Writing is Rewriting

By Joe Moore

I just finished the first draft of my new thriller, THE BLADE, co-written with Lynn Sholes. This is our sixth novel written together; this one coming in at a crisp 92,500 words. Now that the first pass on the manuscript is finished, the rewrite begins. As E.B. White said in THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, “The best writing is rewriting.”

Some might ask that if the manuscript is written, why do we need to rewrite it? Remember that the writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, line editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes receives the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is rewriting.

There are a number of stages in the rewriting process. Starting with the completion of the first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during each pass. It’s in the rewrite that we need to make sure our plot is seamless, our story is on track, our character development is consistent, and we didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. We have to pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do our scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Next we need to check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. We can’t assume that everyone knows what we know or understands what we understand. We have to make it clear what’s going on in our story. Suspense can never be created by confusing the reader.

Once we’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of rewriting. Here we must tighten up our work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or contribute to character development, it should be deleted.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, we might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So we search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or our thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes the writing cleaner.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one that use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but those words don’t add anything of value to our writing or yours. Delete.

The next type of editing in the rewriting process is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did we end all our character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did we forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure we used the right word. Relying on our word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert us to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once we’ve gone through the manuscript and performed a line edit, I like to have someone else check it behind us. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while we were working on the first draft can get us into trouble if we weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, we’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages making up the rewrite are vital parts of the writing process. Editing our manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—we’ve read that page or chapter so many times that our eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake hiding there that we’ve missed every time because we’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify the writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once we’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a reasonable period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if the schedule permits while working on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. It’s always surprising at what was missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on a computer monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that’s much less forgiving than the glow of pixels. And never be afraid to delete. Remember, less is always more.

How do you go about tackling the rewriting process? Any tips to share?

23 thoughts on “Writing is Rewriting

  1. Wow, Joe. This is an incredible list of rewrite details. Thanks for being so thorough.

    I do my edits during my initial writing of the book & your concise list is a good summary of many things I do as I go along. My first edit pass is geared for deleting & tightening, my next pass is to better clarify character motivation, & my next review might be to layer more emotion into each scene (either through dialogue or narrative or setting).

    One thing I’ve done lately (my last several books) is to read chapters aloud to my mother over the phone. I wouldn’t normally recommend an author seek feedback from family (& I didnt do this for my first 3 books), but I do it mainly for me to catch lines I stumble over, to see if she gets confused by anything, & it’s fun. My mom gets a kick out of it and reading to her at the end of my writing day is my non-food treat & keeps me on task with my daily word count goals. I wait until I’ve finished & edited the first half of the book before I start reading one chapter a day to her.

    By the time I’m done writing, I make only one final pass through, mostly reading it as a reader might without a red pen.

    Great post, Joe.

  2. Jordan, it sounds like you cover all bases mentioned in your approach to rewriting. Like everything else involving the creation of fiction, whatever works for each writer is the best method for them.

    I take your reading out loud a step further. I print out sections and have my wife read the manuscript aloud to me. Hearing the dialog coming from another person’s mouth helps me find those stumble points and lame, weak writing. And whenever she hesitates or has to go back and read a sentence or paragraph again, I know I’ve got revision work to do. If she gets confused, so will others. Thanks for your comments.

  3. What a great list!

    I’m starting my first rewrite of my current WIP this weekend. As this book is a different genre from my previous two books, I think I will have a LOT of rewriting to do.

    I will keep this list close at hand!

  4. Joe, the hard-copy editing tip is one of the best I can pass on to others. I’ve been involved in a number of discussions confirming that the physical makeup of the text on the printed page, particularly the visual “weight” of the paragraphs versus standalone sentences must be taken into account during the editing and rewrite. In most cases, this cannot be appriciated on a monitor.

    Victoria, best of luck with your rewrite. I hope my list helps.

  5. I let my wife read as I edit. She helps me flush out the story, talk about characters and see what works and what doesn’t. I love discussing the characters talking about how these people got into the story and where they are going after.

    My sister-in-law also helps me with the editing. She has a keen eye and is very good at editing.

    Thanks for all the good advice Joe.

  6. All good tips. I write very messy first drafts, so I go through multiple re-writes. And yes, I have to do the rewrites by going through a hard-copy. My internal editor is too sluggish if I try to do it on screen.

  7. Charles, it sounds like you’ve got a whole editorial staff on call. Lucky you!

    BK, you’re right. Taking the text from the screen to the printed page lets you “see” the prose in a different enviornment. For me, it also helps spot repeating the same word or phrase.

  8. Jordan, I’m smiling at the idea of reading my work to my mother aloud. I think the language in my books is a tad too “vulgar,” as she’d say!

    I’m a chronic rewriter. Hopefully we all keep story files from the beginning of a project. It’s worth going back through it during the rewrite and comparing it to the draft to check character names, timelines, etc. My worst mistake ever was using the same last name for the victim and a minor character. I can’t believe I didn’t catch that during rewrite! The line editor also didn’t catch it. The mistake did cause a few readers to develop interesting conspiracy theories, however.

  9. Joe,
    I love the editing/re-writing process.
    That’s when the story comes alive for me – I love discussing the work with my husband, my first reader, then hashing it out with my beta readers.
    Organizing the monumental task can drive me crazy, so I’m squirreling away this post with everyone’s comments to refer back to.
    Thanks everyone,

  10. Joe, great advice, including some things I’ve learned the hard way over the past few years. The hard copy edit is a bit of trouble but it works. I’ve heard the edit to remove certain words called “taking out weasel words.”
    And, although I thought I’d completed the last edit of my current book before sending it to my editor, you’ve planted enough doubt in my mind that I’m now going to make one last pass through.
    But thanks, anyway.

  11. Names can cause lots of trouble, Kathryn. One thing I try to avoid is first or last names that sound similar, start with the same letter, or are hard to pronounce.

    I’m with you, Paula. The rewrite is where the tread meets the paper. It’s just important not to dilute the original spark that inspired the first draft by editing the life out of it.

    You’re right, Richard, those weasel words are, well, weasels, and deserve to die a painful death.

  12. The value of your approach, Joe, is that it’s systematic. That’s something I hammer when I teach revision. Too many writers are chaotic at this stage.

    What I’m gong to try next: Do my first cold read-through on the Kindle. I take minimal notes on the first pass anyway, so I can highlight and make small notations. Then I’ll be able to print out all those notes.

  13. ‘Just’ is another word for that throwaway pile. It adds nothing.

    Also, I tell my writers that ‘beautiful’ is one of those words that shows the reader nothing. What is beautiful to you may not be beautiful to me. I like rain and stormy skies, so if you tell me it’s a beautiful day and are picturing sunny and 70, well, you get the picture…

    Good, detailed post, Joe. Young writers would do well to heed.

  14. Keep hammering, Jim, and good luck approaching your rewrite from the Kindle POV.

    JJ, your comments are “beautiful”. 🙂 Thanks.

  15. Great tips Joe. The remnants of edits past always seem to creep in on me. After about the 3rd draft several beta readers will illuminate problems to me, then another read/edit by me and it goes out to my hired editor and comes back with more stuff to be done. The thing that gets me is how many of those rogue words and half sentences still seem to make it past me after so many passes.

    Quite embarrassing to be reading along and run across a line like “he reached up to rub the hair out of his balls eyeballs”.

    I really need to remember to print out the pages instead of doing it all via computer.

  16. Reaching a final draft of a long piece of fiction takes a lot of hard work. No easy formula for doing so exists. The editing process is like peeling an onion–with the removal of each layer, the remainder is more pure. Thanks for the insights!

  17. Basil, I call it edit residue. And it gets me all the time. We see only what we want to see, or we move too fast to see the scrapts left behind.

    Thanks for coming by, Doug. Your onion analogy is spot-on.

  18. Great idea to hear someone else reading aloud, Joe. I’ll have to try that. Interesting.

    Kathryn– I censor what I read to my mother for my adult books, but my YAs are pretty neutral. My mom always reads the final book after it’s released. She told a bookseller (at one of my launches) that she loved the book–EXCEPT FOR THE PAGES SHE HAD TO DUCT TAPE TOGETHER. Yes, she did.

  19. NOTHING shows ridiculous errors and brain cramps like reading a draft on Kindle.

    It will expose everything.

    Like Joe pointed out in a post late last year, remember to correct the working MS when you edit that way so the mistake doesn’t creep back in.

    I have a suggestion for a post for another day – how does everyone keep track of all their files and prevent that from becoming a nightmare to wade through?

    The Rookie

  20. Here’s a little trick I use when editing: I look for paragraphs that have one or a few words on the last line. When I find them, I edit them to get rid of that tail. Granted, it’s an arbitrary and capricious technique (why not do that to tighten EVERY paragraph?) but it can keep the last page of the chapter from having just a few lines of text on it.

Comments are closed.