Revision and Rewriting


You have finished a first (second or third) draft of your short story or novel. Now what do you do? Revise and rewrite. But where do you start? How do you manage a process that can seem to be even more daunting than writing the first draft?

It’s true, revision and rewriting can be frustrating to authors. And when you add copy editing into the mix, many writers feel overwhelmed, disheartened, or down right confused. After the many hours of work that it took to produce the draft, being confronted with the next step—revision and rewriting—may make the process seem impossible. Fear not. While revision and rewriting can be time consuming and sometimes difficult; they need not be overwhelming or confusing. You simply need to compartmentalize and deal with each step individually, one at a time, in an organized manner. This column will examine revision and rewriting and provide you with some tips on how to manage them. Copy editing will be dealt with separately in next month’s column.

Let’s take a look at exactly what these fearful terms mean:
Revision (From The American Heritage Dictionary):

  1. To amend or alter
  2. To alter something already written in order to make corrections, improve, or update [Emphasis added by author]
  3. To consider and change or modify [Emphasis added by author]

And from a number of authors I asked, revision consisted of:
Altering word order, sentences, minor details; tightening structure, rewriting a sentence or two in a paragraph, moving a few paragraphs around; and, finally, rewording things: looking for better words, and avoiding repetition; minor editing

Rewriting (From The American Heritage Dictionary):

  1. To write again, especially in a different or improved form; [Emphasis added by author]
  2. To write in a different form or manner;
  3. To write again

And from a number of authors I asked, rewriting consisted of:
Moving large sections; reconstructing sections or chapters; working from the ground up; making changes that affect elements of the entire work; axing chapters, sections, and paragraphs and redoing them because of concept, character, or plot changes; and, finally, making extensive changes that affect your vision of the story, character construction, or overall stylistic concerns; major editing.

So clearly, rewriting and revision are bed fellows. They are two sides of the same coin.

Both revision and rewriting involve reworking your manuscript or sections of it. In many ways the tasks are similar in concept, but differ greatly in size, volume, scope, and complexity. Simply, revision is a less in-depth, less invasive version of rewriting. The primary difference is that rewriting consists of changes that alter the meaning or structure of a text and revising consists of changes that do not alter meaning and structure.

Neither of them involves copy editing, per say. But, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make changes to spelling, etc… when you are revising or rewriting. Instead it means copy editing is in and of itself a last (i.e. final) step in the writing process (which is why I am giving it is own column next month). So don’t waste time during a revision or rewrite to look up spelling and/or grammar only to discover later the entire section is being axed. Save those tasks for the copy editing step, but do fix minor or obvious errors as you find them.

Revision and rewriting become more complex for a novel, but the basic steps are the same. I will use a short story as an example throughout this column and indicate when the process differs for a novel within the text.

Thinking About Revision and Rewriting
This process is the same regardless of what number draft it is. You have your draft in hand. In theory your first draft usually needs more work than your third, but this isn’t always true. Sometimes, especially with novels, you may not discover a critical X until a later draft and that X may affect the entire manuscript. The important thing to remember is to focus on the task of revising and rewriting your prose and not waste energy fretting about fitting into a made up statistic about how long it takes to revise and how many drafts are needed to finish a manuscript. Make the changes that need to be made and ignore the time you use or number of drafts you create doing it.

Revision is reading your story (chapter) from start to finish and fine-tuning word choices, sentence structure, making minor changes that improve the prose and flow of the story. These changes do not drastically alter the basic structure of the story. Rewriting, in contrast, is a much deeper reworking of longer sections of the story that affect the entire work. Like throwing a rock into a pond, rewriting will cause ripples to form around the point of impact. In some cases you may be disregarding and rewriting entire sections (chapters) of your manuscript. The steps you go through in revision are also a part of the rewriting process.

The need for rewriting occurs most often when you realize half way though the manuscript that X should be Y; that X is missing; that you have finally found X; etc…. X could be a character, plot point, focus, minor theme that should be a major theme, or any other element that affects the manuscript as a whole. For the purpose of making the steps clear, I’ve separated revision and rewriting. In truth, for many authors the two are wed and one process. It will be clear as you go through the process that many of the revision steps are repeated as you rewrite. By separating the two, I hope to make the process clearer and demystify it.

So, what is revision and rewriting? I like the third definition of revision: To consider and change or modify─with the goal of improving the text from both definitions. The main focus of revision is to consider what you have written and look for places to improve it by smoothing out and clarifying your prose. The main focus of rewriting is the same as revision, but is a more in-depth and complex smoothing out and clarifying process. For example, during a revision you might axe and rework a sentence or a paragraph, but during a rewrite you might axe a page, a multi page section, or entire chapter. The implication for the rest of the manuscript should be obvious. By deleting a single sentence or paragraph the ripple affect is small but when a section or chapter is redone greater attention to the rest of the manuscript to ensure consistence in the theme as well as the prose is needed.

Getting Started
Set the manuscript aside. It is recommended to set it a side for at least a day, if possible for a week. A month is recommended for a novel.

Work off a paper copy. Even if you prefer to write on the computer. A paper copy will allow you to manipulate the manuscript (especially a long novel length manuscript) better and the paper copy will allow your eye to catch things the screen doesn’t.

Read the manuscript aloud. For real. Aloud. Not to yourself in your mind. Your ears will catch things your eyes will not.

Triple-space your manuscript. Some folks do this for revision. I find it distracting and leave the manuscript double space. Do what works best for you.

Tools: notebook or paper, pen/pencil, highlighters, post it notes, a style guide such as Elements of Style, and a dictionary. You may find you do not like to use all of these. I don’t use the post it notes. I write on the manuscript pages and in the note book instead. But the list above is recommended if you are new to revising or have had difficulty doing it in the past.

Tip for Revision
Focusing on a specific set of issues during each revision read will make the process more manageable. This is especially true for a novel length manuscript but can also be helpful for a short story if you are having trouble revising in general. For example, on the first read focus on general items; on the second on character issues; on the third plot elements; etc… By reducing what you are revising you may find the process easier to manage. I’ve grouped the list below into items that work well together if you choose to go that route.

Steps for Revision
Read the whole story from start to finish in one sitting. Don’t make any changes now. If anything pops out as needing work, make notes to yourself in the margins of the manuscript, in the notebook, or on the post it notes (affixing them to the correct pages as you go through the manuscript). Look at the story as a whole. You should also do this with your novel. Although one sitting is an unrealistic goal for reading an entire novel; breaking it into 1 or 2 chapters per session may work better.

Now start at the beginning, this time address each of your notes and making the changes on the hard copy or on the electronic version. I like to make the changes on the hardcopy, but this is personal choice. It should be easy enough to address word choice, grammatical issues, etc… if you encounter a large theme/plot issue or a scene that isn’t working, or something that will cause a ripple effect, skip it and address it during the second revision. You have your notes to refer back to as you do this so nothing will be lost.

After the first reading, you should be able to determine if you need to do a rewrite. Review your marked up manuscript. Are there substantial changes needed? Do large sections need rewriting? Are there numerous prose problems? Are there scenes that aren’t working? Are my characters flat? Are there large sections that are over/underwritten? If so, you should consider doing a more intensive rewrite?

Make all of the changes in the electronic reversion and reprint your manuscript. Use the same system of making notes but, read the manuscript aloud this time. When you get to the end, start at the beginning fixing the errors as you get to them. Now make the edits on your electronic copy, print a fresh manuscript, and start the process again. Repeat this until you feel you’ve reached an end in the revision. Alternate between reading aloud and in your head.

Some things to look for as you read:
Prose style: Are there awkward prose? Varied sentence lengths? Well written descriptions? Are word choices strong? Do you use concrete words or weak words? Check for over usage of adverb and adjectives that could be replaced with stronger verbs and nouns or better adjectives. Verbs: Are there tense shifts, incorrect usage, weak verbs?

Look for repetition, words repeated too often or close to each other. Look for the unnecessary, often self indulgent, parts that don’t move your story forward and can be cut. Seek out over/under written sections/scenes. Is your use of punctuation correct?

Plot points: Does the plot work? Are all of the elements of the plot included in a logical order? Is anything missing? Confusing? Look for unrealistic events and actions

Character: Look for strong character construction and consistency (or lack of) in characters’ actions. Find places to build in more or better character traits and descriptions. Are characters 3-dimensional? Believable? Real?

Setting descriptions: Are places clearly described? Over/under described? Do places feel real? Is it clear where action is happening?

Scenes: Is your dialogue realistic? Is there action/movement in the dialogue or are the characters talking heads? Does it advance the plot/character construction? Does it advance the story? Does it provide new information? Review each scene does it belong in the story/book? Does it belong where it is? Is some portion of it needed, but not the whole thing? Can it be combined with another scene? Should it be combined? Does it need to be tightened? Expanded?

General: Look for inconsistencies in characters’ action/behavior, timeline, events, and plot details; examine each page for balance between dialogue, action, introspection and description; does my story fit the standard word count for the genre/call?

Find typos and grammatical errors. (This is actually copy editing so don’t spend a lot of time on it. If you find it, fix it or, if you need to look it up, mark it to be fixed later.)

Extra Tips For Novels:
Make a list of character names as they appear, include the page number and a 1 to 5 word description of the character’s role in the story; Check the first paragraph of each chapter for “hooks”; Check the end of each chapter for “cliffhangers.” Examine the overall structure of the book, do the pieces hang together correctly.

Steps for Rewriting
The sections of your draft that need to be rewritten should be treated like a new draft. I find it easier to delete the parts that aren’t working and start over to construct a new scene. Other authors work from the text they are deleting reconstructing around the rejected section. In either case, when you finish the rewrite, return to the revision stage.

If you determine you need to do a more in-depth rewrite of some or all of your manuscript here are some things to consider as you approach it:

Why are you rewriting this section/scene/chapter?

Was it over or underwritten?

Unneeded because X changed?

Will the cut material be replace?

If so, by what? A completely new event or a rewrite of the same events?

Was there anything in the material you cut that needs to be added into another sections?

How does your rewrite affect other sections of the story/book?

Kill Your Darlings
Don’t fall in love with what you have written. If you do, you won’t want to axe things and you need to be able to axe things. If it makes you feel better you can cut and paste whatever you axe into a new document called cut or axe or trash. I’ve gone back to my trash folder and pulled out a paragraph or scene and built entirely new stories around them. Waste not, want not. But be emotionally prepared to axe your work. Almost every manuscript is overwritten in the early drafts. Writers often use the first draft process to think out the story. Likewise we may write version of the same idea two or three or more times before we get the prose exactly the way we want them. If you are allowing your creativity to run free (which I hope you are) this is true of your manuscript. The hardest thing to learn to do as a writer is to cut. You must learn to sacrifice individual words and sentences, even whole chapters for the good of the manuscript.

Discovering Your Own Style
Many of the more experienced authors I spoke with do not treat revision and rewriting as separate steps. They have over the years morphed them into one process. This is perfectly fine. However, if you are a beginning writer or if you have troubles with revision and rewriting, keeping the process as two steps can help you to work through it with less stress and eventually to develop your own style.

I revise short stories as I go along. I re-read the story before I start writing and revise up to the part where there is no more text, then I write the new text. (Clearly this isn’t going to work with a novel.) If I am a cut-throat editor, when the draft is done I have little revision and no rewriting for a short story.

You can apply this same process to chapters as you write them. However, because of the length of novels you might not discover X until chapter 4 or 5, in which case no matter how good an editor you were with each chapter, X will needed to be added into the Chapters 1 through 4. And with a novel the possible changes grow exponentially. So regardless of how cut-throat you are, there will likely be revision and rewriting when you hit the end of the final chapter. With a novel, it is best in my opinion to finish your first draft before you start the revision process at all. The important thing is that you find an organized systematic way to approach revision that works for you.

Attitude is Everything
Revision and rewriting should be a liberating act not an occasion for mourning the lost of your existing draft or feeling as if you are a poor writer who needs to rewrite your text. Revision is less invasive, but critical, and rewriting should be looked on as opportunity to “get it right” not as a weakness on your part as an author. No one writes perfect first drafts despite the folklore around some authors, it isn’t possible or for that matter impractical. Many more experienced writers produce cleaner first drafts, but this is because they’ve spent years and many hours revising and rewriting and have learned their own weakness and have adjusted their crafts to compensate for them.

Beware of Your Own Weaknesses
Know what your weaknesses as a writer are and learn to spot them in your manuscript. Accept them and work to undo them as you work on your first draft. If you have a weak understanding of punctuation, review the rules. If you cannot spell, keep a list of words you consistently misspell. If you repeat the same word over and over, make sure to check your manuscript for it. Everyone has weaknesses; it is how you deal with yours that will determine your level of success.

Fear of revision is understandable, but please avoid NRS and TRS.

Non-Revision Syndrome (NRS)
NRS is when a writer never revises her work. These writers can be very prolific, turning out reams and reams of first drafts─none of which can be published because without the revision process, none of them are ever completed. Those who suffer from NRS may share their work with friends or even workshop pieces but they never revise and thus never complete any of their pieces. Instead they start a new first draft of a new story. Because they never actually finish a story they never publish anything. Don’t fall prey to NRS. Revision is critical to the writing process.

Terminal Revision Syndrome (TRS)
TRS is when an author becomes stuck in the revision process and spends his entire life (or a good portion of it) revising the same piece over and over, never satisfied with it and never finished with it. Whatever the causes of TRS, the end is always the same. Like NRS folks, TRS sufferers almost never publish anything because nothing is ever finished. They become fixated on the piece they are perpetually revising.

Now have fun revising and rewriting.

If there is an issue you would like me to address in Two Girls Kissing, please email it to me with the column title as the subject line. To be added to my confidential monthly email list, please email me, Amie M. Evans, with ‘subject’ as the subject line.

NEXT TIME: Copy Editing

Amie M. Evans
July 2008

“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2008 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.

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