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The Power of Rewriting

As I am wrapping up my semester teaching creative writing, I'm thinking about all the things I hope my students are coming away with. Mostly, I'm hoping they have gained a love, or at least appreciation, for writing. Yet, I know that might be a little too lofty. So, if I can't have them all gain a love of writing, I hope they've gained some solid editing tools to use in the future. Whether it's for creative writing projects, or just on papers for other classes, I really hope my students understand now how vital the revision and editing process is.

In this blog, I've talked about a lot of different aspects of writing, including a smidge about revisions, but I've never really dug into the nitty-gritty of the rewriting process. It's the part of writing many of us don't like to think about. It's tedious and is essentially the process of looking for flaws in our own work. I don't know how many times I've felt super secure about a story and then went to do edits and realized how terrible it was. There are generally two types of writers in the world, pantsers and plotters. Plotters create a plan for their work, they know where the story is going to go and write to that plan. If you're a plotter, the editing process is probably a lot easier for you because you aren't going to be fixing huge plot holes or trying to rewrite storylines.

Unfortunately for me, I am not a plotter. I'm a pantser. I write with a single idea, having no clue where it's going to end up and then, once I've written an entire rough draft, I have to go back and try to make it all make sense. My rewriting process is long and arduous. Obviously, I promote the idea of plotting your story first, but if you're like me, and just can't get the creative flow without working it out on the page, here are some tips that might be useful to you:

  1. Finish the first draft! It's a common mistake so many people make jumping from one idea to the next and never actually finishing anything. I've talked about this before, but it really is that important. If you think there is anything worth exploring in an idea, you have to see it all the way through. Even if you aren't jumping from one idea to the next, you have to finish a draft before you can start editing. Many people get stuck in the loop of rewriting and rewriting the beginning until it's "perfect." The cruel joke though is that perfect doesn't exist. You just have to get to the end, and then you can start making things better.

  2. Print out your rough draft. I've heard of this done a few different ways. There are some big-name authors who will write a draft, print it, put it in a drawer, and then rewrite the entire thing from memory. The idea is that anything worth saving will come through in this second version. While this might be great for some people, it is not great for me. I'm terrified of losing that one perfect phrase I write on the 200th page of a manuscript. Instead, I print out my work and then read the whole thing with a pen in my hand. I read it as though I've never seen it, but also as someone who knows the ending and can see all the places I can foreshadow. This step is so important because if I were to try and read it on the computer my eyes skip over things. I assume I know what I meant, so I don't read too carefully. Printing the work out makes me slow down. Plus, when I finish going over the draft with a pen, I then have to type all these changes back into the manuscript, giving me a second time to reread everything carefully and make changes.

  3. There's a difference between editing and revision, but it's all part of rewriting. Editing is when you go through and fix grammatical errors or sentence-level mistakes. It's called "line editing" for a reason. It is very detail-oriented and, frankly, I suck at it. I am sure you've all noticed numerous mistakes in the year I've been writing this blog. When working on my novels, I always ask someone (my mom) to be my editor because it just isn't a strong suit of mine. Revisions, on the other hand, are bigger-picture rewrites. A revision focuses on how the piece works and looks to the reader. As soon as I finish a draft, I know a million revisions I want to make. It's just a matter of finding all the places where a concept comes together and making sure to revise them in the same way. Revisions can be plot changes, point of view shifts, tonal shifts, or changes in a character's voice. All the aspects that speak directly to the reader. Edits, make all of those revisions easier to read.

  4. Take your time. When I finish a draft I put it away for a little while. If I'm really excited about it, I put it away for a week at least. With my first novel though, it took so much out of me that I put it away for a year. I put so much of myself into that story that I needed to recover from it in order to gain any perspective before rewriting it. With short stories, a week is enough to step back, think about it, and then come back with fresh eyes. This time away is critical. Without it, I would hold the story too preciously, unable to cut what needed to be cut or change what needed to be changed. Stepping away and letting yourself marinate with the story, thinking about all the characters, plot points, twists, and the ending, allows us to see where flaws might be hiding. If we go into rewriting thinking everything is perfect, we won't change anything, but taking the time to think about where there's room for improvement means we go into the rewrite with at least an idea of a plan.

There is so much more to rewriting I'm able to cover here, but I'm hoping this might give you a place to start. Just like my students, I hope there might be a solid tool you can take and use in your own writing. If nothing else, I'll leave you with this little exercise I give my students. I call it the "5,4,3,2,1." It changes with the length of whatever you're working on, but for a simple short story, it's this: Delete five unnecessary words, change four words to be more vivid, add in three sensory details, delete two full sentences, then delete one last word. The point of this exercise is to focus on trimming the fat– focus on what's really necessary to the story and work on letting that shine.

Getting through edits on my novel

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