March 1st 2014
The Skill List Project: Rewriting
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said I thought I’d reached the end of my list…but as I looked over past entries, I noticed that I’d missed a hugely important set of skills: rewriting and editing.
Writing is Rewriting
E. B. White once said “The best writing is rewriting.” Other writers have also stressed that rewriting is an indispensible part of the writing process—probably the most important part. Despite Robert A. Heinlein‘s famous rule against rewriting, most of us need to rewrite practically everything. It’s wonderful when a first draft just flows out fully formed, but for me, that doesn’t happen very often.
So I have to rewrite. A lot. I’m okay with that: I like rewriting. A lot.
The easiest part of rewriting is simple rewording. By that, I mean making your prose better: clarifying, intensifying, cutting the fat, etc. On a sentence by sentence basis, you make the story more effective. Usually, this means making everything easier to understand…but it also includes eliminating passages where you spell things out too directly.
My own first drafts are often guilty of overexplaining. Why? Because I’m explaining things to myself more than to the reader. That’s fine; a first draft is where you work out what story you’re telling. As Stephen King says in On Writing, you write the first draft “with the door closed” (i.e. just for yourself). Later drafts are where you open the door and let the reader in.
First drafts are also usually rife with verbal tics: words and phrases that leap too easily to mind. First drafts are often top-heavy with words like “very” and “really” and “sort of”. (Feel free to add to the list with your own overused words.) Again, this is fine—when you’re in the creative flow of a first draft, stopping to self-censor is counterproductive. Just make sure you clean things up later.
When you’re rewording, it’s important to read your piece aloud. If you stumble at any point, the reader will stumble too. If you’re reading a sentence aloud, and you hesitate even for an instant over how the sentence flows, that tells you that something isn’t working. Reading aloud also helps you catch places where you’ve left out a word, or where you’ve written “is” instead of “isn’t”…an error that is all too common, as you can see in hasty blog postings.
Rewriting is More Than Rewording
Rewording feels rewarding because it gives quick results: it doesn’t take long to get smoother prose. However, it’s easy to get caught up in simple rewording when your story actually needs stronger medicine. Rewriting should include deeper assessments of all aspects of the story: tone of voice…characters… scene structure…everything I’ve talked about in the years and months that the Skill List Project has lasted.
So you ask does the story make sense? Do you care about the characters and what happens to them? Are the details of setting interesting and convincing? Even if everything (sort of) holds together, what do you need to do to make the story soar?
There’s no formula for making overall improvements, but at the very least, you should consider the following:
- Viewpoint and diction
- The plot arc
- Arcs for major characters
- The usefulness of each scene
- The structure of each scene, especially each scene’s beginning and end
- The progression of beats within scenes
- Your themes and how well you address them
- General consistency (e.g. that someone who’s tall in Chapter 3 isn’t suddenly short in Chapter 10)
When looking at such issues, you have to be clear-eyed and hard-headed, but not down-hearted. You’re rewriting; right from the start, you should expect to make changes—perhaps major ones.
Suppose you realize that you have an exposition scene where everyone is just standing around as a talking-head. Your first draft has served its purpose: you know what information needs to be conveyed. Now you can junk the first-draft scene and replace it with something that has more pizzazz. Put the scene in an interesting setting. Add conflict. Find more concrete, less talky ways of conveying the same information. Move some of the exposition into other scenes—a line here, a hint there—so that it isn’t all concentrated in one place. Find ways to make readers hungry for the information so that they’ll be thrilled when it finally comes.
Or suppose you find that you’ve written a succession of scenes that all have a similar emotional flavor: all grim, or all with a lot of action. Then maybe it would be a good idea to break up that series of scenes with one that provides some contrast—comic relief, perhaps. This is an artistic decision; in some stories, maybe you really do want an unrelenting chain of similar scenes. Even so, it’s good to make that decision consciously after reviewing your options, rather than stumbling into it by not probing your first draft for weakness.
In order to know what rewriting needs to be done, you need some distance from the first draft. Stephen King recommends setting the draft aside for six weeks while you work on something else. That amount of separation gives you a better perspective when you come back to the story. You’ll be more prepared to make big changes if they’re necessary.
The temptation is always to hope that you can get away with small cosmetic changes—in other words, rewording. You have to let go of that mindset. Do what needs to be done to make the story work, even if it means ripping the first draft to pieces.
Some writers say you should start the second draft from scratch. That way you won’t be tempted just to reword. They say that you should never even look at the first draft after it’s finished—set it aside and begin again, writing the story anew. The second time through, your story will be deeper, thanks to what you learned when writing the first draft, but you won’t be tempted just to fiddle with the wording; you’ll do everything afresh.
I’m not that extreme, but I do think you need to create a separation between the first draft and later ones. You might, for example, do the second draft on paper if you did the first one directly on the computer. This lets you see the story in a different manner than before. It also slows you down, so that you really pay attention to details…and when you transcribe changes from paper to the computer, you’ll get yet another chance to have second thoughts and to make more significant edits.
Is That Enough?
Is that enough to say about rewriting? I don’t know. For many writers, rewriting is where you spend most of your time: the rewriting phase may take twice as long as writing the first draft. Often it takes even longer—rewriting is that important. So I don’t know if I’ll come back to this next month or not. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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