Writing Is Re-Writing, Or, There’s a Pony In Here Somewhere

by J.D. Rhoades

Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.

– Richard North Patterson

I don’t make any corrections. Everything’s down there just the way I want it. That’s the way it’s going to be. -Jack Kerouac

I’ve had the subject of rewriting, or revising, or editing, or whatever you want to call it, on my mind this week, because that’s the stage I’m in in the current work in progress. And, after four books, I’m doing it differently than I’ve ever done it before.

This is the first book I’ve written where I didn’t revise as I went. In the past, I’d obsess over every setence, every paragraph, writing each in a dozen different ways until I liked it enough to go on. Sometimes after an evening of writing, I’d have written one page. I cussed a lot on those days.

It was even hairier when something new would occur to me or I had one of those bolts from the blue that sent the story off in a new direction. I’d make the change, then I’d have to immediately go back to what I’d written before, scour it to  eradicate continuity errors,  and change things around so that the new direction would be at least plausible.

Not this time. This time, I just put my head down and pushed to the end. If I wasn’t happy with a chapter or a paragraph, I just muttered “fuck it, I’ll catch it in the rewrite,” and kept typing. If a premise changed, I gritted my teeth and let it ride until I got to the end of the first draft.

Lawrence Block, one of my heroes,  is not a fan of this approach. In fact, in his excellent book TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, he takes a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards rewriting at all, going so far as to title the chapter on the subject “Washing Garbage.” When I write “The End”,” he insists, “I mean it…all a sloppy first draft teaches you is to be sloppy in your writing.”

Now, some of Block’s feelings on the matter could have arisen out of the fact that he was writing his treatise in the era of the typewriter. Back then doing another draft didn’t mean going through, deleting, cutting, and pasting blocks of text. It meant sitting down at the typewriter and doing the whole damn thing over again. But even now, with computers, I know of at least one very well-known thriller writer who nonchalantly claims that when he gets to “The End”, he just closes the document and e-mails it off. Or so I’ve heard.

Stephen King, on the other hand, in HIS excellent book ON WRITING, suggests putting the book in a drawer for, oh, six weeks or so, then pulling it out, reading it all the way through (in one sitting, if possible), letting your trusted “First Readers” look it over, and begining revisions.

So, having done it both ways, what have I learned about which is preferable? Well, the way where I  revise as I go has its points. When I wrote THE END, the books were done. Mostly. I didn’t quite have the balls to just e-mail it off that same night, but except for checking spelling, punctuation, changing some word choices, and chopping long, run-on  sentences into a manageable size, the things were finished.  I was so sick of them I  never wanted to see them again, but they were done.

With this one, it’s true that I wasn’t totally sick of it when I got the first draft done. There was one other problem, though: the book was a giant pile of horseshit. It was freaking incoherent. There were things in it that made no sense. Characters suffered abrupt personality changes for no discernible reason. Sometimes, their very names, heights, and hair colors changed. But, like the optimistic kid in the old joke who received a giant pile of dung for Christmas, I grabbed my shovel and got to work. Because I knew there was a pony in there somewhere.

I’ve been hacking away at it, adding, subtracting, moving, and yes, chopping those sentences into bite-sized pieces for a week or so. And I’m getting happier with it. I know there’s a pony in here. I can hear it whinny.

So writers, how do you prefer to re-write? As you go, or after the god-awful first draft is done? Rreaders, do you know any other writers who claim they never revise or revise as they go?

34 thoughts on “Writing Is Re-Writing, Or, There’s a Pony In Here Somewhere

  1. billie

    I do some editing as I go, but not much, because I’m usually on such a flow that to stop and switch to edit mode would destroy the process. (I don’t outline, so following the silver thread all the way through is important)

    When I get to the end I try as best I can to set the ms aside for a few weeks. But by the time I’m done I’m usually so eager to get to the editing phase I can’t wait as long as I’d like. I do one read-through in one sitting and then do what ends up being a number of read-throughs looking at different things.

    One usually is a copyediting kind of pass, where I catch any spelling errors, mistyped words, inconsistencies. Then I do passes for my own writing foibles – too much description, using lots of passive verb construction, etc. Once all that is cleaned up, I do passes for each character, themes in the novel, plot, etc.

    If one hates editing, my process would be a nightmare, but it’s during the editing phase that I begin to see all the little seeds I’d planted, almost unconsciously, in that first draft, and I get such a kick out of that it makes the editing almost a treasure hunt.

  2. Dana King

    When doing the first draft, I go over what I wrote yesterday and clean it up before I begin moving forward. I know it’s not done, I have no intention of "finishing" it when i look back a day, but it makes subsequent drafts–of which I usually do five or six–easier to get through. I also outline, which makes this approach much easier.

    Robert B. Parker has said he writes five pages a day and never looks at them again. Based on his recent Spenser stories, I can believe that.

  3. Margaret A. Golla

    I used to rewrite as I wrote, but in this last book I just plowed away. I had less repetition and a greater sense of continuity and pacing throughout. The second and third drafts were so easy-breezy.
    It worked!
    BUT I started a new story and LOVE/HATE the beginning, and have been dinking with it for weeks. I want to get it right the first time, so I can put my head down and write.

  4. karen from mentor

    "the book was a giant pile of horseshit…..but….I knew there was a pony in there somewhere."

    JD. This idea (and the visual) just about killed me…..I was glad that I had finished my tea when I started reading your excellent post.

    Hope the rewrite goes well (and quickly) for you.

    I do have a question though…this IS just a metaphor…..you don’t really think that horses are carnivores do you?

    [that was fun]

    Karen :0)

  5. Alli

    Loooooove this post – and very appropriate timing for me, anyway. This MS I’ve been working on has been a totally different experience for me – the first two I wrote I revised as I went along and had the slimmest of outlines. But this current MS, I did things differently. I had an outline (but of course that changed as I started to write the story), I refused to revise and kept ploughing ahead and if I got stuck I would make a note and then plan to come back to it in the second draft.

    The first draft done (the bones) I started on the second draft (adding the flesh) and it was sooooooo much easier this time around. (I’d rather stick hot pokers in my eyes than write a first draft). I print it out, read through it and make crazy scrawlings and then I put it next to my computer and open up a new document on the screen. Then with the first draft as my security blanket I have the freedom to create again. This works an absolute treat for me. Luckily I am a speed typist so it doesn’t take too long, but aside from that fact, I found starting with a blank document made it reallly easy to cut out long passages in the first MS – I didn’t have to hit the delete button, all I had to do was not type it in on the second draft.

    Then of course I have different passes for character devel, suspense, etc. And then the comments from my lovely CP’s.

    I find it interesting to learn about everyone’s systems, I doubt many are exactly the same. Great post JD!

  6. TerriMolina

    You know one of the things I love about Murderati is that the blogs always seem to hit on a problem I’m struggling with and the posts always give me something to think about and help me over my self-imposed wall. Thanks. =)

    I’m an edit as I go person, but the edits are usually the next day after I’ve had time to think about what I’d written (which isn’t always a good thing because I usually end up deleting most of what I’d written). I’ve tried the "just write it" approach but can’t seem to stay with the program because my internal editor is more stubborn. But, I guess I’ll continue to give it a shot…my daughter always wanted a pony. 😉

  7. Chevy

    I tend to average 3-5 pages a day, depending on what is happening in my world. My first part of the day is spent editing the work I did the day before and the chapter I’m currently In. I go back, then forwards, then back again. It’s easier for me to edit then it is to write new stuff, so I often have to force myself to throw down new scenes, no matter how messy they are, so I have something to edit!

    At the end of the novel I will go through it all again–I’m very picky, I will obsess over lines and paragraphs for days. Then I will send it to my beta readers and fix whatever issues they find. When it comes back to me, there’s been a bit of a break, and now that my mind is fresh, I usually find other things that need to be edited, in addition to their observations. Then I will often send it out again. I find my beta readers, like me, will see new things on rereads.

  8. Louise Ure

    I’m a "let it ride until I get to the end of the first draft" person.

    But my version of tToni’s post it note-reminders is to insert the letters "TK" into the document. It’s a bastardization of "To Come" (or "To Kum,’ in my case). The two letters are rarely used together in the English language, so that when you’re done you just do a global search for "TK" to find all those place you need to go back and rewrite to make the story work.

  9. Trish Collins

    You’ve been nominated in the Best Thriller/Mystery category for BBAW. Can you email me at trish.browningatgmaildotcom as soon as possible with your email address? Thanks!

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    My first draft is not much more than an expanded outline. In my head, anyway. On paper in generally reads a lot better than I would ever have expected it to, but I still move large chunks around before I even start to refine and polish.

    I think Block is – hmm… how can I put this in a spiritual way? – not taking into account the vast array of personality differences naturally found in writers.

  11. James Scott Bell

    I got so into a systematic approach to revising I wrote a book about it. I’m a big believer in write hot, revise cool with a checklist on hand and strategy in the whole process.

  12. Kathy Wheeler

    I edit as I go, it usually helps get my thoughts going. I don’t usually do a complete printout readthrough until I’m finished, however. I’m not published YET, but this process seems to help with my flow.

  13. Bill Cameron

    I mix it up, and thank you computers for making that possible.

    There are days when I miss my typewriter and the need to fill a page before I could edit the page and then re-type the page. But mostly I am glad for the type once, edit infinite workflow the computer allows. The danger for me is that I can obsess over one sentence and forget I need to write the next.

    Other times, I plow ahead and damn the typos.

    Ultimately, however, I always view re-writing as a necessary part of the process, whether on the spot or down the line. Revisions are when you get to get to move the darts right onto the bullseye while no one is looking. Viva la revisions!

  14. pari noskin taichert

    I’m still figuring it out, Dusty. Often I have to read a little of what I wrote the day before to remember where I was heading (ah, the joys of getting older <g>), and when I do that, I always find things I can make better. But I’m trying to plug on through now.

    I think of myself as incredibly inefficient w/o outlines etc., but it works for me and I’m getting more productive as time moves inexorably on.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  15. JoAnn Ross

    I’ve written around 100 books and used to write several drafts, but I’d also do hard copy editing at the end of each day. Since my first nine were written on a pretty blue IBM Selectric,editing on hard copy was really the only way.

    Even when I moved to a computer in 1983, I continued to write several drafts. Enough that I finally went to printing them out on different colors of paper to keep track of which was which. (Staples LOVED me!) I have to do at least one edit on hard copy because everything looks too perfect on the computer screen.

    Now I edit as I go. It’s pretty much three pages forward, one back, which can be discouraging if you’re used to keeping track by daily page count. I don’t particularly like the process, but it’s the one that I seem to be stuck with. And it does make the last third of the book a lot easier to write when everything’s been layered in and events set up. I love my Mac post-its. Whenever I think of something I can put it on one of those, then before I turn in the book, I make sure they’ve all been taken care of.

    Also, lately if I’m going to be stuck somewhere — such as waiting for my husband’s outpatient surgery recently — I’ll upload my ms to my Kindle, highlight and make editing notes on it, which beats dragging a laptop or a paper ms everywhere. I also do a final read on my Kindle, because it’s the closest to a real book and I can better see how it’ll look to readers.

  16. Gerald So

    I try to write a first draft that reads well and gets the major plot points out, but I’m not able to do major revision as I go and have a finished product when I type "The End". I need to go back and look at the story when I’m no longer trying to think of what happens next, when I can concentrate on improving the pace or drama of events I’ve already plotted out.

  17. Doug Riddle

    Great post. I do kind of the best/worst of both worlds.

    I write by hand, then I either input it in the computer right after, or just before I start the next day’s writing. As I type it in the computer I do a light edit so it reads like I have a passing familiarity with the English language, but it is still pretty rough and bare bones. There are places in this first draft where I will write in CAPS, "ADD LANDSCAPE DESCRIPTION", and then go on. No matter which way I do it, I read over the previous day’s pages, and sometimes make notes in the margins, before starting the day’s new writing. At the end of each week I retype the week’s pages, working in the margin notes. I am looking for momentum in a first draft.

    In the second draft I edit for structure. Third pass is for adding descriptions, character busy work, etc. Fourth is the language pass. And then a final ruthless cutting.

    The hope is that the more I get right in the first draft, the less work there is following drafts.

  18. JD Rhoades

    There are places in this first draft where I will write in CAPS, "ADD LANDSCAPE DESCRIPTION", and then go on.

    Doug, I’m going to try that. Description is often where I bog down.

    There are days when I miss my typewriter and the need to fill a page before I could edit the page and then re-type the page.

    Wow, Bill, you’re really old.

    Robert B. Parker has said he writes five pages a day and never looks at them again. Based on his recent Spenser stories, I can believe that.

    Ooooh, snap!

  19. CJ Carter

    I just plow through the first draft, warts and all. Since I do a fair amount of outlining before I begin, I’m reasonably sure the structure and character arcs will hold.

    By plowing through the first draft, I find that I can pretty easily avoid any sense of blockage. Each day I write to get from where I am now to where I’m going next. If I have something that is truly vexing, I just write "[something cool goes here]" and press on. After all, it will have to be rewritten anyway.

    After the first draft, I now know my story. My second draft, for longer works, is typing the whole thing again from beginning to end, inserting my revisions and notes. (Yes, I come from the typewriter days. Why do you ask?) After that, if it’s readable, I keep working on it; if it’s not, I make a deposit to my attic’s insulation.

  20. JT Ellison

    Dusty, awesome timing. I’m just starting a new book. I tried to outline it, planning to write from the outline. Yeah. Brain doesn’t work that way. Once I tossed the outline out, the words started to flow.

    I do several drafts. The first is to get the story down. It usually comes in around 80K. It’s rough, but readable, in that I write in a relatively linear fashion, rewrite my previous days work before I add the new stuff for the day. The point is to finish. When I first started writing, I was so scared that I was going to walk away without finishing that I just put my head down and wrote. It works well for me.

    My second draft ends up around 85K, and then my readers get it. Their suggestions usually get me to the point where I’m comfortable sending it to my editor, at draft three. Once she gives me her comments, I revise again, drafts four and five, and end up at 90-100K. I add, not subtract, when I revise. Mostly because I HATE to delete words. : )

    Glad you’re finding your pony, which I’m sure will be a Kentucky Derby winning Thoroughbred by the time you’re done. Rock on, man!

  21. Jake Nantz

    I have to edit as I go. Those of you who are able to just bull forward and worry about it later are so much more disciplined than me. I hear that voice in the back of my head and I’m too weak to ignore it.

    Of course, when I finish, it’s still a dogshit first draft, so what can ya do?

  22. LizC

    While I don’t write fiction when I was writing my MA thesis I edited as I went. I didn’t write linearly, which is a habit I had to break myself of when writing my thesis because I realized that it made no sense to try to write something that way if I got an idea for something in another chapter. But I did edit as I went just because it was easier on my fragile self-esteem. I was rewarded for my efforts when I received my draft back from my adviser (a very tough editor) with very few changes needed.

  23. anony-moose

    I have a history of writing in these great, hypomanic bursts. I get the idea and my brain won’t shut off so for eight or ten days, I don’t sleep, barely eat, burn holes in my clothes from chain smoking and just hammer it out.

    Then there’s the big pile of horseshit. For about sixteen months, I kept coming back to a story written in one of those mad-writer binges. I loved it. I hated it. In December last year, I rewrote the whole thing and made a huge plot change. The problem was at that point, that it was a massive, unwieldy thing that was long enough for two novels.

    Out came the e-scissors. I trimmed away a quarter of the story. Sixteen or so major edits later, I stuck the stupid thing onto a flash drive and said, "screw it" and started writing other things. Short stories, writing exercises, blog entries, non-fiction articles on abnormal psychology – you name it. I wrote it.

    The novel stayed on the flash drive.

    Then in July, I was in London with my son. We were having dinner at a sushi restaurant, and so for me, that meant consuming two bottles of plum wine, and it hit me. The problem with the novel wasn’t the plot. That’s not what had turned it into Godzilla, the novel that ate itself. The problem was subplots. There were too many things I was trying to convey into the story that just weren’t necessary. They were clever and interesting, but they didn’t advance the plot AT ALL. I got home from London and knew exactly what had to go, what moved the plot forward, what turned the novel from ho-hum into a page turner. I spent eight days – night and day literally, pounding it out.

    Instead of getting through the edit process in the usual way, (reading over and over), I let my Kindle read it TO me. It was a good experience for more than just giggles over the voice function stumbling over words it never learned to pronounce properly. Within another week, I was ready to turn the story over to "Trusted Reader Number 1". She read the book in less than 12 hours. We talked. She gave constructive criticism. I revised.

    As for my usual writing process, hypomania will probably continue to be the first draft process. I guess in the future, when I get stuck, there’s always the plum wine in London…

  24. D. D. Scott

    Hello, J.D.

    D. D. Scott here!

    Fabulous topic!

    I do a combo of Write to The End vs. Edit As I Go.

    I’m a huge fan of Karen Doctor’s W plotting method. So w/my sticky note "W" plastered to my office wall, I then get my BITCHOK (butt in chair hands on keyboard) groove on and write the rough draft.

    That rough draft really isn’t that "rough" though. I write a chapter each morning then edit that puppy each afternoon followed by a final edit/read thru the next morning before I dive into writing the next chapter.

    Sometimes, I do have some magical major epiphany half-way through the rough draft that makes me go back and change a few things but otherwise the chapters stay as is until my agent gets the entire manuscript. We then cuss and discuss if it’s going that way or with a few tweaks.

    Good luck on finding the pony in the dung…LOL!!! Love that analogy BTW.

    Sexy, Sassy, Smart Write/Re-Write Wishes — D. D. Scott

  25. Jan

    Boy oh boy – I sure hope there’s a pony in there! I’m on my third or fourth draft – they don’t seem so clear to me as distinct drafts more like morphs. I cannot outline as my characters are a head-strong as I am and will not be told what to do or even let me suggest it to them. So I try and stay out of their way and just bumble along behind cleaning things up a bit as we go. Now I’ve got to go in and work the pace. It is nice and leisurely at the beginning and through the middle but then I had to gallop near the end to find out what was happening. I am imagining that I am revisiitng a place I really like and I can now take the time to really look around. In the beginning bits I need to not revisit the places that might have been all right but not on this trip. So cutting at the beginning and in the middle and adding at the end. I love how different everyone is!


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