight away – which unfortunately I can’t do right now. Writing is also (at least for me) a constant process of frustration. ‘It isn’t right, but I can’t fix it now – I’ll do it on the next draft …’

  2. Derek Taylor says:

    This is a superbly instructive piece, Lindsay. Thank you. Just to be provocative though, I can’t help quoting from the introduction to Shakespeare’s first folio. The editors wrote: ‘His mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.’ Good old Ben Jonson – who was on your side – replied: ‘Would he had blotted a thousand!’

  3. Debbie Young says:

    Excellent post, Lindsay, and great quotes there too from past masters of the rewriting process. To my mind, anyone who can’t bear or can’t be bothered to rewrite and refine their ms over and over again should not be writing at all, or call themselves a writer! I’m just thankful we live in the digital age when rewriting is so much easier to do (or at least the physical labour of it is made easier, if not the cerebral aspect!)

  4. Christine Steenfeldt says:

    An excellent post, Lindsay. I fear I might have been one of those naive students of yours who had no idea about rewriting. I’m finding just finishing a first draft nigh on impossible so heaven knows how I’ll fare if I manage to finish one and then have to face the rewrites.

  5. Great post – nice reminders in there to keep hacking away at the jungle. I was wondering, how do you keep track of changes you have made in case you want to go back to them later? For example you change a paragraph and then you realise you liked it the way it was but can’t remember exactly what you wrote originally. How to keep track of all the minute changes without it being a mammoth job of making multiple copies of every little bit of writing? Is there an obvious easy(ish) way of doing this?
    Do you use any particular technology/system?

  6. Wow, thanks for the mention, Lindsay! If I couldn’t rewrite, my books would be babbling nonsense. But one of my great discoveries as a writer was how rewarding the revision process is. Many writers don’t appreciate that editing – even cutting a manuscript – is a work of creativity, not destruction. I love the fact that I can dig at the book again and again to see if there’s something better I can do with an idea. To the reader, it appears to have tumbled out in one flow of genius. Only we know the truth!

  7. I love the re writing!!!! that is the blissful part. but not the final edit which is scarey.

  8. Lindsay says:

    Thank you for all the lovely comments, and I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply to them all individually. But I’m really glad you enjoyed the post and found it interesting, or instructive, or stimulating. It’s always nice when a post gets a good response, so thank you everyone.

    The mention is a pleasure, Roz – your book is very informative and useful.

    Nicky, I’d like to say I had a system in place for tracking changes, and I do save everything with a different name. But when this leads to three different chapters, named as Nine, Nine I and Nine New, the so-called system is not incredibly helpful!

  9. Lisa says:

    Great post thank you. Instant clarity about the different stages of drafting! Realise I am in Draft 2, and that’s probably why it’s feeling so arduous… but you remind me it’s all part of the process of creation, & that’s heartening. Now, where did I leave that machete?

  10. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Lisa – glad you found it useful. Sounds as if you’re making good progress if you’re in draft 2 stage. I’d LIKE to be there!

  11. Rewriting is absolutely important. However, I’ve found some of the steps above can be truncated or avoided entirely if one plans the story before one types manuscript pages.

    Just as a visual artist might make a thumbnail sketch before beginning a painting, or a sculpture might work in 1/8 scale and clay before moving to the marble block, or an architect will create a blueprint before the building foundation is poured… I think writers should consider, experiment, and make / discard choices before they build.

    Do that, the third draft as described above can be the first draft, and one’s productivity and efficiency goes way up. End result: clearer, cleaner drafts and, ultimately, more things written in less time.

  12. Lindsay says:

    I agree that planning helps remove the need for some rewriting, Matthew. But the story on the page can run into difficulties that thye plan didn’t throw up. And I think it’s by spending time with a character during the writing process that you get to know your characters. As you get to know them better, they will sometimes resist the story planned for them.

  13. I have all due respect for your process, Lindsay. I reckon it’s a matter of front-loading the work, or doing it as you go.

    I don’t run into difficulties the plan didn’t throw up because I work through the beats of the story in the planning stage. I’ll use the architect comparison again: if you draw your plans and, in the building process, you find two corners don’t match up… you haven’t planned well enough / thoroughly enough. 🙂

    I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters before I start typing a draft. The thing is, I look at the characters as an element of the story I’m trying to tell. If the character isn’t acting in a way that makes sense for the story, I’ve not thought out that character well enough. My characters don’t resist the story any more than the setting, plot, or description would. That, to me, is like saying the pencil is keeping my arm from drawing the picture I want to draw. It all serves the story, not the other way around.

    It’s all a matter of how one approaches the project. As I wrote above, I don’t mean to say that planning or “pantsing” is right or wrong. But it’s a given that if you work everything out before you start to type, fixing plot or continuity issues won’t be necessary during the editing / re-write stage.

  14. Polly says:

    Nice one … though I confess to be an editing fanatic (!)

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