Writing is Rewriting: How Rewriting Can Better Your Craft

Revision has got to be, at least for me, the most cringeworthy part of writing just about anything. I get to the end of a first draft and I look back over the great, wide mess of the thing I just wrote and I don’t want to do it. I think well, maybe the next new story will be better from the beginning, but that’s not logic. That’s not really how writing works.

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”  ― Vladimir Nabokov

For me, at least, even when I’m a roll and writing something that is just amazing and coming out so incredibly clean that I can picture it in print already, usually on second glance, I realize, it’s not quite there yet. I’ll have to revise. And usually, I’ll also rewrite it.

Rewriting your own work.

Often when I’m revising something, I’ll start with a new document or a fresh page and retype the entire story over. Doesn’t matter how long it is. I have to retype every word of it. Which actually, among writers I know, is not all that uncommon.

Why do this? Because if you don’t allow yourself to use Copy+Paste, you are writing out every sentence again. It means every sentence has to be worth rewriting. If it’s a bad sentence, you don’t write it, you change it. If the scene you’re rewriting seems like it’s tonally going in the wrong direction, you’re going to change it.

Often in my stories, I’ll get to a piece of dialogue and realize, that’s not what this character would say in this scene, given how the last five scenes went, clearly she’d say this other thing instead – and then the story changes. It’s in these moments during revision that I can see the story suddenly begin to reveal to me what it’s actually about. I might have a loose concept of this when I first get started, but at some point in the writing, things get warped and altered. During revision, you get a chance to look through what actually made it onto the page and hone it in.

Rewriting someone else’s work.

So now I want to talk a little bit about something that is specifically not revision. Rewriting something that you did not write. There is one method, made famous by Hunter S. Thompson, where you rewrite a great American classic – Thompson famously typed out The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway word-for-word. Clearly you’re not going to be attempting to pass these off as your own, but it’s a practice that still teaches something valuable.

It’s like when you’re learning how to draw. You might trace or copy a sketch or a drawing you admire. It’s the same kind of practice. It builds up a similar kind of muscle memory. It was something I thought was initially insane until I tried it out. I didn’t transcribe a whole book, but a few paragraphs, part of a scene.

So that’s one exercise, but here’s another shorter exercise. Keep in mind, it’s an exercise. We’re using flagrant plagiarism for educational purposes only. Instead of taking a few scenes from a published novel and rewriting them word for word, see if you can rewrite the scene but transplant in your own characters and setting.

  • Start by finding a paragraph that you want to emulate. I struggle with really “visualizing” a scene, so I like to find a really descriptive paragraph. It might be a scene that introduces a new character or a new space, or both. Whatever you choose, it should just be something that you really want to learn how to do more effectively.
  • Next, you write your own version of every sentence, so maybe this sentence describes how a character is waiting to meet someone, for the sake of the exercise, I would imagine one of my own characters doing the same thing, but in their own way. If the scene I’m emulating has a nervous and fidgety character, my own character might be more curious or bored. If the author I’m emulating has a sentence describing the floor, I describe the floor in my own setting and so on.
  • Only do the exercise for so long as it’s useful. I usually stop after a paragraph or two, because by then I’ve usually written enough to have gotten what I wanted out of it.

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