The Art Of The Rewrite

So you’ve written your story, mulled over its potential problems, and even had it critiqued by friends or colleagues who’ve given you their praise, suggestions and ultimate diagnoses. You know your work has major issues that need addressed. Now what?

The first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. The inexperienced writer works on an idea, discovers it’s not working and gives up. The experienced writer works on an idea, discovers it’s not working but has the faith in the story and him/herself to keep going, because he/she knows it will get better with time. Contrary to many beginners’ opinions, stories aren’t truly born in the first draft, but through numerous, significant rewrites. While revision may lack the immediate romanticism of an initial draft, rewriting is a vital part of the creative process. Rewriting is an art form unto itself; just as much discovery is involved in the process, and it can be just as inspiring and inventive as the first draft. Any time you alter your story’s vital elements it teases your creative side to come up with new ideas. Rewriting can help your story become aware of itself; it can elevate an idea to its own reality. In order for the process to work however, a true rewrite cannot simply be editing, copy-editing or proofing. I know you've worked hard on it, but your first draft should be viewed as nothing more than a framework. A true rewrite is surrender; it is a complete re-imagining of the work, usually more difficult and always more time consuming than the initial draft.

In order to produce a compelling, well-written work of fiction, the writer must wear the hats of writer, editor and audience simultaneously. This is more than a difficult task — it’s a practically impossible undertaking. The writer is expected juggle the work, how she/he plans to change it and — most importantly — theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what's been written. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses with three lenses and being asked to navigate a dark highway. The only way to rewrite successfully is to look through each lens separately and attack all elements of the story comprehensively. There are many ways to view a story, but when it comes to the task of rewriting I’ll suggest we divide stories into two distinct views — a Macro and Micro view — and adopt an approach that addresses each. The Macro view is your work’s overarching intent. It’s where you establish a story’s theme, shape, scenes and structure. It’s where you discover what your story is “about,” and who your characters are. Micro is the details: it’s language, length, style, and grammar, it’s the sum “feeling” your Macro qualities exemplify over the body of the work. In some ways, both offer different views of the same components: Structure is Macro, prose is Micro. Character is Macro, dialogue is Micro. Theme is Macro, imagery is Micro. Macro is a discovery process, Micro is a polishing process. Macro is where you lay the foundation for your story, Micro is where you make the house presentable.

Too many writers confuse these distinct disciplines and tackle one before the other is addressed. They tweak and retweak sentences while ignoring structural problems, and the result is a bad story that’s well-written, a piece of work that’s grammatically correct yet uninspired. It’s the equivalent of shopping for decorative window shutters when the foundation of your house sits on a fault line. The below four steps will hopefully help divide the tasks of rewriting into an undertaking that’s both reasonable and comprehensive. The idea is to move your rewriting focus gradually from a Macro process to a Micro one, ensuring each area of your story is given due attention — from the foundation up.

Restructuring

One of the best tools a writer has is time. After you’ve finished writing your first draft and had it workshopped or critiqued, step away from it. Give yourself distance, work on something else. When you return to your draft with a “fresh” eye you’ll be about as objective as any creator can hope for. Then look at it — a printed copy, not a computer screen — and ask what structural problems need to be addressed. What’s your story’s theme — what are you trying to say, and are you saying anything at all? What’s the story about (the litmus test is you should be able to tell someone in a single sentence, with a verb) and does it echo throughout the piece? How vivid is the world you’ve created? Remove scenes and characters that don’t adequately resonate this theme; add subplots, foreshadowing and new characters that strengthen it. For the characters that remain, who are they and what do they want? Do they speak and behave with authority? Can any of them be criticized as clichés, or do they avoid easy characterization? You’ll need to walk in their shoes, discover their histories, their upbringings. Is the point-of-view a correct one, does the voice reflect the internal structure of the story? Does the plot make sense? It should reveal itself not in a heavy-handed manner but through a slow unfolding of character, structure and theme.

The restructuring process should be concerned entirely with Macro qualities. This means it concerns itself less with actual writing and more with building. Leave grammar and sentences alone for the time being; right now you’re molding your story for meaning. Physically take a red pen to the scenes and characters that aren’t working. Cross things out, write in the margins. Then write your new scenes and characters in a new document. When you’re finished, paste the new scenes into the old document, and delete the old ones. You’ll notice the shape of the story and the behavior of characters will change as they begin to move around and interact with new elements.

Revision

The operative word here is “vision.” After more time has passed, print out your second draft and look at it again. Here you’ll hopefully see the literary forest for the trees, how your ideas are linking together. Make sure the story’s proportions and rhythms are even. Is the story revealing itself through action and dialogue instead of summary or a laundry list of descriptive details? Is your central theme resonating throughout but subtle enough to avoid being overbearing? The reader’s participation makes the story. Is the beginning of the story inviting? Is the ending profound? How can you maximize emotional intensity in the plot? Add complexity to your characters. Add details that flesh out who a character is; add “quirks” that redefine them as authentic individuals instead of types. In what ways do they contract themselves? Pepper characters with subtle details that resonate on a subconscious level. Do they have distinct ways of speaking, do they repeat specific phrases or words that are specific to them? Is the overall dialogue informative but genuine?

Notice with this step we’re moving from a view that began as Macro and is growing increasingly Micro. We’re mowing down, whittling from an abstract lump into a specific shape. The revision process is concerned with building the relationships of form, style and meaning. Here your story is gradually accruing metaphorical weight. What impact does your writing style have on the story? Language should absorb the theme of the work so you’ll want to manipulate language to match the material, but not in an overbearing way. Again, print out your work for this process, and do your edits in longhand.

Copy editing

We’re now fully at the Micro end of the process. Print out your second draft and set it on your desk (ideally, in an upright copy holder). Looking at your document, and with your second draft now closed — and, ideally, deleted — open a new document and retype the whole thing over again. The idea is to push the document through a filtration process that focuses on language. When you’re forced to confront every sentence, you’ll be amazed at all the stuff that can go. This is where you’ll see if your words are linking together. First, make sure the words inform, if the theme takes residence in the syntax. Look at how your paragraphs transition; transitions should be subtle evolutions of an idea. How does one paragraph relate to the next? Look at how your sentences grow and branch within the paragraphs. Does every sentence sound like an organic component of the voice, almost like its writer invented it?

In the copy editing process, we’re looking for the two “e’s”: what’s exceptional and what’s essential. Get rid of anything that’s not the latter. Delete incidental details. Cut redundancies. Listen to the acoustic properties your sentences have. Have you varied your sentence lengths, or are you delivering the same rhythms over and over again? Make sure your sentences are active. Look out for figurative cliché, unnecessary modifiers and anything that unnecessarily “pads” the sentence. Cut until it hurts; challenge yourself to omit as many words as you can while retaining the sentence’s intended meaning. Ask yourself: how would a first-time reader approach this sentence, this word? The editing process should not water down, the editing process should refine. If you’re still confused as to what your story is “about” you’ll need to stop and return to the first step before proceeding.

Proofreading and line editing

You should do this only after the first three steps have been accomplished, before you’re sending the story out for possible publication. Read your story for grammar, double-check your sentences. Watch for punctuation, which gives your readers space to “breathe” between ideas. Then, paginate your work into columns, using a program like InDesign or QuarkXPress. Change the font from the one in which you usually write. Sometimes the strange look of a different typeface and layout can reveal new problems to eyes already tired from the work. Finally, read your work aloud. Speaking puts your work in audible spaces; it objectifies the language and places it outside the writer’s head. Both of these methods are intended to temporarily “trick” the brain into seeing your work in a new light, to imagine your story from the perspective of a stranger.

You’ll notice I prefer an editing environment that’s as “analogue” as possible. There’s no doubt the medium you choose to transcribe ideas (computer, typewriter, shorthand) irrevocably affects the written product. Computers are great, but they’re machines of convenience; we live in an age where technologies allow us to circumvent essential parts of the editing process. You can be assured that when someone wrote a 500-page novel with a quill pen only the essentials remained. Computers, while enabling us to churn out rough drafts at incredibly short intervals, have given writers diarrhea of the mind. They've allowed a lot of unneeded superlatives and afterthoughts to pass through the filtration process. Moreover, by virtue of their design they’re constantly tempting us to scroll up and change what we’ve written before moving on, so the finished product is often a messy hodgepodge of polished crap aside half-baked brilliance. I’m not suggesting writers change the transcribing medium they’re accustomed to. Instead, my advice is to use the best of both worlds to your advantage: use a computer to write your first drafts quickly, so you can trowel the compost of your creative mind with abandon. Let it be sloppy, let it be messy. The rewrite however, should ideally take ten times the effort to complete. When switching cerebral lobes to your analytical side, switch mediums — a red pen, paper — to accommodate the new mental task at hand. Always type a new draft; do your work in a new document, not an existing one; and don’t keep multiple drafts. When you force yourself into a position where every word matters, you’ll be amazed at the effect it will have on your final product. Ideally, the rewriting process should be like wringing out a towel, where we void the bad elements and add new ones that contribute to its ideal shape.  Have one draft, and work it to death.


Find out about Jon Gingerich's 'Fundamentals of Short Fiction' class, which begins April 23rd!

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 7, 2011 - 12:45pm

I have to admit, the articles on this sight are getting better and better. I sometimes wonder if established writers like Stephen King do rewrites because they read like first drafts sometimes. I think a lot of contemporary popular writers have diarrhea of the pen.

Jesse Toler's picture
Jesse Toler December 7, 2011 - 1:07pm

This article came at a perfect time.  I'm actually going to be looking at some of my early stuff in the next few days.  Thank you for creating and maintaining this website.

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and loving it! December 7, 2011 - 3:39pm

I think the danger is when you say "I can't make one single revision on this story" because you really are sick of revising (which really means you have to step away from it for a while), and really feeling that it's finished. My problem is that I never feel something is finished. I had a book sitting for years and every time I go back to it I revise a whole lot more. I don't think it will ever be finished.

Nataliya Ashena's picture
Nataliya Ashena is reading University stuff December 7, 2011 - 3:58pm

Thank you very very much! I have started thinking in another way!!! 

I will join to Jesse Toler's words - thanks a lot for this website!

Andy Cates's picture
Andy Cates December 7, 2011 - 5:43pm

Very nice. And odd--I was thinking about this process last night. I've just finished the "micro" side of things for a middle grade novel I've been working on for a little over a year, and was wondering how my process differs from others', how long it typically takes the average writer to complete this process--so on and so forth. My process took about two months for the first draft (which rounded out to about 54,000 words), two weeks' incubating, another two months on a rewrite (slimmed down to 48,000 words), a months' incubating after that, a copy-edit on that draft, which took about two or three days, another bit of incubating--probably around three or four weeks--a third rewrite (50,000 words), and then another months' incubating and a final rewrite (52,000 words), a chapter-by-chapter rewrite that focused mainly on a sentence-by-sentence reconstruction focusing on grammar, punctuation, style, et cetera. The final "micro" edit was only a line edit, just to make sure I didn't miss any typos and to doublecheck my punctuation to be sure my sentences were reading, aloud, exactly how I intended.

The way I see it, a writer should know his or her work backwards and forwards by the time he or she has finished. The beginning, being possibly the most crucial part, should probably even be memorized by the time you've finished (I can remember, word for word, the first four paragraphs of said middle grade book). The writer should know, after a few reads, exactly where the weak parts are in the story, if there are any (there usually are, even if they're not all that weak, in comparison to what the writer should know are the very strong points), find out why they're weak or why they seem weak, and find a way, at all costs, to make it otherwise, to beef up those parts, re-think those parts, re-think the characters involved, ask questions as to why this part stood out as weak (should it be removed altogether? should the scene be rewritten with a whole new concept? should this character even BE here?--the sort of questions I ask myself...); and if there is no way to turn those parts around, to make them perhaps the strongest point(s) in the story, the writer should at least focus as much of his or her abilities on those parts to make them only perhaps slightly weaker, managably weaker by being stronger in other ways, whichever way is possible (maybe subtle character development, or even, if it comes down to this, stylistically, somehow, or exciting because of some quirk a character has that is NOT cliche but new and original--if that's possible for your story). Or the parts should be removed. Or completely redesigned and rewritten until it works, no matter how long it takes...

...I'm rambling. this is just a fun process to talk/think about. 

Great article.    

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff December 7, 2011 - 6:09pm

Added to favorites.

Rewrites are my current dragons. Got to ride them dragons, they spit fire like hell and have a mother-of-pearl skin to be polished first.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks December 7, 2011 - 7:24pm

Really great column. I totally agree with the whole walking-away-and-letting-it-sit thing. Of course, that's not always possible when you've got a rush deadline, but if you've got the time, take it.

miked's picture
miked from Los Angeles is reading White Noise December 8, 2011 - 1:19am

Excellent column. I will try this rewrite process on my current story. In just taking Craig Clevenger's class, his methods of rewriting, when mixed with these suggestions, should reveal quite the heap of crap in my early drafts!

Thanks,

-MikeD-

nreber's picture
nreber from Chicago is reading Recess magazine and other literary journals + Cheryl Strayed's Wild December 25, 2011 - 2:17am

Even as a nonfiction writer I could easily implement this info. Seeing it as a macro/micro process helped to achieve the dynamism on an essay I've been working on for three months. The structure cleaned itself up by taking the advice in this article. Small details even amended themselves. All because giving it the 'forest-first' approach helped settle the trees later.

(BTW, I agree with much of Andy's rant above. Thorough.)

Cheers y saludos.

Happy holidays and delightful writing!

Nichole L. Reber

http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com/

yesjessica's picture
yesjessica from Chicago December 31, 2011 - 3:59pm

This is wonderful.  I wrote my first novel about a year ago, and my initial joy at being "finished" quickly faded as I realized the hardest work was ahead of me.  I've done some edits, but still have more.  This is a nice reality check.  Resistence can set in.  It's just so much easier to check for wording and grammar than it is to admit a character you like really doesn't have a place in the book, for example.