Rewriting

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There’s a common adage that says writers don’t write: they rewrite. This is only half true. If we’re going to be picky, a first draft has to be written before any rewriting can take place. And no one refers to themselves as a rewriter. That just sounds like a fancy name for a plagiarist. Nevertheless, there is some truth in the adage.  Rewriting is a necessary part of writing.

First drafts are an essential starting point for any writer.  They’re not easy to produce and anyone who manages to make this mountainous accomplishment should congratulate themselves on the heroic achievement.  But first drafts are only a starting point.  From there a writer has to make sure that every word is earning its place, and all the unnecessary stuff has been cast aside.

In On Writing, Stephen King suggests an equation: 2nd draft = 1st draft -20%.  This is not a bad rule of thumb.  Your 1,000 word first draft, after a careful rewriting, should be approximately 800 words.  Your 100,000 word novel should be approximately 80,000 words.  Of course, this is not an exact science, but it’s surprising how often this figure can be seen working.

However, this equation lends little to the question: what’s involved in rewriting?

Rewriting is essentially the process of turning a first draft into a finished story.  It can involve major changes, including the excision of redundant characters, through to comparatively minor changes such as the removal of an adverb or the clarification of confusing punctuation.

I studied under a professor who advised a series of rewrites, each one focussing on a specific aspect of the completed work.  The first revision looked at plot, ensuring it was well-paced and cohesive.  The second revision looked at characters, checking for everything from errors in eye colour to inconsistencies in personality.  The third looked at dialogue…

It was a methodical approach which I would recommend to any writer.  However, it’s also an arduous approach that does seem specifically designed to bleed the fun from any writing experience.

The eighth revision looked at overuse of adjectives.  That was hardly something that anyone could ever look forward to.

My personal approach to rewriting is to read and tweak until I’m comfortable with the finished product.  I will read a line and, if I like it, I’ll move onto the next.  If I don’t like it I’ll try to understand what I don’t like.  If all the words in a sentence seem unnecessary, they go.  If they don’t lend themselves to the narrative, description or character development: they go.  If the sentence is supporting narrative, description or character, but it doesn’t have the ring of publishable writing, I alter the phrasing until it says what I want to say in the way I want it said.

Sometimes this can be as simple as changing one fancy word for a more recognisable alternative.  Instead of saying ‘She decided to acquire…”  I might change the sentence to ‘She got…”

This is a sweeping change.  Not only have I lost the Latinate phrasing of ‘acquire’, and replaced it with the more easily understandable ‘got’, but I have also stopped telling my reader what the heroine decided to do and simply continued with the action.

The initial phrasing worked well for a first draft, but the rewriting has improved it so that the story is now more easily read.

Of course, the problem with rewriting is that it’s a time-consuming process.  After a writer has celebrated the completion of a first-draft, rewriting feels like a form of purgatory or limbo.  Are you writing a novel?  No.  I’m rewriting my novel.  I’m not doing anything new: I’m simply polishing something I’ve already created.

Many experts point out that the difference between a professional writer and an amateur is that the professional puts in the necessary hours perfecting their work before sending it off for publication.  This is a fair point and it’s one to be remembered for anyone wishing to present themselves as a professional writer.

Rewriting isn’t fun, glamorous or particularly enjoyable.  However, it’s necessary for every writer who wants to savour the success of publication.

Ashley Lister
November 2010


“The Write Stuff” © 2010 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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