To Rewrite, or not to Rewrite, That is the Question

With apologies to Shakespeare:

To rewrite, or not to rewrite: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous reviews,
Or to take arms against a sea of typos,
And by opposing end them?

Of course, rewriting is much more than correcting typos. As Dean Wesley Smith defines it in his post, “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting,” rewriting is “when you go into a manuscript after it is finished in critical voice and start changing things, usually major things like plot points, character actions, style of sentences, and so on.”

Smith is in the camp of “Not to.”   His advice is to just write, spellcheck, touch up, and throw your story up on Amazon. “You have to write new material to learn. No one ever learned how to be a creative writer by rewriting. Only by writing.”

Here is where understanding the terms is really important.  As I understand what Smith is saying, by “rewrite” he means making major structural changes to a story. By his definition, any story that needs that much work is broken. You’re better off taking the important idea you started with and redrafting the story from the beginning. He relates a conversation with Algis Budrys:  “So I asked him if he ever thought rewriting could fix a flawed story. His answer was clear and I remember it word-for-word to this day: ‘No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.’”

Unfortunately, I think some writers will fail to understand that Smith isn’t saying you shouldn’t do any more than the barest clean-up on your manuscript.  I missed this point on the first read through.  He does recommend doing “touch-up” drafts, sometimes more than one. And for new writers these “touch-ups” may be extensive.  They might even be considered rewrites by some. Whether this would be considered “stirring a steaming pile of crap” might only be discernible after you’ve stirred it a while. Nevertheless, I think that new writers can learn from rewriting. I have.

When I first starting to write, I’d read a lot of stories.  That means that story structure was deeply embedded in my subconscious. That’s a good place for it to be, since that’s where a writer’s creativity resides. When you’re writing that first draft, you want to let your subconscious take control. This doesn’t necessarily eliminate having an outline. You can use an outline and still fill in around it with wild creativity. But during the first draft you must not let your internal editor rule. Lock her in a box if you have to.

Once your first draft is done, however, let your editor out of the box. (Here’s a good resource for self-editing.) As Joanna Pen did with her draft of Pentecost, you have to ask yourself if what’s on the page matches what you set out to create. Her process was quite involved, and not every manuscript will need this level of revision. What I’ve found is that by examining my work and recognizing areas that fail to accomplish what I tried to do (either by my own perception or with the help of other readers) and then fixing them, I have learned how to avoid making the same mistakes in the next story.  I learned from rewriting (or touching-up, if you will).

What you don’t want to do is get stuck reworking one manuscript over and over and over. That way madness lies (and a lack of publication).  Smith makes a valuable point about learning from writing. Sometimes it’s better to redraft, write something new, or several somethings.  You can always bring back what you’ve learned to that earlier manuscript.

Or not.  There’s a lot to be said for just moving forward. As the Italian driver said in Gumball Rally, “What is behind you is unimportant.”


Filed under writing

4 responses to “To Rewrite, or not to Rewrite, That is the Question

  1. Leila

    I think a good story is a living thing, changing in the most surprising way. Just like people.

    Even after it’s hit the ‘hard copy’ phase, it still breathes in our dreams. If we, the writer, are lucky we can keep the story going through sequels and series.

    I’m not done until the agent/editor/publisher, when I find one, says I’m done! 🙂

  2. I agree. I’ve actually blogged about this topic over at secretsof7scribes. I’m a huge fan of Dean. Most of the time, its hard to dispute his common sense and logic. Reading his post on re-writing set me free from a huge mental trap I had laid for myself. I also think writers use re-writing as a way to avoid starting anything new or even to avoid stand ing up for their work and start submitting it (or indie publishing it). There is a point when, as Jessica Anderson likes to say, “all you’re doing is re-arranging the furniture.” And I couldn’t agree more.

    • Yes, I’ve done my share of rearranging the furniture. 🙂

      Knowing when it’s time to let your baby fly is always a challenge. Even Dean gets edited, probably by his Hugo award winning editor wife. At some point, though, like doting parents, we all have to let go and let our work make its own way in the world.

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