Rewriting, not rejigging, tinkering or fiddling

The only kind of writing is rewriting:  Ernest Hemingway

God's First Draft

Rewriting is like grieving.  Nobody wants to face it, but the only way out of it is through it. After the white hot streak of the first draft, where you don’t look back, you keep going, ignoring bumps and holes in the road – on and on till it feels like the end and there you have it –  a big lump of dramatic, rough-hewn words.  Stop.  Now comes the really hard bit.  Putting your creative hat to one side and firmly fixing on your pernickity, anal retentive editor.  While the first draft might have been a Beethoven Symphony, the second is Phillip Glass played backwards.  Slow, painful and discordant.  They are the root canals of writing, the humiliating school verruca test at the side of the swimming pool, the slow passage of time healing a great wound.  Painful, and difficult and oh so necessary.

I was recently asked to read a series of stories by a new writer.  A few of the stories had promise but they were still at the very lumpen, early stage – full of exposition, telling, and thick, sticky lumps of dialogue.  I wrote a full report, detailing where he needed to concentrate his efforts, encouraging but truthful.

Two weeks after the report reached him, another pile of stories arrived, apparently rewritten.  The writer was honest enough to admit he had struggled with some of my suggestions, but what I was reading the second time round, was not rewriting.  It was tinkering, the small tweaks that writers make when the book/play is about to go to the printers, about four rewrites down the line.  Full disclosure – I  haven’t written a novel so I can’t give exact numbers on rewrites, but my novel-writing friends say it’s between three and five rewrites, and sometimes more.  Graham Lineham and Arthur Matthews would rewrite each episode of Father Ted, approximately eight times.

I wrote back a sympathetic but firm letter, gently encouraging this hasty writer to put more energy into making his writing as strong as possible, instead of getting his writing out there.

The second draft is the hardest which is why so many new writers don’t do it.  They like to believe that writing being a cataclysmic gust of creative woo – you just do it in a white-hot heat of words and then you run it through spellcheck.

Er no.  That white hot heat of pushing through the first draft is to produce a big pile of words roughly shaped like a novel.  Now you have to make the words better.  Nobody wants to do it.  New writers don’t want to.  Successful writers like Tess Gerritsen don’t want to do it either.  RICHARD CURTIS    who co-wrote the magnificent Blackadder was told to rewrite a Dr Who script because it was ‘too slow’!   I even googled ‘Everyone  hates second drafts’ and came up with this sage advice from Annie Lamott called The Shitty First Draft.


Writer and author of The Wolf Ticket, Caro Clarke has a whole writing advice section in her excellent blog, including the four main mistakes by new writers.  Because as she eloquently explains, the same mistakes are made time and again.  I’m a great believer in following the hard-won advice from a published writer.  Not that publishers and agents don’t offer helpful tips as they are on the front line of the publishing business, of course, but guidance from someone who has been in exactly the same position as you, is gold dust.  Caro Clarke knows what it feels like, the uphill struggle to publication, the self-doubt, the teeth gritting rewrites.  She’s done it and continues to do it.

Maybe you choose to try to sidestep some of this painful business and self-publish.  Up to you, but even if you are self-publishing, you, the author are still responsible for getting the book as ‘clean’ and error free as possible.  If you go to Jane Smith’s website, The Self-Publishing Review, she reads many books, and again, the same problems keep cropping up.

This is how I approach the painful business of rewriting.  It’s for plays but the same principle applies.

Firstly, I write out the whole play.  It’s very tempting  to keep going back and fixing things, but the trouble with that is you end up with half a play.  Push on and finish so you have a rough shape of the whole story.  Remember everything is changeable, and now you have a whole draft you have something to work with.  The worst bit is that leap from the perfect story in my head to the muddled up splatter of sh*te on the page.

I usually then leave it for a couple of days at least, until the pleasure of actually having finished it drains away, leaving a sad sediment of fearfulness as to whether or not it’s entirely rubbish or just partly.

Here is where having a writers group is incredibly useful.  Not just so someone else reads your stuff but you can read their stuff too.  And you’ll find that the more you do read both books and other people’s work – you’ll be able to point out what’s wrong AND how to fix it.

I read the play out loud.  This is a personal preference, but I’ve always found it a good way to literally hear the words – whether they sound right and natural or like a speech *urgh* or me, the author putting words into the character’s mouth *double urgh*.  I find it difficult to tell until I hear the words out loud.  Also Victoria Wood once said that all good writing, prose, poetry and drama has a rhythm to it.

So I read the play out loud and make notes.  I then save the first draft and trot off for a meeting with my producer hoping that her notes and mine basically tally.

We talk through the notes.  Now that I’ve got some perspective on the first draft, I often blush (literally) at its sheer awfulness.  The dialogue!  More clanks than Marley’s ghost.  Painfully unfunny.  Except for the bits that made her laugh (dramatic not meant to be funny)  The ending that nobody will believe.  And the middle.  And the beginning.

I keep a copy of the original draft.

I take the notes, go away and write a second draft.

Then a third.  And a fourth.  Each time it gets a little easier.  I keep all the drafts.  They are both useful and comforting.

Any other rewriting tips out there?

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