Those of us who spend a lot of time studying the craft of writing inevitably come across bits of writing advice that we hear over and over again: show don’t tell, write what you know, and kill your darlings. These writing tips can be a bit cryptic, but the one about revisions is crystal clear: writing is rewriting.
The intention is to get ideas out of your head and onto the page (or the screen, as the case may be) as quickly as possible without worrying about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You don’t need to get the details right. Just get that rough draft completed. You can clean it up later.
Like most writing tips, this one is debatable. Some writers prefer to labor over each sentence while composing a first draft. This means fewer edits later. Others use the drafting process to navigate through their ideas. This often means more revisions when the drafting is done; in other words, the bulk of time is spent on rewriting.
Getting it Right the First Time
If you have a solid grasp on your project, then polishing as you go might be a good process for you. For example, if you’ve sketched your characters and made a detailed outline of your story, then you can focus on details and mechanics as you work through your first draft.
It might seem like trying to get it right on the first pass will be a time saver. I’m not sure about that. Drafting in this manner means going over each sentence and paragraph several times before moving on to the next. In this sense, you’re still revising multiple times; you’re just doing it at the sentence or paragraph level rather than revising the entire manuscript.
But what if later in the process, maybe at the midpoint or end of your text, you discover a major problem that requires cutting or rewriting large portions of text? All that time you spent editing could go to waste.
However, this is a method I often use when writing blog posts, and I’ve found that there are some benefits to it. When I use this method, I outline the posts first. Drafting is faster and smoother because I’ve already planned what I’m going to cover. As I draft, I go over each sentence and paragraph multiple times rather than going over the entire piece from beginning to end multiple times. Finally, I can usually polish it with a single proof.
It all goes by pretty quickly, but since I’m working on short pieces, I can easily keep all the ideas for each piece in my head as I’m writing. When I’m working on a more elaborate project, like a novel, there’s a lot more going on. I might go over certain sentences and paragraphs multiple times during any given edit, but usually I work through the entire manuscript, give it a rest, then do it again and again until I’ve got a polished manuscript.
Get it Right Through Revisions
A book is a massive undertaking. It’s not unusual for writers to spend over a year on the first draft alone. If you’re writing a novel, you have a lot to think about: characters, plot and subplots, scenes, action, dialogue, description, themes, and story arcs. Even if you have a general idea of what your story is about, once you start fleshing it out, you’ll run into all kinds of problems.
These problems can slam the brakes on your writing progress. If you’re also paying close attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation or working out the most minute details of every scene as you write your first draft, you’ll find yourself stopping every few sentences to iron out the wrinkles. When you do that, you risk losing your train of thought. If you’re deep into a scene, you could lose its entire flow because you’re worrying over punctuation or capitalization questions that could be dealt with later.
During revisions, you can shave off the excess, editing your piece down, or you can build on the narrative, fleshing out the details. You can clean up the grammar, get rid of the typos, and fix everything that needs fixing. Every time you go through another revision, you make the manuscript better. All that rewriting leads to a clean, polished project.
Most writers seem to get the best results with this method.
If you’re going to write by rewriting, plan on going over your work multiple times. Here’s a good system:
- First draft: As you write the first draft, focus on getting your ideas on the page. Don’t go back and revise at all. In fact, don’t even reread what you’ve written unless you absolutely must in order to get your bearings.
- Review: Go through your draft and make notes about large problems that need to be addressed. You might need to rename some characters, conduct research so you get the facts right, move large sections around, or make major changes to the narrative.
- Rewrite: Using your notes, do a thorough rewrite of the entire draft. Now your messy rough draft is cleaned up.
- Revise: Read through your second draft, making changes as you go. Tighten up the dialogue, smooth out the descriptions, check for sentence flow and word choice. You might do focused revisions: one for dialogue, one for fact-checking, one for double-checking your descriptions.
- Edit: You’ll probably clean up a lot of technical errors as you rewrite and revise, but when you edit, you should be focused on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. If you’re not sure about the rules of grammar, this is when you should look them up.
- Proofread: Finally! Now you’re just checking for those last remaining pesky typos.
You might need to repeat some of these steps. For example, I usually recommend proofreading a manuscript until you can’t find any remaining mistakes or typos. Ideally, once you’re done, you’ll bring in a professional editor. Remember, no matter how many times you go over your manuscript, a few mistakes and inconsistencies will slip through.
How Much Do You Rewrite?
Do you try to produce a perfect first draft, or do you follow the old adage that writing is rewriting? Do you use different writing processes for different projects? (I do.) Finally, what are some of your favorite writing tips? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.