True Writing is Rewriting


Vision 9

True Writing is Rewriting


Beth Shope

Copyright © 2002, Beth Shope, All Rights Reserved

Writing is rewriting. Raise your hand if you've heard that before. But flip it around--rewriting is writing--and we have an aphorism closer to the true writing process. Harry Shaw, in Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them (HarperCollins ISBN: 0064610446), says, "There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting." Science fiction novelist Michael Crichton agrees: "Books are not written--they're rewritten."

Revision is where the magic happens. For me, the best, most inspired ideas often appear during rewriting. I compare the initial getting-it-down process to skimming the surface of a pond. Often all I get are weeds and scum, the everyday accumulation of clichés and pat phrases we use without thought. Revision means diving deep to where the pure, clean water is, where dangers lurk in hidden grottos and pearls grow in the moist mouths of oysters.

For many writers, though, revision is a trouble zone. Some never rewrite, but those who manage to produce something publishable after a single, unrevised draft can probably be squeezed in among the dancing angels on the head of that proverbial pin.

Others view the revision process as something akin to a trip to the dentist, necessary but excruciating, and best done at light speed. Rewriting is often difficult because they can't see what needs fixing, or they see it but have no notion how to fix it. They're afraid they'll make things worse.

In this article, we're going to look at why revision is necessary and how you can develop the necessary critical judgment to make your work shine. There are three secrets to successful revision.

Secret # 1: Once is Not Enough

If you compare writing to building and furnishing a house, that first draft is the equivalent of laying the foundation, or perhaps laying the foundation plus raising support beams and a roof. If you're sufficiently gifted or experienced, the initial draft may even look like a complete house, with the windows glassed in and a bit of polish on the floors. But chances are, some of the beams are crooked, the lawn is still a morass of mud and stray bricks, and you forgot to install the plumbing.

Or maybe you're the sort of writer who likes to over-decorate, and so the rooms in your novel-house look like a Saturday morning flea market. Your story is full of things that don't match, things that don't belong, and objects of rare beauty that can scarcely be seen for the clutter.

Ready to call House Beautiful for a photo shoot? In other words, is your over-grown, under-written, or patched-together novel ready to send off to an agent?

Not likely. Fantasy writer Patricia Fuller put it this way:  "Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear."

Anyone can think up a story and write it down. This doesn't necessarily imply talent, only the ability to type (or hold a pen), a little perseverance, and some time on your hands. You might be good at it and you might not, but skill is not a prerequisite. If you have children, you know this is true. You also know children resist the idea of revision--for them, the entire act of writing consists of getting the story down. Once.

But almost nobody gets it right the first time around. James Thurber said, "My wife took a look at a first version and said, 'That's high school stuff.' I had to tell her to wait until the seventh draft." A first draft is nothing more than raw potential; to rewrite is to take that potential and use it to create a complete story or novel, which is just as much an art form as a painting or a symphony.

Secret # 2: Develop Your Objective Eye

The objective eye is the special clarity and understanding we need to be able to see our work without prejudice so we can revise it effectively. Very few writers start out with clear vision in this eye, but it can be developed. There are three ways.

Read. Good books, bad books, okay-but-not-especially-memorable books. Popular fiction and literary masterpieces. Non-fiction. Mainstream and genre, contemporary and historical. But don't be oblivious to what makes them good, bad, or indifferent. Learn to read them critically, to see the bones beneath the surface. Learn how to recognize an ailing plot and the underlying cause. If you don't read widely, how can you understand the rhythms and intricacies of good fiction, the ebb and flow of narrative tension? How can you see behind the illusion of flesh-and-blood characters to the words and ideas that give them life?

A corollary to this is to watch movies, paying close attention to the use of conflict, to dialogue, to the story arc and how the screenwriter resolves it. Novels have much greater scope than films for character and story development, but movies can teach us a lot about story-telling, dramatic tension, and tight plotting.

Practice. Thornton Wilder, successful novelist and playwright, once said, "There are passages in every novel whose first writing is the last. But it's the joint and cement between those passages that take a great deal of rewriting."

If you are in the habit of writing your scene/chapter/story once, crossing out a couple of adverbs, fixing the typos, and calling it finished, break that habit. Instead, consider what you've just written as something to be played with, a lump of clay to be molded into a pleasing shape. View every word with suspicion--it looks right, but is it? Rearrange sentences and paragraphs to try out different effects. Give yourself permission to experiment, to make mistakes, to scratch out, to start over, to write yourself into a corner and then backtrack to paint in a door. If you're concerned about ruining a scene that should have been left alone, keep the earlier drafts.

With time and experience, you'll learn to recognize what makes your dialogue snappier, your action scenes more suspenseful. You will see the difference between emotion and melodrama, and how to create the former while avoiding the latter. You will master the trick of keeping the tension thread taut. A brilliant plot development may occur to you that would have been lost entirely if you'd left the scene alone. This trial and error process is how you develop focus in your objective eye and sharpen its ability to spot faulty writing.

Remember, everything you write--whether the first words on the first page or the umpteenth revision of chapter forty-two--is fluid. It can be changed, shaped, and reshaped. That's what rewriting is all about. There's no fear in it, only promise. Richard Cormier, author of several critically acclaimed young-adult novels, had this helpful advice: "The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon." And not only do you not have to get it right, don't automatically assume you have. Learn to look at your writing critically, always with an eye toward making it better.

For a few writers, objective reading and serious practice, over time, are enough to teach them what they need to know. Others need a little extra help. The next method for developing your critical eye is optional but can prove beneficial.

Join a Critique Group. It's a well-known phenomenon that while we often have 20/20 vision when it comes to analyzing the faults of someone else's work, we keep on hand a pair of blurry, rose-tinted glasses for studying our own.

Both receiving and writing critiques can sharpen your objective vision like few things will. But not just any group will do; not all are created equal and the worst among them have more in common with hungry cannibals than a serious writers' group. Look for one that is honest but also supportive. You will also learn more in a critique group that is not prejudiced for or against a particular genre or style. Just as reading widely is enriching, critiquing widely broadens your understanding of literature and writing as a whole. Be cautious of joining a closed circle with a static membership; you risk writing your novel by committee. By contrast, you can greatly benefit from the expertise of a reputable online group with a fluctuating membership. Having a wider range of suggestions to sift through will improve your own critical judgment.

For those who either can't find the right critique group or aren't comfortable with the idea of joining one, consider a private exchange with another writer whom you can trust to be frank. Even published writers often have private readers: one or more persons who act as a sounding board for ideas or who provide a second pair of eyes to catch those things the writer missed.

Secret # 3: Rewriting Takes Time (and it doesn't matter how or when you do it)

Among the books on writing that address the topic of revision, most will tell you that writing and rewriting are separate skills and can't be intermingled--one is a function of the subconscious-driven, creative part of our brain, and the other requires an analytical dispassion worthy of Mr. Spock. At best, this is a half-truth, meaning it's true for some writers but not for others.

Related to this is a second oft-heard rule, this one an out-and-out myth: you must finish the entire first draft before revising.

For most people, a first draft implies a complete draft, from prologue to epilogue. But not everyone writes that way. Diana Gabaldon, author of the best-selling Outlander series, says, "I get asked, 'How many drafts do you go through?' all the time. The answer is either 'one' or 'infinity,' but I don't know how to tell the difference. I don't write, leave, come back later and revise.  I work slow and fiddle constantly, so the revision is pretty much done as part of the original writing.  By the time I'm done with a scene, I'm done with it."

You may write like that, or you may be the sort of writer who finds it impossible to mix writing and rewriting. You burn your way through the story in a blaze of creativity and then, depending on whether you have a tendency to over-write or under-write, you're faced with the task of either pruning a jungle or coaxing a desert to bloom.

Bottom line, however, is that it doesn't matter whether your first draft equals one sentence or an entire novel. You can either revise as you go or you can wait until you have the whole thing down in rough form, and then wade into it, machete and napalm close at hand. Only you know what works best for you, and one method is not necessarily superior to another.

So revise whenever you like--and take your time about it. Novel-writing is not something that should be hurried. I once heard a prolific author (who publishes several novels a year) tell a workshop full of novice writers the only way to write well is to write very fast and never stop to look back, getting it all down in one sustained effort, somewhat like laying asphalt.

The idea behind that, I believe, is to short-circuit the internal editor so you can write more creatively. That's fine, if it works for you and if you're then willing to make revisions with more finesse. For myself, if I write fast, I get pond scum, and I'm not willing to revise an entire novel's worth of pond scum. Easier for me to do it as I go, immersing myself in the words, stretching, prodding, and rearranging them. Good novels are carefully shaped, like clay on a potter's wheel. Unlike laying asphalt, this is time-consuming, but it gets far more artistic results.

Harry Shaw, mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, went on to say, "Those unwilling to revise and rewrite are skipping a major step toward becoming better writers." And I will add this:  if you can't or don't revise, you'll never develop your story's potential. A quality novel has fully realized characters, a well-constructed plot, and smooth prose, but these rarely happen in the first stages of writing, only through rewriting. To achieve these goals, you need patience. You need an artist's eye. You need objectivity. And the good news is, you will acquire and hone these attributes through the revision process. True writing is rewriting.