by Lauren Sapala
One of the first things a writer learns is about the power—and the challenge—of the rewrite. For those writers who assume that everything Ernest Hemingway wrote flowed perfectly out of his pen on the very first try, the illusion is shattered. The more experience a writer gains, the more they know that rewriting is part of the process for all writers. But that doesn’t mean that rewrites still aren’t confusing, overwhelming, or just plain difficult. They most definitely can be all of those things. What can really be helpful is for writers to back up, look at a map, and make sure they’re not going in the wrong direction.
After you finish your first sloppy draft, you can expect to move through a few different phases of rewriting. Here’s a quick overview of the Big 3:
This type of rewrite will benefit the most from critique group feedback or editorial suggestion. Your beta readers can pretty easily tell you which character descriptions were a bit skimpy, and what passages went on and on…and on…and ended up being way too verbose. Fleshing out characters and scenes can be fun, and cutting can sometimes be painful. This is where that old saying for writers came from: “Kill your darlings.” It means that sometimes there will be sections you fell in love with, but that just don’t technically work, are redundant, or don’t align with the rest of the narrative. Regardless of your love for these particular lines, if multiple beta readers are pointing out the same issue and suggesting you cut them, they probably need to go.
This one can be tough because to see the problem and find the solution really requires a reading of the entire manuscript. It’s nearly impossible to expect your critique group to make informed suggestions about how to structure the complete arc of your story when they’ve only read a few chapters. Relevant feedback on organization of a narrative can only come from someone who has read the whole book. I talk about this in-depth in my post on The Difference between a Critique Group and a Writing Coach. It can be invaluable to writers to either pay someone to read their manuscript beginning-to-end, or enter into a critique partner exchange with another writer for who they’re willing to return the favor of putting in some serious reading time.
If you’re paying an editor to do this, they’re probably going to concentrate mostly on grammar and typos. While this is helpful, I urge all writers to learn how to line edit their own manuscripts as well. Beyond picking up solid skills with grammar, writers should also handle each and every sentence of their story with focused attention on whether or not it needs to be rewritten. Looking at every single sentence, reading it aloud, and running it through your mind to see how it “feels” to you will strengthen your dexterity with language and how it actually sounds. This is a stage of revision that should come very close to the end. It’s frustrating to go over each and every line and then realize you need to cut 75 pages out of the middle anyway.
Each of these phases presents its own challenges and hair-pulling moments of crazy-making. In fact, if you don’t feel a little bit crazy during rewrites then you should thank your lucky stars that you’ve been blessed by the revision fairies this time around, because for most writers those fairies can really be some cranky bitches.
So feeling crazy during this process is normal, but there is one thing you can do to minimize the pain as much as possible:
Only tackle one area at a time.
This is one of the big problems I see my clients go through during rewrites. They finish their book, pass the manuscript out to a bunch of beta readers, and then try to dive into fixing all of the issues at once. So they’re nit-picking apart every line while they’re also trying to move huge chunks of the ending to the first third of the book at the same time. Or they’re frantically rewriting scenes to make the organization of a certain storyline work only to realize that they need to cut that character altogether anyway.
There is no magic formula or 1-2-3 step process for figuring out the best way to do your rewrites. But I do strongly suggest that you pick one area, work on that area until it’s the best that it can be, and then move onto another area. For me personally, I always have to start with line editing. And yes, I realize this is probably the most inefficient, pain-in-the-ass way to go about rewrites, but that’s the way I have to do it. If I don’t run every single sentence through the rewriting machine in my brain first, there’s no way my intuition will kick in full force and tell me how to organize and restructure, what needs to be cut, and who needs to be pushed further onto center stage.
If you’re in the middle of rewrites and you feel constricted in your body—throat and chest tight, tension headache, pain in the shoulders—or you’re starting to panic inside your own mind and that critical voice is getting louder and louder, you’re probably overwhelmed. Step away from the computer, go for a walk outside and concentrate on your breath. Ask yourself if you’re trying to work on too many areas at once. Then ask yourself what would be most helpful for you to work on right now. Work on just that one area of rewrites until you’re finished with it and then take a break before moving onto the next one.
You can get through the rewriting process. Even though it might feel endless, one day it will be done. “Baby steps, baby steps” should be your mantra. And don’t forget to send some gratitude to the revision fairies, they need love too. The more love they get, the less you’ll have to deal with their cranky bitch moods.
I really like the clarity about this post. So many times I’ve seen posts talking about rewriting or revisions by simply going “revise!” and then telling you that you may have to revise more than once. Here, you actually give the reader an idea of what that might look like. Thank you.
Great post! I’m currently in the middle of revising, so this is super helpful. 😁
I burst out laughing at the line ‘sloppy draft,’ but my thanks go to you for the assurance that rewriting is not only par for the course but that the best of writers also go through it.
Thank you also for providing the helpful step by step details of the process. Kudos to you!
I totally agree about taking on one area at a time. I have about four areas, and each one gets my total focused attention. I don’t veer from that process. Yes, it requires multiple passes, but it’s more thorough and exacting if done that way. I’ve had a problem with the serial comma forever, it seems. It depends on house rules too.
I read this twice and loved it more the second time. I am a newbie writer and do not have a dozen Beta readers, so I am mostly on my own. Lauren hit the mark and cut it right to the bone. All you can do is do the best you can do! Line by line is the best start, and a timeline is essential. I loved her quirky comments about revision fairies being cranky bitches. Reading her writing will be fun. I will be looking up her blog.
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