Monday, September 18, 2017

Rewriting - How Do You Know When It's Right?

We hear a lot about the importance of rewriting in our authorial journeys. But what form exactly should this take? How much rewriting is too much and how much is too little?

The answer - like with so many questions like this - depends on your book.

It's very unlikely - if not impossible - that you'll produce the perfect manuscript the first go round. If you do, then the gods have decided to smile upon you. The world's greatest classics no doubt underwent multiple rewrites to get to the condition we know them in.

Here are some tips to bear in mind when embarking on a rewrite.


  • Before going in and doing anything to your actual draft (or a copy of it - you want to keep copies of all your drafts in case you end up deciding the early version of a particular section was best), go through and write down a dramatic narrative of everything that happens in your book - every chapter and scene. (Some of you, like me, might not have chapters at this point.) You can create a story board on several sheets of paper, maybe including sketches of the action if you're the artistic type. If you're a plotter, you can compare this against any outline you might have already prepared, which might help you see where you need to insert or change things. Plotter or not, you're looking to see what each part does to drive the story forward, increase the tension, or develop the characters. If anything's not doing that, you should focus your attention there first, either looking to see how it can be changed to better serve the story or ultimately deciding to drop it.
  • Make lists of action points as you go through this process; this way, you'll always know what you'll want to achieve when you start your rewriting journey. It will also help if you want to add elements such as foreshadowing, and generally making sure everything's on track in terms of consistency - so your MC doesn't mysteriously change hair or eye colour with no explanation.
  • Don't get overwhelmed. Redrafting should always be broken down into manageable chunks. You could choose to focus on one scene at a time, or one character, going through and seeing how their actions impact on the rest of the story. That will have a knock-on effect on several other things, which you could concentrate on on your next pass, and so on.
  • Rewriting takes many forms. Some decide to start completely from scratch and a blank page. Others will consider individual sentences and how they can be refined and perfected. Although, bear in mind that there is no such thing as "perfect"; remember that often our instinct is our best friend. That resolution that came to you in a flash of inspiration might have been just what the doctor ordered, and trying to second guess it might have the opposite effect to what you intended, cooling the tension rather than upping it. It's important to recognise when your rewriting is going too far and taking the oomph out of your writing, defusing that feeling of adrenaline that powered you through the original draft.
  • When you feel you can't do any more, that's when it's time to give it a rest or - ideally - send it to some trusted critique partners for their opinion. The time it takes to get back to you will also allow the story to percolate in your mind, and combined with the fresh input of their ideas, this will help you tackle your opus afresh when they've finished their reading.
Do you have anything to add to this? How do you go about redrafting and rewriting?

22 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't have chapters in the beginning, either.
Only once have I done a complete rewrite. Most of it has been with individual scenes and lines.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic tips. I think the most difficult is not to feel overwhelmed. Rewrites are my least favorite part, but I know I love the polished version that will come out of them. I always take a step back when I send it away to CPs too. The break from it really helps.

Sandee said...

Writing is a daunting task for most folks. Being organized is key. Knowing the steps is essential. I never realized how difficult writing can be.

Have a fabulous day. ☺

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Nick - starting to write a novel would floor me ... but I'm always grateful for tips as I carry on blogging - I'm sure these are really helpful - congratulations - cheers Hilary

nashvillecats2 said...

Very good tips and most interesting to read.

Yvonne.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've removed some large chunks that just didn't move the story forward.

Carrie-Anne said...

A good writer needs to learn when to step away from a rewrite, edit, revision, or polishing. There will probably always be things one later finds fault with, but just getting it to a perfect enough state is good enough. There's also such a thing as too many eyes on a story. One person might suggest a lot of radical changes after everyone else loved those things. You'll never please 100% of your potential readership, but pleasing the majority is good enough.

The Cynical Sailor said...

Great tips, Nick, and especially timely as I'm in the midst of rewriting my novel.

Nick Wilford said...

Alex - A total rewrite is a major undertaking. I haven't actually done one myself.

Christine - It's definitely key to take one step at a time.

Sandee - There's a lot involved to get a great end product.

Hilary - I don't think you need help with your posts!

Yvonne - Thanks! Hope they're helpful.

Diane - Sometimes they just have to go.

Carrie-Anne - Yes, it has to come down to a game of numbers sometimes.

Ellen - Glad to help!

Pat Hatt said...

I don't mind them, as once the book is done, the hard part is over. Then just comes the rewriting away. I get those chapters in as they come.

Haddock said...

"Don't get overwhelmed" is something I have to concentrate on. After a trip its always "so much to write"

cleemckenzie said...

I like to read through all of the comments first, then tackle the big concept challenges. Doing the line items then seems like I'm skating. Great post. Thanks, Nick.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I used to rewrite from scratch. It took a lot of time. Now I print out the first draft and write all over it and on the backs and margins. It doesn't take quite as long because there are some usual sentences there. I hope.

Fundy Blue said...

Thanks for your helpful tips, Nick. I'm still wrestling with the first draft. That's not quite accurate, I have several drafts, but I've not reached the final shape of my memoir, so I don't feel like I have a complete first draft yet. I liked your recommendations to keep all drafts (which I have) and to not get overwhelmed ( which I've managed to get on top of so far). It's also good to have the reassurance that rewriting takes many forms!

Juneta Key said...

Great tips and information.

Darla M Sands said...

I can't seem to stop polishing my novelettes. ~shakes head~ Great tips!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Wish I could say that earlier drafts proved to be better, but in my long career that has never been the case. I love rewrites. Thanks, Nick. This is a comprehensive and very useful list.

Michelle Wallace said...

Great post, Nick!
Thanks for the tips.

Nicole Michelle said...

Ahhh I can so agree with the sentiment of keeping all versions of it. I've done it before where I'm like, "I wrote in this scene, WHAT DID I DO WITH IT??" And to only realize it's been edited out. The nice thing about using Google Docs to do this is they do keep drafts. I'm just awful about keeping everything in one place.

Toi Thomas said...

What perfect timing for this post. I've been working up to a rewrite.
Thanks for the tips.

Kelly Hashway/Ashelyn Drake said...

I never keep copies of different drafts. I don't marry myself to my words, so when I revise something, the previous version gets overwritten. I'd go crazy with multiple drafts. That's me, though.

LJ Leighton said...

I've never tried leaving an original copy intact. That's a tip I will definitely use. I usually do my rewrites scene by scene comparing them to my final outline. (I usually redo my outline at least once during my first draft because of uncooperative characters). I like the idea of going character by character. I've never done that but I can definitely see how that could be really helpful. Thanks for the great tips!