How to rewrite

Posted on Tue 14 Nov 2017 @ 12.00pm UTC

EXACTLY — how does anyone rewrite anything?

To be frank, it’s impossible explain rewriting. It’s so very instinctive and instinctual because the process varies between individuals.

If there’s one piece of advice on rewriting, it is this:—

Always seek a better way to describe things

… so that it will be easier to digest

… with the least reading effort

… for the most number of people

… in the shortest possible time

Here are some golden nuggets for aspiring writers:—

Never talk about the book you’re writing. It will diminish your efforts to write.

Work in short blocks. Take breaks doing nothing, or something different from writing.

Learn how to outline stories and ideas. Always work on your strongest ideas first, regardless of where they fit in the storyline.

What to do


First draft the wretched thing to completeness or near-completeness.

Everything else to me is just a detail. Depending on the overall situation, I draft according to plan (either in my head or written down) or fly by the pants.


Reorder the material for a better structure.

My English is at a high level, so ‘language’ details like spelling, grammar, etc, are uncommon issues with me anyway.

Look for points to plant additional or updated information.

The subject matter and context usually control this need, but usually some kind of extra information is needed after the initial draft.

Recast anything that reads just a little too laboured.

The subject matter and your intended audience control the level of recasting needed. Have a mental imagery of your ‘average’ reader and how that reader grasps the essential ‘message’ behind your words. Anything ‘hiccuppy’ for your average reader gets unceremoniously rewritten.

Run two more rounds of rewrites — and be done with it.

Avoid constant edits to ‘perfectionalise’ the copy — don’t squeeze the orange till the pips pop out. Two or three rounds of editing are good enough generally, especially if you happen to be a thorough editor like me.

From the lips of the writerly types

Writers have a split personality of sorts. They are their own creator, critic and editorial person — their own sheriff, judge, jury and executioner, so to speak.

From the lips of nearly all writerly types:—

Keep the older drafts — for comparison or for rollback.

You’ll always rewrite more than once. The initial draft is always no good. The first pass removes obvious errors. The second polishes things up like subplots, foreshadowing and character development. The third pass ties up loose ends and finetunes things. Keeping the previous drafts around helps us rewrite without fear of losing something. At worst, we know what we can roll back to.

Detach yourself — allow time and space between the writing and the rewrites.

Some writers need to let their writing ‘marinate’ — sit untouched — for quite a while (like weeks or even months) before the rewrites can begin or they won’t be detached or objective enough from the copy. Others can launch straight into the rewrites within moments of drafting. The time and space can be big or little — they just need to be sufficient for you.

Rip your stuff apart — ‘real’ writing is in the rewrites.

No diamond or gold will gleam and shine until the rough gets polished. Likewise, even the most gilded of writing was once rubbish until after the rewrites. Just like polishing physical objects, rewriting means being abrasive with yourself.

Creating the story and writing the draft is a different process from rewriting and editing it. In the rewrites, it’s important to lose your “internal opinion” of your work. Remain aware of your ultimate targets, but also treat the copy as if you’ve never seen it before.

Ditch your darlings.

The first routine to lose your internal opinion is take a brutal look at the parts you love the most. Are they really needed for the overall storyline — or you’re just too proud of them to kill them off?

Many of us during any kind of writing — from the business letter to the novel, from the blog post to the movie script — make the mistake of rewriting with the ‘story’ still in mind. We become blind as to how unclear most of the details or logic are to the intended audience. We try to get as close to how our reader would read things by emptying our mind of the ‘story’ during the rewrites.

Fix all obvious errors.

When it comes to the mechanics of rewriting, the first job is to fix all mistakes in spelling, punctuation, grammar, phraseology, tone and details. Fix one type of thing at a time — it’s harder to catch all types of errors on spot rewrites. Obvious errors obscure your words (if not also meaning). Rewriting is meant to result in a cleaner copy.

Remove redundancy.

In writing, say one thing once. Rewrites should result in a cleaner work that’s also clearer.

Weed out sentences that say the same thing differently. Remove dialogues that drive around in circles. Remove scenes that accomplish the same purpose that a one-liner can.

Adverbs generally make the writing ‘weak’ and adjectives are reading hurdles — so look for places with too many of them. We’re not French writers or readers, who love lots of adjectives and adverbs. The English are puritans and like to zero in on the target with one precise word.

For instance, this deadfish:—

“The boss sternly scolded him in such a way that he felt it was like a ton of bricks falling on him.”

becomes easier to read just from taking out the redundancies:—

“The boss sternly scolding him felt like bricks falling on him.”

but gets a new lease on life after recasting:—

“The boss bollocking him felt like bricks dumped onto him.”

“The bollocking he received from the boss felt like bricks dumped onto him.”

“He felt the bollocking from the boss was like being dumped on with bricks.”

Try challenging yourself by using better or precise words to replace all adverbs and other elements. Better or precise doesn’t mean more complex or ‘bigger’ words, of course.

Treat the rewriting like a game.

Many writers hate rewrites and editing. Theirs is an attitude that the first penning has to be ‘perfect.’ This leads on to a deep-seating psychological state of regarding any kind of amendment as tampering — even if they themselves are editing their own work.

It is a sad misunderstanding of the writing vs. editorial processes. The two are different from each other, and necessarily so. The attitudes for each must be different too.

Wordsmithing is the name of the game. Play around with different ways of expressing the matter. Try out whatever it takes and make things easy on yourself. We are living in the 21st century and have wordprocessors. We can rewrite innumerable times.

For instance, I sometimes challenge myself to see if I can trim a 5,000-word piece down to 4,000 words even if my aim was for 4,500 words. If I could achieve that, then I still have an open space for 500 words for adding in more detail or more ‘story.’

The matter of using alpha/beta readers

Some writers need feedback from others in order to move forward, so they use a writing group (such as alpha or beta readers) for this purpose. The feedback gives the writer a better focus by highlighting the high-priority items for rewriting.

Even though most of us will benefit from some form of feedback, the problem with using a reader feedback group is that it may simply be unavailable to you. Then you have to be your own feedback loop — which brings us back to square one, that is, learning how to detach yourself from your own work.

Final word

The key to a good rewrite is to draft the thing out to completeness first. Until we have something reasonably near-complete sitting in front of our eyeballs, it is near impossible to have a bird’s eye view of what needs to be done next.

The overriding handiwork is always to seek a better way to word things, either for shortness or simply to avoid laboured phraseology. The point is to give the reader an effortless language terrain to travel on.

Effective recasting depends on reordering things for a better reading structure — one that also allows the planting of extra information in the right places to advance the overall storyline. We play around with various sentence constructions to get the point across, and then remove obvious mechanical errors and redundancies as far as possible.

To aid the above, try to reduce our own personal preconceptions of our writeup. Detach ourselves by letting the copy sit untouched for some time. Ask ourselves which parts are out pet favourites and whether we can forgo them.

Doing all of these things should result in a cleaner, clearer copy stage by stage.

© Learn English or Starve, 14 Nov 2017. Original text 20 Jul 2016. (B17168).

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