I get a lot of beginning writers asking me how to rewrite. This post is aimed squarely at them: the ones who are unsure how to fix a story they have written from beginning to end. Which is my way of saying that any experienced writer is going to find what I am about to say obvious, boring, and un-useful. You folks should go read Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing or, you know, get back to work.
(It’s also a really LONG post. Hence the cut.)
“How can I learn to rewrite?” is an incredibly hard question to answer. It’s sort of like asking a pro tennis player (or coach): “How do I improve my tennis?”
The answer, of course, is practice. Practice A LOT.
But how useful is that to the person who writes all the time but doesn’t seem to be getting any better? Who can’t figure out what to do to improve a story once they’ve written the first draft? How do you practice rewriting?
It’s almost impossible to improve your rewriting skills without doing lots of rewriting. But if you don’t know how to rewrite it’s very hard to, you know, rewrite.
How do you learn?
Most people need to be taught.
I didn’t learn to rewrite until I started to have my work critiqued regularly by people who knew what they were talking about.
I remember my first real critique. My manuscript was handed back to me defaced with red scrawl. There were no smiley faces, no praise, just endless comments on everything I’d done wrong. It reduced me to tears. So did the next dozen (probably more) critiques. But with each one I learned a little bit more about how to (re)write a half-way decent novel.
I was blind; other people had to teach me how to see.
Very few people learn to rewrite alone.
There are two basic kinds of rewriting: structural and sentence level. Most beginner writers get caught up in sentence level changes. They go over their manuscripts deleting and switching words around (what’s called line editing in the biz). They do this before they’ve learned how to fix the structure. The result is lots of shifting around of deck chairs while the Titanic sinks.
Structural rewrites are the kind that change the genre of your story (this would be so much better with a vampire), the order of events (wouldn’t it make more sense if the quokkas were stolen in the first chapter?), the relationships of the characters (if they were brother and sister it would be way more intense), the setting (have you actually been to Sydney?—I’m not buying the ease with which your character walked from Surry Hills to Dural), what point of view it’s in (you know Hans is kind of boring but Greta rocks—why don’t you have her tell the story?), whether it’s told in past or present tense (if the narrator is telling the tale from beyond the grave putting it in present tense makes no sense), and so forth.
To demonstrate, let us take a bad movie, say, Snakes on a Plane, and think about how to make it better.
My first big structural change would be to delete the tedious opening where you learn why the tedious white boy character is in witness protection. He witnesses a murder, is pursued by baddies, and taken into protective custody by FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson and then waits at the airport to get on the plane. At this point the other characters are introduced. This whole section is unnecessary and deadly dull. We know the title of the movie. Skip to the snakes on the bloody plane already!
I’d begin with the FBI commandeering first class for their precious witness, while the flight attendants are stuck dealing with the results of that as the plane is boarded, and down in the bowels of the plane the snakes begin to stir. The scene is set much more efficiently and you don’t have to wait forever for the snakes to show up.
Deleting the opening is a common edit.1 Lots of writers start their tale too early and go into too much detail. For instance, my first (unpublished) novel started about ten years too early and involved introducing the cast of zillions one by one, enumerating what they look like, who’s related to whom, and where they fit in the story. Riveting stuff. Cut!
This is not to say that a leisurely beginning can’t work. Sometimes it’s the exact right way to tell a tale. See any number of nineteenth century novels none of which begin with anything blowing up. However, in the case of Snakes On A Plane nothing new is added by those opening scenes. The vast majority of viewers can figure out what the situation is within seconds. No backstory or flashbacks needed. There’s a dude and the bad guys have put snakes on the plane to get him. Proceed!
The film’s other major structural flaw (other than its witless dialogue) is that there’s very little tension. And what tension there is gets wiped out by the snakes invading the passenger cabin en masse (the progression from one snake to millions is almost instantaneous), and the hero (Samuel L.) being fearless and impervious to harm. If there’s nothing at stake for the protag then there’s nothing at stake for the viewer.
In one scene Mr Jackson has to go down into the snake-infested part of the plane to flick a switch and save the plane from crashing. But it’s all too easy and he returns unscathed. Boring!2
I would have introduced the snakes more gradually and would have had Samuel L. bitten by one with a slow-acting venom very early on to make the whole movie a bit more DOA. Can he save the whole plane and himself? Will there be an anti-venom waiting for him if the plane arrives?
On the other hand, it may still have sucked.
You can do this same exercise with books. Take a book you thought was crap. Read it again. Note the boring bits, the bits that made you roll your eyes and go “as if”, the bits that were confusing, and the bits that were flat out insane. How many changes would you need to make it work?
Do you have friends who’re also learning to write? Critique each other’s stories. Every time you’re confused or bored note that down. Note down the bits that work too.
Now do the same to one of your own stories. Not as easy, is it?
The problem is that you know what you were trying to do—or trying not to do—and sometimes when you’re reading your own stories that’s what you see rather than what actually wound up on the page. I have a mortal fear of overwriting; my most frequent editorial comment is that I should spell things out and be less subtle. Yet when I read what I’ve written it seems plenty spelled out and totally unsubtle.
That’s why it’s so important to have as many different people as possible read your work and tell you the ways in which it ain’t working. Ask your teacher what they mean exactly when they say your essay/poem/story is broken. Make them point out the crappy bits and tell you why they think they are crappy. Perhaps a writers’ group or workshop will work for you. There are plenty online that you can join if you live somewhere without many writers. But don’t worry if a writer’s group isn’t your kind of thing; there are lots of writers for whom they are anathema.3
Most likely everyone will say different things. “Lose the bridge explosion!” “What are quokkas? They seem boring. Get rid of them!” “I didn’t like Hans.” “Why is it in past tense? Past tense is boring.” “Hans is the best thing about the book. I hated Greta. You should make her a cat. Preferably Siamese.” Some of them will say insane things. But if enough people are pointing at the same bits of your work chances are there’s something broke there (or thereabouts). Your job is to figure out what it is and how to fix it.
It is not an easy job.
Occasionally you’ll get lucky and have a genius critiquer who will tell you how to fix it. But that’s rare and is why great editors make the big bucks.4
Reading through what you have written with all those contradictory and annoying comments scrawled in the margins will most likely fill you with despair. Don’t worry: Despair is an integral part of the rewriting process. Your despair will deepen. When you’ve been over a manuscript four or five or twenty or a hundred times you’ll know the true meaning of despair.
Scott says I have a moment (or two) with every rewrite where I declare the whole thing irreparably broken. “Why don’t I write normal books?” I wail. “That make sense! That someone in the world—other than me—would have a faint interest in! Why am I such a horrible writer? Why haven’t I quit and become a rabbit farmer?!”
Scott will roll his eyes. “You always say that,” he will tell me. “Every time. Just like you always have characters open their mouths to say something and then close them.”
“Really?” I’ll ask between sobs. “I really always do that? Wow. I better do a search on ‘mouth’ and get rid of that crap.”
Which leads me to sentence-level rewriting. This is what I was talking about in this post. The process by which this sentence:
- I could still feel the warmth of where his thumb had been.
- I felt warmth where his thumb had been.
Just as with large structural changes, knowing what to change at the sentence level is partly a practice thing and partly a need-editorial-help thing. As I said here I saw nothing wrong with that first version until my editor pointed it out. I’d already rewritten the book a billion times before she made that edit. I’ve been writing full time for more than four years and I still miss lots of horrible sentences.5 I know people who’ve been writing professionally for decades who ditto.
But even if you don’t have a professional editor to help you, there are some mechanical tricks that will improve almost anyone’s sentences. Lots of writers keep lists of words and phrases they know they overuse. I have a list of words I always search for. The list changes from book to book though there are some perennials:
mouth (open, close)
eyebrow (raise, lift)
None of these words is evil.6 It’s just that I use them too much. For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category. As in:
“Jessica’s finally gone.” He rolled his eyes. Some red thread clung to the front of his T-shirt. “Hey, were you asleep? Did I wake you? Sorry. But it is three in the afternoon. Do you normally sleep during the day?” Before I could reply he continued, “Wanna hang? You seen much of Newtown yet?”
I shook my head, trying to wake up and follow his volley of questions. I stepped out on the balcony, shutting the door behind me. I’d just remembered the almonds, didn’t want him spotting them.
“We could go swimming.”
My eyes felt gritty. I wiped the remaining sleep away, rubbing my hands on my shorts. “Yeah, I fell asleep. Didn’t sleep so good last night. New place, you know?”
Tom nodded. “Aren’t you used to that, but? Travelling around so much and all?”
In this short section of Magic or Madness I’ve used “eyes” twice, Tom and Reason shake and nod their heads, and for good measure I threw in a spot of shrugging. This is the final version after I’ve already gotten rid of gazillions of “eyes” and “shrugs” and “nods”. Can you see how characters doing all of that over and over can be a problem?
A good way to come up with fresher ways of describing what people do while they’re having conversations is to look at people talking and watch what they do then figure out ways to describe it that have not been used a million times before. It’s that easy! (Yes, I am rolling my eyes.)
When I’m rewriting at the sentence level, I look for tedious (as opposed to good) repetition, sentences that are clunky or make no sense, cliches (“flat as a pancake” etc), and redundancies (see the “thumb warmth” sentences above). For instance, I have a tendency in first drafts to say the same thing half a dozen times. Like in this deleted paragraph from Magic or Madness:
Reason missed her mother. She lay on her new bed in her new home missing her mum, Sarafina, so much it hurt. It was her first day in her grandmother’s house. She should get up, explore, do things, but all she could think about was how much she missed her mother.
You know what? I think she might miss her mother . . .
That one was easy to spot because I didn’t even bother with a synonym for “miss”. But the exact same thing can be written over and over without repeating too many words:
It was dark. She could not see. There was no light to guide her. She felt as if she had gone blind. All was obscured from her vision.
Or when a character thinks through every possible consequence of an action they may or may not undertake:
What should she do in this darkness? Should she try to find a light? Or maybe a window or a door? But what if she opened it and it was still dark? Would that mean she really was blind? Would it mean the world had ended and she was the only one left? Or maybe there was a pillow over her head she hadn’t noticed? Would the darkness ever end? Should she move?
Here’s an example of too much unnecessary information:
Fiorenze saw me looking at her and came and sat opposite me
Much better is this:
Fiorenze sat opposite me
The reader can take it as read that if Fiorenze’s come over and plonked herself down next to the protag it’s because she saw the protag there. Especially if she commences talking to the protag. Also “came and” is very often redundant. It’s the kind of thing you type when writing in a hurry. My first drafts are often written at breakneck speed. I then spend a lot of time deleting all the guff I wrote cause I was writing too fast. Time saved by writing the first draft fast: negative six weeks.
A good question to ask yourself is whether a word or phrase or clause or sentence or paragraph or chapter needs to be there. If deleting it doesn’t affect the flow of the story then why is it there? Kill it! This is my favourite kind of rewriting. Pressing the delete button is easy and fun.
Another common result of writing too fast is not varying your sentence structure. I’ve read quite a few first drafts that have pages of Subject-Verb-Object sentences. This can get old fast. Especially if the Subject is the same.
I saw a tree. I touched the tree. I could tell from touching it that it was a good tree. I felt the tree speaking to me but I could not tell what it was saying. I was hurt by the tree when it exploded because I touched it. I was angry at the tree.
As you can see it really stands out in first person when every sentence starts with “I”.
I saw a tree and put my hand out to touch it. It felt like a good tree. For a moment I thought the tree was speaking to me, but I could not tell what it was saying. The tree exploded. Possibly because I touched it. Stupid tree.
It’s still not a good paragraph but it’s less tedious than the first version. Maybe I should have written it from the tree’s point of view?
You may have noticed that rewriting is not a science. Even with a list of tired words and phrases you still have to make decisions. “Just” is a frequently overused word but sometimes it’s the exact word you’re looking for. Rewriting is about achieving the effects you want to achieve. Only you, the writer, know exactly what that is.
For instance, dialogue can be less grammatically correct and fragmentary than description. But it depends on what kind of a story you’re telling. If it’s written in very close third or first person then the whole thing can be more conversational and thus be littered with “just” and “like” and “you know” in ways that don’t kill the story.
I don’t start seriously polishing my sentences until I feel like the overall structure of the whole novel is working. Otherwise I spend way too much time making perfect sentences that end up being nuked. But I often think I’ve nailed the structure when I haven’t. Thus I wind up polishing a lot of sentences that I delete. Saying “structure first, sentences second” is kind of simplistic seeing as how the structure is sentences. Plus the better the sentences the easier it is to see the underlying structure.
One of my editors once told me that I turn in very clean manuscripts. She meant that my first drafts (from the editor’s point of view, not mine—I’ve rewritten my book at least four or five times before any editor sees it) read smoothly. There are few obvious mistakes, or typos, or grammatical errors etc. She said that made it much easier for her to pinpoint all the problems and write me ten-page single-spaced letters about them.
On the other hand I’ve read some manuscripts that are so smooth and polished that it’s distracted me from figuring out what’s wrong with them. That happened to me when Scott was reading the first draft of Extras to me. I was enjoying it but something was bugging me, but I didn’t figure out what it was until Scott suggested that maybe he should write it from a different point of view. Bingo!
Can you see the chicken-or-egg-ness of it? Sometimes well-crafted sentences make it easier to see what’s wrong with the structure; sometimes they make it harder. Sometimes you can’t fix the structure until you’ve fixed the sentences; sometimes vice versa.
I hope at least one of these suggestions helps. Keep writing and reading and critiquing other people’s work and have them critique yours. A major part of learning to rewrite is learning to read your own work critically.
It ain’t easy, but it beats shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
- Go here to see the changes between the first and final draft of the opening of Magic or Madness. The two versions have little in common. [↩]
- This is just the beginning of how I would rewrite the movie. It also needs a new cast: I’d keep Samuel L. and ditch pretty much everyone else. [↩]
- I’m one of them, which I will write about in a later post. [↩]
- I kid. That sentence really reads: “Why great editors SHOULD make the big bucks.” [↩]
- As this completely unedited-by-anyone-but-me post proves. [↩]
- Well, not that evil. [↩]