The Pain of Rewriting

In my experience, there are two sentences that will garner instant sympathy from any writer’s group. The first is “My computer died and I lost everything”, which will not only have most writers offering sympathetic baked goods, but also feverishly backing up their own writing to every device they own. The second is “You know, I think I have to start again.”

 

Every author knows what it is to have to go back and rewrite. When it’s just a conversation, or just a scene, it feels OK. It’s a tweak, a little adjustment. It feels like progress.

Rewriting because you lost part of the manuscript feels like drudgery. It’s unnecessary. It’s redoing work just to get back to where you were before the Incident.

But rewriting because you just don’t think the story is working? That straight up feels like failure.

 

There’s a very, very fine line between rewriting and just bottom-drawering the novel. It’s definitely easier to just shelve the work and leave it there. There’s closure in that. Even if you say you’ll come back to it when you have a little more experience and can do a better job of it, it frees you up to work on other things, and it’s permission to stop worrying about all the problems you’ve been puzzling over.

Rewriting, on the other hand, is a little Sisyphean. Back at the bottom, same hill, same boulder, now put your back into it.

 

I’m about to dive into this process myself, which is possibly why I sound a little bitter at the moment. I’ll admit, it wasn’t my favourite decision to make, but it was also oddly refreshing. So for everyone starting a full, from-scratch rewrite, here’s a bit of solidarity, and a few ways to make the whole process easier.

 

The first thing I did was to remind myself that I wasn’t throwing out the entire first version. The story still has mostly the same plot, some of the same Major Plot Events, and all of the same characters (plus a couple). I spent so many hours on the first version, and there are some genuinely good scenes in it. I’d only be making it harder on myself if I threw it out entirely. Keep the document open while you rewrite so you can steal freely from it. You might have to get that boulder up the hill again, but this time you’ve got a paved road. The little lumps and bumps of a first draft are smoothed out. Once you think of it that way, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

 

But do start in a whole new document. This is a do-over. Sure, the blank page is daunting, but it’s also sort of exciting. Let yourself feel that first-draft excitement again. Because this is another first draft, with the added benefit of the characters being old friends. Rewriting is in some ways the best of both worlds – you get new twists and turns and things to discover, but you already know that you like the people you’re travelling with, and you’ve been here before so you know some of the lay of the land. You can remember that that one interesting turn is a dead end in a seedy alley, and that main street doesn’t go where you want it to. But you didn’t get to go down that other little side road last time, and that might be fun to explore now!

 

Ultimately, a rewrite is a very different feeling to a first draft, though. When you write a first draft, you’re stepping onto the pitch for your first training session of a sport you’ve always wanted to try. At first, you feel uncoordinated. You feel like everyone else knows more than you about how their own body works, and you can’t seem to make the ball do what you want it to. But over the season you improve until finally you get to the end and you feel like you can confidently handle yourself in this game.
Rewriting is the start of the next season, when some of your teammates have stopped playing and been replaced with new players. You’re better at handling the ball and you know the rules better, but you need to spend a bit of time learning how these new people play, so you can play well as a team, not just as individuals. It’s still awkward to start, but the learning curve is much more comfortable.

 

So, if you’re starting or considering a rewrite, good luck. It doesn’t feel great to have to redo something you’ve spent so many hours on, but approach it as a new, fresh project and remember to use what you’ve already got, and it feels much less daunting.

And if that doesn’t make you feel better, there’s always chocolate and the motivational power of a few well-chosen swearwords before you start writing.

One thought on “The Pain of Rewriting

  1. I felt exactly the same when I rewrote my WIP.
    The first time it took me two months to write 40k words… where pretty much nothing happened.
    The ‘second’ first draft took me just a little longer (70 days). The setting was different and inspired to places I’ve actually been to, the obstacles were thwarting the sugar out of my MP’s; but most of all, the manuscript had reached 65k words. I had finally written a novel.
    So yeah, I guess I can agree with the paved road metaphor.

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