The art of rewriting: getting the most development mileage from your edits

I work with an amazingly talented writing client. Every week for 39 weeks now, he’s submitted his novel-in progress, usually 10-20 pages each week.

We’ve made it through draft 1. We took a short break where I did an analysis of the entire draft and made some road-map revision notes for a draft 2. We jumped right into draft 2, once the creative energy was cooking and we decided we were both ready, like boxers on a time out, focused, ready for round 2.

We’re now almost 2/3 through the 2nd draft, and the transformation is amazing.

One technique where this writer excels is the ability to rewrite. I’ll talk more about what I mean by that. But first, a bit of context.

Near the end of draft 1, we had a moment of despair, the round 1 knockout where you don’t think you’re getting back up.

“Should I just scrap this draft and write draft 2 as a fresh take?” was the question that came in, with just a few chapters to go.

“No,” I reassured. “Get to the end. Give yourself permission to write a crappy draft, knowing you can rewrite and make the next one better.”

Get all the cards on the table was another analogy I gave him. Throw everything down, so you an see how it all adds up. That includes the fuck-ups. The only thing worse than a bad draft is an unfinished one.

He persevered. And the end was impressive despite the qualms. What it allowed us both to see is how all the momentum generated by the draft came together. It allowed us to see this author’s vision for his story, and where all his characters would end up.

It let us see just what draft 2 had to be.

With this comes the art of rewriting. Let’s talk about what that means, because I often find many writers I converse with use “revision” and “rewriting” interchangeably.

Rewriting is a part of revision. What most people think of as “revision” though looks like this:

The cat went down to the street, and walked back to the pub with a pint.

(revised:)

The cat went to the street, returning to the pub with a pint.

Rewriting, on other hand, looks like this:

The street was dark. In the shadows, the cat crept, unseen by humans, a pint in its hand. No one realized, in their day-to-day bustle, that the world of cats was as advanced as that of humans.

The first example of “revised” text shows a common problem writers face when revising: getting locked in the grid of your words. When you pass over your manuscript trying to “improve” you usually take it as a given that you have to keep your old words. You see where you’re impressed with yourself, but not where others won’t be. If there’s a dialog between characters, you keep that dialog. If there’s a particular plot, or order of events, you keep that too.

Rewriting, though, means you can do whatever you want. There are no limits.

Usually, to rewrite, you need an objective professional, like an editor. This is the best way to truly push you to make the more radical changes that require rewriting. This is the way to turn okay writing into amazing writing.

In the above example, I imagined, as a writer, that my editor had gone over that passage and said, “Why the HELL is a cat walking with a pint to a pub?” And I imagined what kind of rewriting I might do, especially if this were the opening to a story about cats who have sentient lives analogous to humans, in a sort of Harry-Potter-esque parallel universe. I definitely don’t think that writing was amazing, but it illustrates the point well enough.

What my weekly writing client excels at is this art of rewriting. This week, and in many of the previous weeks, he’s doubled down on my prompts to treat draft one as, essentially, a very large outline of how the book could possibly work.

It’s let us develop a good strategy:

When going over a next draft, form a binary orientation to your story:

  • This passage is GREAT and is the gold worth saving
  • This passage ISN’T GREAT and must be rewritten so I can find more gold worth saving

Revision, then, is the art of passing over and over and rewriting the latter parts, until there are none of them left.

With this art of rewriting, your protagonist can go on a whole new adventure that develops her inner character journey within the expectations of the genre plot. In the case of my client, his novel is a detective novel, but it’s also heavily about personal transformation brought on by the external conflict. Knowing this, my writing client has doubled down week after week making new narrative choices.

-New characters speak who didn’t speak in the last draft. GOLD, worth keeping.

-Passive reflection turns into moments of transformation. GOLD, worth keeping.

-The forces of antagonism emerge in new character confrontations, heightening conflict. GOLD, worth keeping.

There are still some notes on how to improve, as we go through this draft, but because we’ve learned to trust this rewriting principle, it’s now a no-brainer when I leave in a comment, “This is a draft 3 prompt.”

Permission to fail means ability to focus on the success now that matters, and trust that failure now can be fodder for success to come.

Wherever you’re at in your manuscript, I hope you also are enjoying the power of rewriting, and the art of refining, as one draft leads to another, and slowly, gold predominates the amazing story you soon will be ready to share with the world.

About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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