Thursday, 28 July 2011

How to rewrite rapidly and efficiently

There's no doubting the warm glow of satisfaction on finishing a manuscript and the hope that this is in fact the 'final' draft - even if it's only the first. Chances are it isn't the finished product but it's nice to wallow in the vain dream that it might be - until reality dawns and it's back to work. Sometimes though you don't have the luxury of waiting for reality to strike; sometimes the commission/submission/competition deadline looms and you need to start improving that rose-tinted manuscript ASAP.

Here's what you need to do when your back's against the wall:

Learn to un-love it

Critical distance is the holy grail. Ten years away from a project will give you all the distance you could ever hope for. Unfortunately you don't have ten years. What you need is a brutal critique from a complete stranger who takes an instant dislike to you. Even if what they say is utter tripe, you'll analyse what you've written with a far more critical eye. It's painful this way, but it's faster.


So you get your critical distance and realise that there's not just one or two things wrong but everything is wrong – you can't possible fix all that in the eight hours left before the deadline. The answer is you have to prioritise. What's going to make the biggest improvement to this piece with the minimum effort? Story elements are probably close to the top – and a good beginning and ending can hide a multitude of sins. Next look at characters – are they convincing? Do they have desires and motivations?

Think before you write

You may be tempted to just crack-on with rewriting because time is short and you can't afford to wait – but remember these words – different is not necessarily better. You need to make sure that the changes you are making are actual improvements and not just saying the same thing in a different way.

Try before you buy

Ever had an itch you didn't scratch? A niggling doubt or an idea that just won't go away but you're just not sure it's worth pursuing particularly as time is so pressing? Here's a maxim – niggling doubts and ideas are always worth pursuing. If they turn out to be crap you can bin them and return to the original MS – which you did save a copy of, right? Don't be afraid to save a new version and pursue the idea, while the original version is still nice and safe to fall back on. Here's another maxim – if you have any niggling doubts they are most likely humdinging problems that the fee-paying public will vomit at. Fix them.

Don't dilute your truth

Don't forget why you wrote the story in the first place – in my experience there's more raw truth in the first draft than in any other draft – don't lose that power, just draw it out, expose it, reveal it in better ways – but for crying out loud do not DILUTE it.

Remember what you know

I always forget everything I ever learnt about writing the moment I finish a draft. Because my memory is so abominable I compel myself to ask two simple things:

1. how can I improve this story
2. how can I develop these characters

Because things that are wrong with a manuscript essentially boil down to these two things – a faulty story and under-developed characters.

Destroy to create

Don't be tempted to just fiddle around massaging words and phrases – sure you may feel you don't have time to undergo massive structural changes but if that's what's needed that's what's needed. No amount of polishing is going to fix a turd. The truth is, if you get the structure and story right, the words will fly because you know it's good. Stories with good characters and structure pretty much write themselves.

Write around the edges

Sometimes what's wrong with a story isn't what's written on the page but what's not written off it. Chances are your characters are flat because you haven't developed them. Odds-on that your scene isn't working because there are no points of conflict. Most likely your unconvincing character actions are because you haven't developed a justification (read motivation) for that character. The fact that your story is dull is probably because you don’t have one. Feed those characters and story with off-page development. Believe me, it's not wasted time – I recently spent a day and a half developing a character's background and it allowed me to fix a scene with a three line change.

Good luck.


  1. Great advice. I definitley didn't have this figured out after my first manuscript but I'm getting better. :)

  2. Hey, Laura. What I find the strangest thing is that when I finish a MS I have to remind myself of all the above. I think it's because each phase of writing involves such different skills and techniques - creation, construction, writing, re-writing etc. that you have to have a different tool-box for each. That's why blogging can be so usefull in getting ideas down so you have something to refer back to when you forget which toolbox you should be looking in.

  3. Great stuff!

    I especially like what you had to say about prioritizing. You cannot correct every issue all at once. It's best to tackle the biggest issue and go from there.

    Thank you.

  4. @Anna - yes, prioritising is also a good way of working through what can seem like an overwhelming number of issues that a WIP may have, and if you focus on the big problems other things that may seem significant to a crit-group may go un-noticed to readers. I haven't heard any of the millions of Harry Potter fans complaining about JK's overuse of adverbs - but plenty from other writers. Thanks for your post, Anna, and hope to see you again soon.

    @Kelley - thanks, Kelley - and thanks for taking the time to read and comment