Rewriting v. Editing

by Alafair Burke

I just finished a book.

I’ve been in a position to use that glorious sentence eight times.  The first seven times, I spoke the sentence immediately after typing the final period on the final page.  I even typed THE END to mark the moment. 

Did that mean I was completely done with my work on the book?  Of course not.  My agent and editor needed to read it.  I would listen to their good feedback.  I would make changes, some of them big.  The book would be better for it.  And then we’d do another pass.  And then copyediting.  But that’s all editing.  The book was “finished,” as I use that word. 

Book eight?  I typed an ending a month ago, but, for the first time, I didn’t type THE END.  I didn’t say, “I just finished a book.” Instead, I paused a moment to celebrate having a beginning, middle, and an end.  I may even have had a drink or two.

One of each, please!

Then I opened a new, blank document on my computer and started again from the beginning. 

Yep, I rewrote my book. 

Now, a month later, I’m willing to say I finished.  I even typed THE END.  The celebratory drinks made those first ones look like amateur hour.

Having to reach an ending twice before typing THE END got me to thinking about what made this time different. 

1.  Why wasn’t the first ending the finish line? 

At a spotlight interview during last year’s Bouchercon, Gregg Hurwitz asked Michael Connelly if he had any publishing regrets.  After initially saying no, Michael backed up and said he wished he had submitted his first novel earlier.  It was done, but he kept tinkering and refining on his own for nearly three years.

Little did he know as an unpublished writer that the book would get even better with an editor.  By Michael’s calculation, if he’d sent the book out earlier, he would have benefitted from an editor’s feedback sooner, and he could have started his second book instead of working on his own for all that time.  The world might have an additional Connelly novel or two as a result.

His observation made me think about my own process.  I don’t generally tinker and refine on my own.  I type THE END and send it away.  But I’ve been able to do that because I force myself to get it right — or at least my own best version of right — the very first time.  I nitpick at myself constantly during the first (and only) draft.

For this book, I decided to let all that go.  I made myself write, even when I knew a certain scene or a certain plot twist wasn’t exactly right.  It’s not a process I would have been comfortable with seven books ago, but I’ve learned by now that that finishing sooner is better than finishing later.  I’ve seen for myself — seven previous times — how much better a book can be once you finish that first pass of editing.  Plus I heard Michael Connelly say it, so it must be true!

But changing my objective from finishing my very best draft to simply finishing a draft necessarily changed how I felt about “finishing.”  All I could say was that I had a beginning, middle, and an end.  I couldn’t really say I had finished the book.  I couldn’t type THE END. 

2.  Why I Called it a Re-Write

In my previous seven edits, I made some pretty big changes.  But I made those changes directly to the document.  I cut and pasted if I switched the order of two scenes.  I added chapters.  I deleted entire pages. Overall, however, the narrative arc of the plot and characters remained intact.

This time, I decided that an “edit” — even a big edit — would not suffice.  I wanted to start with a blank document.  I wanted to revisit every decision I had made the first time around.  I would reimagine the book with more information than I had all those months ago.  I’d pull over scenes, character, words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters only as helpful.  I’d skip the rest.  I’d write new scenes and characters as I went.

Two characters completely left the page.  One arrived a hundred and fifty pages earlier.  An affair that happened suddenly didn’t.

When I reached the ending of this new book, I knew it was better.  I knew I was proud of it.  And I knew I was actually done.  

I’m not certain I’d recommend this process to anyone else.  The messiness of it has me wishing once again that I could outline a book chapter by chapter, scene for scene, prior to writing.  But at least I’m able to say that I have finished my eighth book and am very happy with it.  

THE END

To my fellow writers: Do you rewrite or merely edit?  To the readers: Do you enjoy hearing how the sausage is made, or should writers make it look easier than it sometimes is?

26 thoughts on “Rewriting v. Editing

  1. Reine

    Congratultions, Alafair. It must be a hugely good feeling.

    I do love hearing about the sausage along with all the other related stuff. The casing. The spices. The mixer. Tamper. All the other tools. The melding. The grinding. Not so much recipes. But the sausage. Yeah.

  2. Jude Hardin

    Congrats on finishing #8! I finished two books this summer, a novel and a novella, using basically the same process you used on your first seven. I haven't heard back on the novella yet, but I must have done okay on the novel because my agent is pitching it as-is.

  3. Sarah W

    So far, I rewrite whole chunks (while carefully saving the old pieces, in case I was wrong) and rewrite others. Haven't started from the beginning, yet, but I'm still new at this.

    And please tell me everything that goes into the grinder and how difficult it is to turn the handle sometimes, and whoops the cat just fell in and has to be extracted. It's comforting to know that someone with seven terrific books felt the need to do an entire rewrite from Once Upon a Time. If you make it seem easier than it is, I might lose hope!

  4. Dao

    Congratulations on finishing book #8! Thank you for giving tips on rewriting and editing. I am in the rewriting stage of my first novel and it has driven me crazy! I thought finishing it was hard, rewriting it is even more difficult. At first, I only edited here and there. I was so naive. I thought my novel was the bee's knees already. But thankfully, life happened and I had about half a year of not touching it only to realize how shitty it really is. So out with editing, in with rewriting.

    Having time off gives me a critical eye on my novel. I saw some parts that does not need to be there. A few chapters deleted, back story burned, and a prospect of having to fix the events leading to the climax. Like you, I can't outline or plot the book out before I start writing. Doing so spoils the fun. All I need to know before I write are the beginning, the end, and how viable the story is. If it does not sound like something too believable, I would ignore it or file it to a mental cabinet for a better day.

  5. Alafair Burke

    I'm reading the "finished" version of the book and am so happy with it. I'm making relatively small changes as I read. It was only one month of (hard) work but it's an entirely different book.

    I'm enjoying the comments, everyone. I'm always fascinated to know how different writers approach craft.

  6. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Congratulations on finishing the new book. My process? It's always been a messy one, with me usually writing longhand and transferring to the computer, and other times writing straight to computer (rarely). The one constant is the internal editor that polishes and polishes and polishes pages before moving ahead. I've attempted to just write and come back later, but internal editor doesn't have a shutoff switch. I think the great thing about your post is that it highlights the reality that the process of finishing a novel will be different for all. So again, congrats.

  7. Alaina

    Congrats on finishing the book. However you do it, it's worth the celebration.

    I far prefer editing to rewriting, myself. It's no easier, but having to start a new document– from scratch, pretty much– makes me feel like I wasted all that earlier effort. Plus, then I'll have to go back and edit the rewrite later. But I do know how to rewrite; I'm doing it (in between everything else; it's low priority) now.

    The plot has stayed almost identical. The main difference? I am almost 60,000 words in and I just reached the spot I started the story last time. The first time, I started in the wrong spot, and I built the story mainly on bad flashbacks and memories of things my character had done over the past few months. Writing them as they occurred far improved the story, even if now I have to adjust later events (will the kidnapping still happen? Yes, but there'll be more reasons behind it. Things like that.)

    But as long as it's a better book, I suppose that's what matters.

    -Alaina

  8. Thomas Pluck

    Congratulations! Glad we're getting another Alafair Burke book.
    I usually edit as I go along, like you said you did for your first 7. For my first novel I am doing a rewrite. My first draft was done in two months at a breakneck pace, and after reading it I felt I concentrated on the wrong character- the everyman instead of the hero. The character things happened to instead of the one who made things happen. And the voice I used when writing from his POV was much more appealing. The story remains similar. A new character here, a change there.
    And now an outsider has to decipher the web of motives of two generations of small town operators, the day he walks out of prison, paying off the debt from the last time he tangled with them. It's a lot more fun to write and read.

  9. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Congrats on finishing #8 Alafair!

    I plan a lot before I begin, and self-edit as I go fairly ruthlessly. I've been known to backtrack and dump stuff while I'm writing, but to start again from scratch? Wow, that takes some cojones, my friend ;-]

    I'm guessing you didn't delete the previous version before you began, though …?

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You don't have to answer this, but I was wondering if there were circumstances in your life that made you not as connected to the first draft as you usually are, and if that had anything to do with your decision to do a rewrite instead of an edit.

    I guess I'm trying to get at WHEN you realized the book had gone off track, because this is such a great topic I want to know more.

  11. Louise Ure

    I definitely rewrite, Alafair. Even if I edited as I went along (and I do), that first finished draft would have little resemblance to the finished book. I change the villain, the storyline, the cast of characters and everything. Seems like it would be faster if I did it right the first time, but I'm just not drawn that way.

  12. Barbie

    Alafair, congratulations for finishing the book!!! I'm a beta reader for a writer friend of mine. I've seen her go through this process of rewriting/editing before, and, wow, it's harder and we readers have a notion of. Makes us admire you guys authors even more. I enjoy hearing about it. I want to be an author someday. No ise jumping into it thinking it's all rainbows and unicorns… πŸ™‚

  13. David Corbett

    I believe a cocktail is in order this week at Bouchercon. Congrat-u-jubilations.

    I write too slowly, but it's my process, so hey. I go back to a chapter over and over, as I sink deeper into the setting, the characters, the conflict, seeing nuances each time I didn't before. At some point the inner editor says: Move on, and I do. But the final first draft is usually pretty close to what I send in.

    As for sausage — I wonder if there's a suitable vegetarian metaphor, or are vegetables just not messy enough to convey what it's like to write?

    See you this week, my dear.

  14. Allison Davis

    Goulash is the vegetarian version of sausage…and all recipes welcome, really. This is a personal process, but one is always trying to find the one that works just right.

    I tend to write like a banshee (nanowrimo.org — two manuscrips started that way) because my internal editor is nasty and mean so I totally bypass it for the first laydown. Then I rewrite heavily through the entire manscript, then I edit, then I take comments from people I trust and then I may rewrite again. For me the process works — I'm not a thoughtful, careful as you go person, just doesn't suit me. Part of it is that I don't have the luxury of time, I have to focus in short spurts so anyway, I'll see if this works if I can get through this rewrite soon.

    Enjoy Bouchercon you all.

  15. Jake Nantz

    Congrats Alafair! For me, I plan/plot/outline ahead of time, and then I tinker as I go through, so by the time I'm done with the "first" draft, most of what I have left to do is editing. It works for me, even when I almost always go somewhere my outline didn't have in mind, and when I sometimes have to back up when a scene isn't working to the last scene that was and go in a different direction.

    Then again, I'm not yet published, so maybe I'm doing it all wrong….hope not!

  16. Alafair Burke

    I hope I haven't overstated the work involved by saying that I started with a blank document. I not only saved the first version, but worked from it, keeping both side by side on the screen. I did a lot of cut and pasting, but I also dumped a lot. I wrote new stuff. I made one scene a flashback, told from a different character's perspective. I brought a couple of people into the book earlier.

    Alex, you prove yourself to be a wise, wise woman when you ask: "I was wondering if there were circumstances in your life that made you not as connected to the first draft as you usually are, and if that had anything to do with your decision to do a rewrite instead of an edit." As it so happens, we've had some significant health problems with our beloved Duffer (the dog) since January. I have been to the vet more than twenty times with him. There has been a lot of research and education and anxiety involved as well. And yet I had a writing deadline. I don't usually do things like word count goals, etc., but this time I had to force myself to write everyday, despite the distractions, or the book would simply be forgotten.

    As it turns out, the last month has been a good one for Duffer. Mostly, I'm happy for the sake of my beloved dude and continue to hope that we have found a leveling point for his health issues. But I realized with Alex's question that some constancy in his health also freed my mind to finally mine the book I'd written, focusing on the strongest story arcs and the most compelling characters, and letting the rest of it go. The rest of it, in retrospect, was the stuff I wrote simply to make myself write.

    I don't regret the process. I see it as proof of professionalism. But like I said, I'd prefer not to do it this way again.

  17. Tammy Cravit

    Congratulations on #8, Alafair!

    I'm in a new spot for myself right now β€” I've just finished the second draft (edited, not rewritten, except for a few small sections) of a novel and am simultaneously getting it ready bro send out and beginning the note taking and plotting for a second book. (Is it hubris of me to think that my characters and story lines could hold up well enough to form the first book in a series? I hope not – none of my previous unpublished novels have felt this "solid".) Being in that place, I confess to a momentary pang of horror at the idea of setting what I've written aside to start over with a blank slate. I can do that with a scene β€” and, writing in Scrivener, I often create a "snapshot" of a scene and then hack it to pieces secure in the knowledge I can go back if need be. But I couldn't do it, right now, with a whole book, I don't think. Not without professional guidance from an editor, anyway.

    As both a writer and a reader, I love what goes on at both ends of the sausage grinder, as it were. But I'm better about reading about other writers' processes now that I've figured out what MY process is. I know now that, while another writer may teach me a useful tip about how to do MY process better, nothing but madness comes from allowing myself to substitute what works for others in place of what works for me.

  18. Judy Wirzberger

    I think writing is like several people picking up a roast from the butcher. Each one takes it home with an idea. Each one ads their own spices and flavor, Each one cooks it in the oven, top of the stove, in a crock pot, or on the bar-b-q. And each one turns out an entree, some more beautiful, some more flavorful, some surrounded by veggies, or covered in sauce, some simply cooked dry, and perhaps one languishing in the corner of the car trunk where it rolled from the bag toward the tail light to make itself known another day.

    I'm looking forward to partaking of your roast, crispy on the outside, tender in the middle and satisfying at the end.

    Congrats to you and the Duffer.

  19. Jake Nantz

    As a major animal lover with two "girls" of my own, may I just say that I hope The Duffer comes out as shiny and happy as possible and that his health issues can be, if not remedied completely, at least mitigated to the point of them being insignificant to his happiness (as well as yours).

  20. tess gerritsen

    A wonderful reminder that everyone does it differently and that there's no right or wrong way — only the way that works for you. Enjoy those much-deserved cocktails! Every time you "finish" a book is worth celebrating, even it's only the first of eight drafts.

    My process is a gory mess, every draft afflicted with self-doubts and moans of "if only I had another five years to work on this." But we don't have another five years, not if we're trying to meet deadlines. So we forge ahead and somehow it (mostly) works out.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, that explains everything – I completely relate. You're a great dog mom, and I'm sure the work you did during all that crisis got you ready to go the next level that you just completed.

    I'm glad things are looking better for the Duffer.

  22. PD Martin

    Congrats, Alafair! How exciting. I also LOVE typing the words "The End" once I've finished. I usually do it at the first draft, even though I know I'm going to have to re-write/edit heaps.

    Great to hear about the process for this book and I agree with the others – it must have been very scary starting with a blank page even though you were bringing lots of stuff across. I can see the symbolism though – starting afresh, clear mind…blank page.

    Phillipa

  23. JT Ellison

    Alafair, this is an interesting observation. Honestly, thinking back, some of my books needed revising, and some needed editing. I always prefer the ones that need editing. ; )

    Hope Duffer is feeling better soon! I'd go with who is going to give the very best care.

  24. Pari Noskin

    Rewrite and edit . . . don't know what I'm going to do with the new Sasha book. It's so piecemeal right now that I might need to give it the blank page treatment.

    Great post, Alafair!

Comments are closed.