Rewriting: the basics

rewritingWhen we talk about the writing process, most attention is usually given to the planning and the first draft stages. This is natural – starting at the start is logical. With all this talkspace given to plotting, dialogue, characterisation, pacing, structuring and prose details, sometimes we neglect to discuss the vitally importnat rewriting stage of the whole process. This is unfortunate, because it can lead to two misconceptions. Firstly, that the rewriting stage insn’t very important (yikes!) and secondly, that rewriting is just the same as writing a first draft (oh dear …)

Time to disabuse you of those notions.

1. Rewriting is of crucial importance – if you want a polished, professional end product that is all is can possibly be. Thinking that you can produce a piece of writing that is perfect, first time, is folly. Thinking that you can just skim over your draft, tweak it a little, and all will be well is delusional. Commit yourself to careful, critical rewriting. It’s where you make shabby first thoughts into profundities. It’s where you transform pedestrian characters into complex, engaging human beings. It’s where you tighten your story, shedding flat and pompous sections and creating a taut narrative that won’t let go. It’s where you make your prose sing.

2. Rewriting is different from writing your first draft. For a start, you’re working with something, not creating from scratch. It’s a different mindset. You need to be creative, of course, but you need to be critical. You also need to know when to leave well enough alone.

Let’s break down the Rewriting stage into its fundamentals.

When you rewrite, you do three things:

  1. You delete stuff.
  2. You add stuff.
  3. You change stuff.

That’s the process in a nutshell. Do this, and do it carefully, and you’ll end up with a superior piece of writing.

Deleting is vital. Your second draft should be shorter than your first – somewhere between 10% and 30% shorter seems to be the consensus. Trim flabbiness. Shed interesting byways that don’t advance the plot. Get rid of scenes where characters are merely going from A to B. Drop dream sequences, prologues, and ‘waking up the next morning’ sequences. Chop extra adjectives. Eliminate adverbs, judiciously.

Adding is also necessary – sometimes. What may be perfectly clear to you isn’t necessarily so for a reader. It’s the delicate balancing act between under-explaining and over-explaining. Adding is also useful when you understand the usefulness of foreshadowing. Inserting a small episode where your main character expresses a horror of snakes may pay off big time when the climax of your story involves a pit of serpents.

Changing is like deleting and adding, but different. It can be as simple as changing words, substituting punchier, more vivid words for drab first choices. It could mean combining two minor characters into one. It could mean reworking a time sequence to eliminate that flashback and having the story play out more linearly – and more clearly. It could mean rewriting the whole story in third person rather than first.

Rewriting. Commit to it, undertake it, and repeat as necessary.