Columns > Published on March 13th, 2019

Tackling the Dreaded Rewrite

photo by Adam Klepsteen

No one would put sour milk back in the fridge and expect it to be fresh tomorrow. The same logic applies to a bad manuscript. It won't improve without a grueling effort to make it more palatable to discerning agents and editors. When considering a major overhaul for a book-length project, writers need to ask themselves hard questions. Below are the first five you should ask yourself when considering the dreaded rewrite.

1. Should I Do It Now?

Like an ugly divorce, most significant rewrites require time and distance to get insightful perspective on what went wrong in the initial draft. Too often writers jump right back into the project and make the same mistakes. Most advice columns and books on rewrites will advise you to take an extended break from the novel to work on other projects. There is no shame in putting the manuscript on a shelf for a while until you’re mentally ready to dive back into it. After getting rejected by several agents who critiqued my own novel, I let the manuscript sit for over a year. Instead of immediately slogging through the rewrite, I threw myself into new writing projects, taking courses and reading deep in that particular genre to get a feel for what agents might want in a shiny, new version of my novel. Take a few deep breaths. Wipe your tears. It isn't going anywhere. And your new projects will give you a fresh outlook on the older material when you eventually sit down to do the rewrite.

2. Should I Even Bother?

Without strict deadlines and clear targets, you'll rewrite in circles forever... make a plan and stick to it.

How dare I suggest that the precious creature you've spent endless months working on might not ever be fit for publication! Writers tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to their projects. They live and breath the story, they love the characters like family, and no one understands their vision. But sometimes—just sometimes—we need to let the old dreams die. I participated in a fiction class with a famous author who told us that he had abandoned his first novel entirely despite putting a ton of work into the project. Later in his career, he cannibalized many of the original scenes and ideas for other novels and short stories that went on to be very successful. No writing is ever wasted. Depressing as it can be, sometimes it takes a dozen failed projects before we learn what makes a manuscript really sing. You don't need to bury all the copies in the yard with a mini funeral like a dead gerbil. Just put it on the shelf and move on to something better.

3. What's Wrong With It?

As writers, if we don't know what's broken, we can't fix it. Throwing yourself blindly into a rewrite with only a vague knowledge of its problems will quickly get you stuck in a quagmire of endless revisions. Utilize feedback from editors, agents and beta readers to clarify exactly what needs to be corrected. One agent who read my manuscript told me the novel opened well, but the thread of mystery that initially hooked her faded as the story went on. She was totally right. Reading it again, I realized that my obsession with character development and subplots caused me to lose the main thread of the narrative. But it's not enough to have a one-line description of what the novel needs—in this case, maintaining the initial suspense throughout the manuscript. You need to break down the problems with your project into digestible chunks and figure out specific ways to fix them. Lay out all the issues that need to be addressed before you jump back in.

4. Do I Have a Plan?

If you were serious about getting yourself into good physical shape, would you go to the nearest gym and do haphazard exercises with random weights? Of course not. If you want to get this manuscript into top form, you need to plan a writing regime that will get you there as efficiently as possible. This means creating a project timeline and a list of potential fixes for all your novel's problems. This week might be running through the dialogue to look for pieces you can cut, and next week might be addressing the mess that is chapter five. Without strict deadlines and clear targets, you'll rewrite in circles forever. Now make a plan and stick to it.

5. What Am I Afraid Of?

During a course I took with Jack Ketchum, he read a chapter from my manuscript that wasn't working and asked: 'What are you most afraid of writing here?" In this particular scene, it was shooting a dog who was injured and trapped. On a second reading, I realized that I had been worried about the reaction from readers about the dog dying and perhaps subconsciously troubled by the idea as an animal lover, even though it made perfect sense in the scene. I rewrote the chapter and had it end with the dog getting shot. I felt an unbelievable sense of relief at getting it down on paper and the incident in the story became much more powerful as a result. Chances are, if a piece of your writing creates a high degree of emotion in you—even if it's negative—it will resonate with the reader in much the same way. Before you rewrite your manuscript, step back and examine the project as a whole and ask yourself what you are afraid of writing. Then look at each scene, each chapter, and ask yourself the same question again. Once you figure out what you're afraid of writing in your manuscript, shoot those dogs.

Have experience overhauling a subpar manuscript? Tell us how you handle the dreaded rewrite.

About the author

Repo Kempt has worked as a criminal lawyer in the Canadian Arctic for over ten years. He is the author of a book about seal hunting, a member of the Horror Writers Association, and a guest columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives on a cricket farm with his wife, Joy and his little dog, Galactus. In his spare time, he looks for an agent for his latest manuscript.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: