Philip Roth says, “The book really comes to life in the rewriting.” Joyce Carol Oates says most of her time writing is really rewriting. John Irving says, “Maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting.”
Where do you start a rewrite? The best place to start is with a completed first draft. A first draft gives you something to work with so you can get to where you want to go. It’s a necessary step.
First drafts excite me. There’s a feeling of freedom in this first step of writing a piece. I know I need those freely written words for the material to develop. I turn off my internal editor and turn on the creative faucet to let thoughts and ideas flow onto the page.
In a first draft I take chances. I use words as they come to me, trusting they’re the right ones and knowing that if I decide later they aren’t, I’ll change them. If I re-read and fiddle and fix while I’m creating, I’ll interrupt the stream of possibility.
Newer writers often view rewriting as a show of fault in their ability. It isn’t true. The only fault is in skipping the rewrite. Rewriting is part of writing. It’s not time to refine, it’s time to rewrite.
If you were in a nice restaurant and were served a too-salty soup, would you recommend the soup — or the restaurant — to anyone? It’s the same with writing. If you want people to read what you write and come back for more, you have to do what’s needed to make it really good.
Translated literally, revision means to see again. And that’s the attitude I take when I return to a piece after the first draft — I am seeing with new eyes.
Try these 5 steps for the first revision when you have a piece of writing fresh out of the gate: Rest, Review, Rewrite, Prune, Polish.
- Rest. Put the writing aside for a few days or even a week so your view of it is fresh. You see more this way.
- Review. Read your story all the way through without making changes. Notice what’s there and be open to ideas. Look at the beginning. Does it grab you? If it doesn’t grab you, it won’t grab a reader. Consider shape. How close to the main event does the story start? Does the story build or lie flat? Is the storyline jagged or smooth? Did you mention and/or describe place (location) and people? Does time move in a way that will be clear to a reader? Have you included any reflections on your subject? Does it fit to add how the experience affected you or anyone else? How does the story end — abruptly? With a predictable (flat) recap? Jot down some notes about what you’ve read and what you want to add.
- Rewrite. Have at it! Make sure the beginning is strong and engaging. Choose the precise words to communicate your meaning. Take out what isn’t needed for the strength of the story (even if you love how you wrote it!); add and keep only what’s needed to for a clear sense of situation and story.
- Prune. Read what you’ve written, this time making your add-ins and take-aways while you read. Sometimes what you wrote inspires a better way of saying it.
- Polish. Now that you have the content as you like it, you can hear the rhythm of the writing. You may be satisfied with it; you may find room for improvements. You may see, for example, that one sentence has a better rhythm made into two.
When you’ve done all you can do, you are truly finished. It’s time to share your story with a friend or send it to a professional editor for a line edit before you publish.
(A version of this article appeared in my blog posts in 2014. I’ve revised it to help more people see it — or see it again!)