Rewriting: How to Begin

Once you’ve written a complete draft of your story or book, you’re ready for the next stage of the process: rewriting.

The complexity of the revision process mainly hinges on whether you’re the sort of writer who creates a detailed outline before you begin or someone who makes it up as you go along, by the seat of your pants. (Sorry, you so-called pantsers, but your job will likely be much tougher.)

In an 1878 letter to his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain wrote, "You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it."
In an 1878 letter to his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain wrote, “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.”

Either way, you’ll want to keep some general principles in mind:

  • Do at least one rewrite on your own before asking other people for input. Remember all that stuff about how a first draft is supposed to be messy? It’s not ready for prime time, and you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you do a serious rewrite first.
  • Revising is not the same as editing. Don’t immediately start correcting grammar and punctuation or fussing over individual sentences. You want to revise, edit, and then proofread — in that order. Some of those steps will occasionally overlap, but it’s a waste of effort to start fixing typos when you’ve got serious structural problems.
  • Speaking of which, now is the time to analyze your book’s structure. For many writers, this is the most difficult part. I’m referring to how you tell the story, how the main character goes after what he/she wants and overcomes increasingly difficult obstacles, when and how you reveal secret information. It’s about pace and tension (always tension).

For those of you who are writing about your own lives, remember that the most engaging memoirs follow the guidelines for fiction, with rising action, character growth, and a satisfying ending. In short, you face the same challenges fiction writers do of figuring out how to start and end your story, injecting tension, and drawing readers into the emotional lives of your characters.

Steps in the rewriting process:

  1. Take a break. You’ll be tempted to start rewriting immediately. Don’t do it! Allow the writing to cool, which means don’t look at it for a while. You need to be able to see what’s on the page with a critical eye — ideally, as though someone else wrote it. You’ll want to wait at least several days before looking at a book-length draft.
  2. Read through the whole thing in one sitting. Take it all in, and take notes but don’t start fixing anything yet. (Some people do a straight-through reading first to get a feel for the whole story and then do a slower review while taking notes.) Make a general assessment of what works and what doesn’t. Look at plot, point of view, character development, dialogue, sensory details, voice — in short, anything and everything. Be as rational as you can, and don’t get discouraged! It’s all part of the process.
  3. Take a critical look at every scene. Each scene needs dramatic tension and must propel the story forward. Information is learned, attitudes revealed, obstacles discovered, deadlines imposed. Be ruthless. If there is no forward motion in a scene, cut it. If there is a nugget of necessary information in there, consider conveying it through summary or a character’s off-hand comment.
  4. Make a list of what you need to fix and prioritize by tackling the biggest things first. You’ll find that most changes will have a ripple effect, and it’s usually best to follow a line of revision all the way through the manuscript — jumping ahead to the climax, for example, when a change you make in the first chapter affects what happens at the end.

The goal is to stay flexible and open to possibilities to make your story better. You’ll often have that sinking feeling that something isn’t working right. If you listen to your instincts, you’ll see what needs fixing. Then it’s a matter of playing with the pieces, rearranging them, and trying new combinations or sequences until they fall into place.

For more, check out Paul D. McCarthy’s excellent series on “How to Write Your Book.” Part 3 deals with revisions.

What do you think is the hardest part of revising? What strategies have worked for you?

Note: This post originally appeared on Possibilities Publishing Company’s blog.

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