So You Want To Edit A Book Part 2: The Dreadful First Rewrite


Hi and welcome back, friends! It's so good to see you again. It feels like it was barely a week ago when we were talking about the Dramatic First Read Through of our books in our inaugural So You Want To Edit A Book series. (Okay, maybe it was two weeks, but who's counting?) Suddenly it's today, and we're ready to dive into the deep end of our Dreadful First Rewrite.

Are you with me? Yes? Good! On we go.

So. What the hell is the Dreadful First Rewrite? 

Well, here's what it means to me: 

We've already established that I am a fast writer. A seat-of-my-pants writer. An ugly writer. For real.

The reality is, I barf on the page over the course of a couple months to create something really rough. Really skeletal. The "finished" first draft often needs so much re-writing that it makes me want to scream.

Last month, in our Dramatic First Read-Through installment, we talked about what I looked for as I read my manuscript for the first time. We talked about what I found in my ridiculous first draft. Some of you left me fun comments telling me about your own projects, and where you see it going from here.

So now it's time for us to begin the actual meat-and-potatoes work of editing. By the time I "finish" this book again (and trust me: there will be a second rewrite, and a third based on beta reader feedback), I expect that no words from the original manuscript will remain unchanged. But today we talk about only this first rewrite. It's big. It's dreadful.

The first rewrite isn't about tweaking grammar or writing. It's about overhauling entire plot points, changing scenes completely, and making significant changes.

So let's dive in, shall we?

Where do I do the Dreadful First Rewrite?

Based on my initial read-through of my manuscript, I knew I had a significant amount of rewriting to do. And by rewriting, I do mean "completely scrapping entire pages and writing them again as if they never existed." I knew I had significant pacing issues. I knew I had significant character motivation issues.

All this combined to let me know I wasn't ready to print out this book and mark it up on a physical page. As much as I love my red pen, and as much as I relish crossing things out and leaving myself nasty notes in the margins, this book wasn't ready for it.

Rather, I had to open the original manuscript file on my computer, do a quick Save As Draft 2, and dig right in. 

I edited on the computer because it gave me the flexibility I needed. I was able to quickly delete entire chapters, and to put the new words exactly where they needed to be. I did this a lot. The beginning of the book, especially, required significant deletions and re-additions.

If you're a fast writer like me, you can expect similar needs. To me, this first rewrite isn't about tweaking grammar or writing. It's about overhauling entire plot points, changing scenes completely, and making significant changes. It's the only way to keep the book moving forward.

Remember, though: your book is your own. You may have something already more polished. You may be able to print it out, tweak some wording, and send it out to your readers. As writers, we are all different. Do what suits you. Just remember: a first draft always needs some form of editing. There will ALWAYS be a Dreadful First Rewrite required. Only the scope and location will change.

To Delete, or to Add...that IS the question

I've had people ask me how many words I cut during an initial rewrite.

I laugh at this question every time.

Though the great Stephen King suggests cutting a novel by at least 10% on the first rewrite, that's just not how I roll. In fact, I work in the opposite direction.

You see, as a fast drafter, I sometimes put in simple placeholders for certain scenes. I put in only skeletal details, so focused am I on getting the full story out on the page. I often leave out entire plot points, forgetting that I need them in order to make the story make sense. In short, I assume that because I know something in my own head, you'll know it too, regardless of whether I've actually given you the info you need to know it. 

Silly, right?

So on my first rewrite, I usually wind up adding words. Lots of words. I find those scenes that are bare bones and I add the flesh. I add the meat. I add the smells and sounds, the minor details that make it pop off the page. 

This may not be how you roll. If you're a careful drafter, an outliner, you may have too many words already. Remember, for the most part, adult novel-length projects fall somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 words. My first drafts are almost always at the lower end of that spectrum. Yours may be higher. If so, you may want to cut some words, some details, to help your story flow at a faster clip.

Me? Well, my first draft of this book came in around 78,000 words.

Now it's 85,000.

I expect I'll add even more on the next rewrite.

But again, that's how I work. You may work differently. And that's all right in my book.

(Ha! Did you see what I did there? Are you laughing? Are you?)

What am I looking to change on the Dreadful First Rewrite?

In this particular rewrite, I wanted to fix the pacing, first and foremost. In my first read-through I noted the first third of the book was very choppy. It started. It stopped. It didn't flow. Thus, that was my beginning focus.

I cut dozens of pages of descriptions of a wedding, and added in dozens of paragraphs detailing the scene of a dreadful mass murder. I'd prepped ahead of time, watching the documentary Night Will Fall on HBO, which showed footage of concentration camp mass burials that I'd never seen before. With that terrible imagery fresh in my head I was able to write the scenes I'd glossed over in the first draft.

In this rewrite I changed a character's name. I added a new fellow with a monstrous personality. I looked up phrases in Yiddish and German, using the translations in my text. I looked for big-picture changes to make the story flow. 

If you're like me, you'll perhaps be deleting entire chapters before adding new ones. You'll perhaps remove entire characters, and perhaps you'll find new people to tell the story. This is all okay! I promise! The first rewrite is your time to make grand, sweeping changes, to alter the ebb and flow of your words to grow your world. This is your time to flesh out your settings, your people, and, most importantly, your intentions. 

What am I ignoring on the Dreadful First Rewrite?

You guys. I deleted the third chapter of this book. When I did that, I started re-numbering my chapters as I went. Then I added a chapter, and broke another into two. 

I gave up quickly on caring about those numbers. I think, as it stands now, I have three Chapter 17s, two Chapter 6s, and I'm missing Chapters 7 and 8. I kid you not. 

But who cares? I know I'm going to do at least one more rewrite, this next time on paper, so I know I'll be able to fix it then.

In the first rewrite, I'm definitely trying to make sure my writing is solid, right? But I'm not too worried about minor grammatical details yet. I know there will be typos. I'm still, due to my nature, working fast, because I'm rewriting entire chunks of the story. I ignore the small issues in favor of fixing the bigger ones. My red pen will catch the bad grammar later on, I swear.

So I leave certain mistakes alone, on purpose, knowing that if I bog myself down with them now, I'll never see the forest for the trees.

My Dreadful First Rewrite Screw Up

I like to be honest with you. You know this, right? I'm nothing if not blunt in these columns. And in this book, on this rewrite, I really messed up.

Here's how:

In the beginning, I focused a magnifying glass on the first half of the book. Rewriting it was hard. It was painful. On more than one occasion I had to step away from my computer and go for a long, hard run, so frustrated with myself was I.

But I did it. I worked so hard on that first half that now I can read it with confidence. I know it's decent. I did a good job.

And then I lost my brain and breezed through the second half as though it was already near perfect.


I know why I did this: I was tired. I was a little burnt out. And also, the second half was markedly better than the first, so I was able to pretend it was all good, and just needed tweaking.


What an idiot I am. Just because that second half was better doesn't mean it was actually good! It still needs some major love, some major changes. In retrospect, I think I need to add at least one chapter more, and rework the ending quite a bit.

Still. It took me almost two months to do this rewrite, and I know I did some significant improving. And the good news? I still have as many more rewrites as I need to finally get this bad boy right.

So what's up next?

Next month I edit on paper. In fact, I start later today. It's already printed, awaiting my red pen. 

This time I'll start at the end, making all those changes I now know I need, and then I'll head back to the beginning and work in a more linear fashion. This time I want to get it ALL right.

So I'll check in again next month and let you know how it's going.

And now it's your turn - how are you doing? Have you dug in yet? What are you looking to change in your manuscript? I can't wait to hear from you!

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Ben Amberg's picture
Ben Amberg May 5, 2015 - 9:46pm

Hello again :) just read both of these new ones, and at this time they are slightly irrelevent to me. Different styles, as you said. I wrote the first three chapters six times to get my tone and pacing started and then from it everything else flowed in proper style. I printed it out about two months after commenting on your last article and took my time going through to feel out the story. I have some minor plot holes to patch and a few sections to restructure before i'm ready to retype and move forward with another editing run, or beta readers depending on how i feel when i reach the next stage. I'm looking forward to reading more of your articles and following your progress. Conciously knowing someone else is currently going through this process is really motivating because i know so many people who want to be writers but so few who are capable of following through.

Thank you for sharing your progress, best of luck with your red pen.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. May 6, 2015 - 4:27am

Hi Ben! So glad you checked in, and glad your process is going so well! That's awesome to hear!!! I just started red (well, blue) penning it yesterday and MAN! It's insane, the stuff I try to change on paper!! Hahahaah. So let's stick through this together. Should be fun!