The Dreaded Rewrite

“The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time—unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.” (Robert Cormier)

So you’ve finished your book. That's what it feels like, isn’t it? You've gotten it all down, finally, your opus, and it's finished. What you probably don't want to hear at this point is that it's not; but that's the truth.

The first draft is finished; and that’s well worth celebrating. But a lot of the real work has just begun. Many authors dread rewrites, but I’d like to suggest that it's not something to be avoided or done under duress, like a visit to the dentist. No: a rewrite is your opportunity to take your story or article and make it shine. While every rewrite is going to be different, there are a few nuts and bolts that you can look for in any manuscript:

  • Look for patterns: If you have a tendency to write in threes (“her hair was soft, vibrant, and beautiful”), you’ll want to alternate those descriptions with other ways of saying the same thing. If you constantly use sentence fragments, break that up a little. Always write in long sentences? Throw in a few shorter ones. Patterns tend to make readers' eyes glaze over; always keep them wondering what you'll be up to next, and you’ll keep them turning the pages.

  • Watch out for the misplaced apostrophe! Look for words that end in “s” and determine which are plurals, which are possessives, and which are contractions; then apply the appropriate rule. (In general, plurals do not take an apostrophe while possessives do, the most notable exception being “its” as a possessive: “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.”)

  • Don’t let MS Word be the boss! The spellchecker in your word processing program will no doubt help you find the most egregious errors; but make sure that you go beyond them, and especially take the built-in grammar checker with a very large grain of salt.

  • If you’re writing fiction, is the story arc clear? Are timelines correct? Did you check to see that someone who has blue eyes in chapter one does not suddenly switch to brown in chapter eighteen?

  • If you’re writing nonfiction, is your point clear? Do you have an introduction, several main points, and conclusion?

  • Are you using the same vocabulary over and over again? (Most of us do) Remember, your thesaurus is your friend. Don't try to sound too pedantic or exotic, but as is true of other patterns, the same word usage becomes tiring and may cause your book to be less appreciated than it should be!

You should do at least one rewrite before your manuscript leaves your desk. Knowing that you’ll do a rewrite leaves you free to relax and just write the first time around, knowing that you'll have plenty of time to clean it up later. It's also important to let as much time as possible elapse between your first and second drafts. When you wrote your first draft, you were caught up in the experience and in the content; you need time and distance to be able to assess your work with an impartial eye.

Once you're comfortable with your rewrite(s), it’s time to send your manuscript out. To a potential agent or publisher? No, no, a thousand times no! Now is the time for a workshop or a local writer’s group. Have other people look at your work, critique it, tear it apart if necessary; then you can regroup and do (gulp!) yet another rewrite. But don't skip the first rewrite: you are wasting the resources of the group if you have them fixing the nuts and bolts mentioned here—fixing things that you easily could have fixed yourself.

Some people prefer not to go the workshop route but rather directly to a freelance editor. Again, I urge you to send your second or third draft, not your first one, to the editor you choose. I cannot tell you how many manuscripts sent to Wordware for editing that would have been far less expensive had the author first done a second draft and fixed the obvious errors! I don't mind, particularly; but I expect that saving money is something we’d all like to do.

Remember to approach rewrites as you might a friend who is about to give you advice that may be annoying, but that you know to be true. And you’ll end up with a book you can be proud of!