Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Embracing Revision

by David Sharp

I've heard it before, and so have you. Most of writing is rewriting. This is not a mystery to you, and if you've been to any number of workshops on writing, you're probably rolling your eyes right now. Here we go again!

Ensign, set a course for the
Drawing Board. It's high time
we returned there.
At a recent conference, several writers got to meet with industry professionals for brief feedback on excerpts of their work. The consistent message seemed to be: "Rewrite! I need to see more of X and less of Y."

Recipients of this message responded with deep sighs and drawn faces. Of course, what we all want to hear is, "This is brilliant, Brilliant, BRILLIANT! Sign here, please!" So far, I've only seen a reaction like that one time, and that was interrupted when my alarm clock woke me up.

There are endless resources on how to go about the task of rewriting. Bestselling authors have a lot of advice on the subject. One thing I've never heard them say, however, is, "I hate rewrites." What I want to talk about is embracing the rewrite. Here's a few reasons you should:

Look at that blank paper. 
It's so smarmy!

Rewrites are easier than first drafts: What's worse than working on a 100,000 word manuscript? Working on a blank document. Oh, you can be all poetic if you want and say, "It's so full of potential, blah, blah, blah." That's not how I feel. That empty page is mocking me. Mocking me with it's blankness! And its blinky little cursor! What's the matter, Hemingway? Can't you think of anything? Blink, blink, blink... (ahem) When you're on your first draft, you're figuring everything out for the first time. Later on, you know the story. You know the characters. It doesn't take near the time or effort to rattle off a scene from another character's point of view or from a new thematic angle. I can create a new edition of my whole manuscript in a fraction of the time it took me to make it from scratch.

I rarely like the old version better: When I scrap a scene, I always keep an old version around. Just in case. Know how many times I slotted those old versions back in place? Never. The rewrites are almost always better. No matter how resistant you are to the suggested changes, you'll find yourself falling in love with the new edition. Scenes that I feel protective over now are the same scenes that ousted their predecessors.

You still have the old version: It hasn't gone anywhere. Worse case, your bestseller isn't your favorite edition. Oh, well. You can always read the edition you like. And when you tell your readers that, they'll be so jealous you'll have to publish an 'Author's Preferred Text.' The fact that APT's exist at all is a testament that even established authors don't always get their way.

I can't stop myself: When I don't feel like rewriting, all I have to do is start reading my manuscript. Pretty soon, the game is afoot. Sometimes, it's just restructuring sentences. Sometimes it's re-configuring entire scenes. Either way, I'm improving it. If you share this unfortunate condition, guess what? You're a writer.

Ha! Take that,
you smarmy paper! 

Be aware rewriting is more than grammatical polish. It's redrafting scenes, working in thematic elements, turning characters who used to be sultans into potted plants, whatever. Don't get down about rewriting. Easier said than done. But it's actually one of the perks of our art form. We have the luxury of rewrites. Marble sculptors have to get it right the first time. They don't get to glue slivers of stone back onto the slab. 

It's very lovely, yes. But could you
try it again from another POV?

  For resources on how to conduct your rewrite, check out:

  How to Rewrite
  - this one has a nice list of over-used words you can watch for.

  True Writing is Rewriting

  Writing a Book: What Happens After the First Draft

  Recommended Books:
    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamot.

    Revision and Self Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell.

Share some of your own tips in the comments below.


I. A. Mullin said...

I whole heartedly agree that rewritting is good. Many times I find that there was nothing "wrong" about the old scene, it's more that the new scene is just more right for the story.

David Sharp said...

Yes. Replacing a scene certainly doesn't make it a bad scene. Changing your favorite passages is never easy. But you really do want to end up with that 'best' version, and that doesn't come happen without revision. Thanks for commenting.

shenke said...

Great article! I liken the word 'revision' myself as representative of its more cloudy origins and how we are truly tapping the root of our work (Latin roots to be precise) by 're-visioning' the creative merits of 'seeing again' what we may have never seen before that can provide us with critical shifts in our experience as writers.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I enjoy rewriting and sometimes do a little too much. However, I follow that great advice to save various versions along the way. My next book (to be published in 2017) is version three out of six. Sometimes I rewrite too much. :D

David Sharp said...

I agree, shenke, and thanks for commenting. "Seeing again" is the root of revision. Being able to distance yourself so that you can look at it with fresh eyes is crucial to detecting those deep structural changes that help a story to emerge. That's a great point.

And Patricia, congrats on your upcoming release! I don't know if there is such a thing as rewriting too much. Would you say that you benefited from writing beyond the finished version? Sometimes, I think experimental drafts (even if they're never meant for the eyes of your readers) can help a writer test the boundaries of a story and understand it better. What do you think? And thank you, also, for sharing your insights.

Patricia Stoltey said...

By the time I reached the last rewrite, David, I felt I'd written the life right out of my main character through changes in dialogue style and the move from 1st to 3rd person for that character's POV chapters.

Yes, I can rewrite too much. This may not be a problem for other writers, but I sometimes don't recognize when it's time to stop. Every manuscript should not be a neverending project.

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