Rewriting, Friend or Foe

I was hanging out with some writing friends the other night, and one was talking about a 60-page manic writing session they’d recently had and dreading the next step of developing it into a novel. I said it was awesome because that’s the good part, and he was like nope, it’s the worst. I can get what he’s saying. The first draft, once the ball gets rolling, is fun. There’s excitement and a giant burst of energy. It’s all-new, and you’re not worried about the holes or whether it works. Characters are introducing themselves to you. It’s like a honeymoon phase—all glorious and sexy. Everything after that is a long-term relationship.

Revising and rewriting are, to me anyway, the heart of being a writer. That discovery, garbage, terrible, exciting, beautiful, imperfect blob of words called a first draft is just a thing to go back and fix. It’s a horrible mess that makes you feel vulnerable and inadequate at writing; no one should ever see it. But at the same time, it’s words on the page—so many who haven’t even gotten that far.

I love rewriting. It may be because I let go of perfection when diagnosed with dyslexia. I stopped worrying over the little things and embraced the fantastic writing process, knowing that part of my writing includes several drafts. I interviewed Jennifer Egan for the New York State Writers Institute last spring (see interview here), and she said she often writes up to 60 or 70 drafts. Her new website for Candy House even shows some of the different versions her chapters went through. I mean, if it works for Jennifer Egan…

Some of my tools for editing are a printer, highlighters, pens in different colors, scissors, tape, and a recycling bin. I read out loud to myself (mortifying). I have the computer read to me (even more mortifying). I cut up stories and essays and rearranged them. Highlight sections or redundant words. Change fonts and font sizes, read from the end to the beginning, and print it out to look at it in a new way. I’m also a fan of retyping whole pieces from scratch. And I use the Lydia Davis method of sticking it in a drawer or a folder for a while and picking it up later for fresh eyes.

Allison K. Williams’ book Seven Drafts: Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book takes some of the anxiety out of the rewriting process. She talks through different ways to look at each draft, only looking at one aspect at a time so it’s not one big scary lump. Her chapters run through the process from vomit draft to publication, each focusing on a specific step. Reviewing the character, the technical, the friend read, the copy editing, and using an editor. She breaks down the different types of editors you can employ and what each specializes in.

Her tone and advice take the overwhelming idea of a BOOK and make it a realistic process. That doesn’t mean it won’t take time, and you’re automatically writing a bestseller by following the steps. So many writers, teachers, and editors laugh when asked how to write a bestseller and make a ton of money. They laugh because if they knew the secret, they would have done it already. Trying to figure out the next big thing in publishing is almost impossible. However, writing the best book you’re capable of isn’t.

I know my writer friend can turn that 90-page manuscript into a beautiful novel if he decides to. It’s up to him. For anyone who wants to take on the challenge, there are resources to support the process. I’ve been implementing some and continue to learn as I work on my writing. Some I modify, some I drop, and some I do without even thinking at this point. However, no matter what new things I add to my practice, I’ll always return to my printer, highlighters, scissors, and tape.

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