25 Things You Should Know About Revising And Rewriting

Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:

25 Things Every Writer Should Know

25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

25 Things You Should Know About Character

25 Things You Should Know About Plot

25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Novel

1. Forging The Sword

The first draft is basically just you flailing around and throwing up. All subsequent drafts are you taking that throw-up and molding it into shape. Except, ew, that’s gross. Hm. Okay. Let’s pretend you’re the Greek God Hephaestus, then. You throw up a lump of hot iron, and that’s your first draft. The rewrites are when you forge that regurgitated iron into a sword that will slay your enemies. Did Hephaestus puke up metal? He probably did. Greek myths are weird.

2. Sometimes, To Fix Something, You Have To Break It More

Pipe breaks. Water damage. Carpet, pad, floor, ceiling on the other side, furniture. You can’t fix that with duct tape and good wishes. Can’t just repair the pipe. You have to get in there. Tear shit out. Demolish. Obliterate. Replace. Your story is like that. Sometimes you find something that’s broken through and through: a cancer. And a cancer needs to be cut out. New flesh grown over excised tissue.

3. It’s Cruel To Be Kind

You will do more damage to your work by being merciful. Go in cold. Emotionless. Scissors in one hand, silenced pistol in the other. The manuscript is not human. You are free to torture it wantonly until it yields what you require. You’d be amazed at how satisfying it is when you break a manuscript and force it to kneel.

4. The Aspiration Of Reinvention

I’m not saying this needs to be the case, and it sounds horrible now, but just wait: if your final draft looks nothing like your first draft, for some bizarre-o fucking reason you feel really accomplished. It’s the same way I look at myself now and I’m all like, “Hey, awesome, I’m not a baby anymore.” I mean, except for the diaper. What? It’s convenient. Don’t judge me, Internet. Even though that’s all you know. *sob*

5. Palate Cleanser

Take time away from the manuscript before you go at it all tooth-and-claw. You need time. You need to wash that man right out of your hair. Right now, you either love it too much or hate its every fiber. You’re viewing it as the writer. You need to view it as a reader, as a distant third-party editor flying in from out of town and who damn well don’t give a fuck. From subjective to objective. Take a month if you can afford it. Or write something else: even a short story will serve as a dollop of sorbet on your brain-tongue to cleanse the mind-palate. Anything to shift perspective from “writer” to “reader.”

6. The Bugfuck Contingency

You’ll know if it’s not time to edit. Here’s a sign: you go to tackle the edit and it feels like your head and heart are filled with bees. You don’t know where to start. You’re thinking of either just walking away forever or planting a narrative suitcase bomb in the middle of the story and blowing it all to H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks. That means you’re not ready. You’re too bugfuck to go forward. Ease off the throttle, hoss. Come back another time, another way. Cool down.

7. The Proper Mindset

Editing, revising, rewriting requires a certain mindset. That mindset is, “I am excited to destroy the enemy that resists good fiction, I am ready to fix all the shit that I broke, I am eager to shave off barnacles and burn off fat and add layers of laser-proof steel and get this motherfucker in fit fighting shape so that no other story may stand before it.” You gotta be hungry to fuck up your own work in the name of good storytelling.

8. Go In With A Plan Or Drown In Darkness

You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own feces, I don’t care. But you go to attack a rewrite without a plan in mind, you might as well be a chimpanzee humping a football helmet. How do you know what to fix if you haven’t identified what’s broken? This isn’t time for intuition. Have notes. Put a plan in place. Surgical strike.

9. Don’t Rewrite In A Vacuum

You write the first draft in isolation. Just you, your keyboard, a story, some industrial lubricant and a handgun. All other drafts are part of a team initiative. SWAT, kicking in windows, identifying perps. Beta readers, editors, agents, wives, friends, itinerant strangers, hostages, whatever. Get someone to read your nonsense. Get notes. Attend to those notes. Third parties will see things you do not.

10. Embrace The Intervention Of Notes

You get notes, it’s tough. It’s like coming home and being surrounded by friends and family, and they want you to sit down and listen as they talk about getting you unfettered from your addiction to obscure 80s hair-bands and foul Lithuanian pornography. But listen to those notes. They may be hard but they’re both instructive and constructive. They are a dear favor, so do not waste them.

11. But Also, Check Your Gut

When someone says “follow your gut,” it’s because your intestinal tract is home to an infinite multitude of hyper-intelligent bacterial flora. It knows what’s up if you can tune to its gurgling frequency. You get notes and they don’t feel exactly right, check the gut. Here’s the thing, though. Notes, even when you don’t agree, usually point out something about your manuscript. It may highlight a flaw or a gap. But it can also be instructive in the sense that, each note is a test, and if you come up more resolute about some part of your manuscript, that’s okay, too. Two opinions enter, one opinion leaves. Welcome to Chunderdome.

12. When In Doubt, Hire An Editor

Editors do not exist to hurt you. They exist to hurt your manuscript. In the best way possible. They are the arbiters of the toughest, smartest love. A good editor shall set you — and the work — free.

13, Multitasking Is For Assholes

It is the mark of the modern man if he can do multiple things at once. He can do a Powerpoint presentation and mix a martini and train a cat to quilt the Confederate Flag all at the same time. Your story will not benefit from this. Further, it’s not a “one shot and I’m done” approach. This isn’t the Death Star, and you’re not trying to penetrate an Imperial shaft with one blast from your Force-driven proton penis. You have to approach a rewrite in layers and passes. Fix one thing at a time. Make a dialogue pass. A description pass. A plot run. You don’t just fix it with one pull of the trigger, nor can you do ten things at once. Calm down. Here, eat these quaaludes. I’m just kidding, nobody has ‘ludes anymore.

14. Not Always About What’s On The Page

Story lives beyond margins. It’s in context and theme and mood — incalculable and uncertain data. But these vapors, these ghosts, must line up with the rest, and the rest must line up with them.

15. Content, Context, Then Copy

Behind, then, the layer cake of editing. Start with content: character, plot, description, dialogue. Move to context: those vapors and ghosts I just told you about. Final nail in the revision coffin is copy: spelling, grammar, all those fiddly bits, the skin tags and hangnails and ingrown hairs. Do these last so you don’t have to keep sweeping up after yourself.

16. Evolution Begins As Devolution

Two steps forward, one step backward where you fall down the steps and void your bowels in front of company. Here is a common, though not universal, issue: you write a draft, you identify changes, and you choose a direction to jump — and the next draft embodies that direction. And it’s the wrong direction. Second draft is worse than the first draft. That’s fine. It’s a good thing. Definition through negative space. Now you can understand your choices more clearly. Now you know what not to do and can defend that.

17. Two Words: Track Revisions

You know how when there’s a murder they need to recreate the timeline? 10:30AM, murderer stopped off for a pudding cup, 10:45AM, victim took a shit in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, etc? Right. Track the timeline of your revisions. Keep a record of them all. First, if your Word processor allows you to track changes and revisions, do that. If your program doesn’t (Word and Final Draft both do), then get one that does. Second, any time you make a revision change, mark the revision, save a new file every time. I don’t care if you have 152 files by the end of it. You’ll be happy if you need to go back.

18. Fuck Yeah, Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets seem anathema to writing, because writing is “creative.” Well, rewriting is clinical and strategic. A spreadsheet can help you track story beats, theme, mood, characters, plot points, quirks and foibles, conflicts, and so on. Any narrative component can be tracked by spreadsheet. Here’s one way: track narrative data per page or word count. “Oh, this character drops off the map for these 10 pages of my script.” “This plot needs a middle bit here around the 45,000 word mark.” “Not nearly enough laser guns and elf-porn at the turn of the third act.”

19. A Reiteration Of Opinion Regarding “Creativity”

If you looked at that note about spreadsheets and thought something-something blah-blah-blah about how it will destroy your creativity and ruin the magic of the story, then form hand into fist and punch self in ear. If you need every day of writing to be a nougat-filled boat-ride through Pez-brick tunnels, you’re fucked. Rewriting is hard. Creative comes from “create,” and often, revision is about destruction. In other words: harden the fuck up, Strawberry Shortcake, ’cause the boat ride’s about to get bumpy.

20. Put The Fun In Fundamentals

You can’t revise if you don’t know how to write. Same if you don’t know the tenets of good story. How would you fix basic fucking problems if you can’t find them in the first place?

21. A Trail Of Dead Darlings

Don’t misread that old chestnut, “Kill your darlings.” Too many writers read this as, “Excise those parts of the work that I love.” That would be like, “Beat all the positive qualities of your child out of him with a wiffle ball bat.” You should leave in the parts you love… if they work. Killing your darlings is about that word: “darling.” Elements that are precious preening peacocks, that exist only to draw attention to themselves, those are the components that deserve an ice-axe to the back of the brain-stem.

22. Look For These Things And Beat Them To Death, Then Replace

In no particular order: Awkward and unclear language. Malapropisms. Punctuation abuse. A lack of variety in sentences. A lack of variety in the structure of the page. Plot holes. Inconsistency (John has a porkpie hat on page 70, but a ferret coiled around his head on page 75). Passive language. Wishy-washy writing. Purple prose. An excess of adverbs. Bad or broken formatting. Cliches. Wobbly tense and/or POV. Redundant language. Run-on sentences. Sentence fragments. Junk language. Cold sores. Mouse turds. Light switches that don’t turn anything on. Porno mustaches. Dancing elves. Or something. I need a nap.

23. Clarity Above Cleverness, Or, “How Poetry Lives In Simplicity”

Poetry gets a bad rap. Everyone always assumes it’s the source of purple, overwrought language, like it’s some kind of virus that infects good clean American language and turns it into something a poncey 11th grade poet might sing. Poetry lurks in simple language. Great story does, too. You don’t need big words or tangled phrasings or clever stunting to convey beautiful and profound ideas. In subsequent drafts, seek clarity. Be forthright in your language. Clarity and confidence are king in writing, and the revision process is when you highlight this. Write with strength. Write to be understood. That doesn’t mean “no metaphors.” It just means, “metaphors whose beauty exists in their simplicity.”

24. Don’t Make Me Say It Again: Read. Your Shit. Aloud.

I don’t care if the dog is looking at you like you’re crazy. If you’re on the subway, hey, people think you’re a mental patient. Oh well. Seriously though, I hate to repeat myself but I am nothing if not a parrot squawking my own beliefs back at you again and again: Take your work — script, fiction, non-fiction, whatever — and read it aloud. Read it aloud. READ IT ALOUD. When you read your work aloud, you’ll be amazed at the things you catch, the things that sound off, that don’t make sense, that are awkward or wishy-washy or inconsistent. Read it aloud read it aloud read it aloud read that motherfucker aloud.

25. Loose Butthole

Ultimate lesson: clinging to a first draft and resisting revision is a symptom of addiction — you may be huffing the smell coming off your own stink. The only way you can get clean is when you want to get clean, and the same goes with revisions: you’re only going to manage strong and proper revisions when you’re eager and willing to do so. Relax your mind. Loosen your sphincter. And get ready for war. Because revising and rewriting is the purest, most fanfuckingtastic way of taking a mediocre manifestation of an otherwise good idea and making the execution match what exists inside your head. Your willingness to revise well and revise deep is the thing that will deliver your draft from the creamy loins of the singing story angels.

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44 comments

  • What a fucking hilarious post? If more writers wrote more honestly about the mechanics of rewriting, maybe people would be so scared of it. Rewriting used to terrify me like this kid with a wandering eye I knew in elementary school (seriously, that eye followed you to the bathroom). But the I read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. Her halter on Shitty First Drafts (her words) made everything click! Now I love editing!

  • Loved this. And in the process of warring with my own novel, I have found that everything you’ve said here is true–especially the revised draft should look nothing like the first draft thing. I’ve known plenty of other aspiring writers, namely my best friend and my younger brother, that have a tendency to assume that they’re God’s gift to the written word and that everything they lay on the page first go around is perfect and doesn’t need changing. Makes me laugh.

    I started the novel i’m currently working on when I was 21, back in March 2006. Finished it two years later, summer 2008. Absolutely loved the characters and the story, but it literally took me until 2010 to honestly pick up the book again, edit it and understand what the fuck was wrong with the story. Gave up for a while and didn’t pick it up again in earnest until January 2011 or so… going on 7 months of solid work, I’m probably just reaching about a quarter of the way through the book, with an aim to finish the other 150,000 or so words by the end of Sept. Have been getting depressed with how long its taking me ,,, highly doubtful i’ll make my goal unless the rest of the book didn’t need as much work as the beginning of the book. But it makes me proud to see how much it has evolved. Gotta be how you know you’re doing the right thing, yeah? hehe

    Also agree with the reading aloud thing. Only…. I do it a different way. My younger brother loves to read aloud and–let’s just say he’s a great vocal performer, so he actually volunteered to record himself reading my story for me chapter by chapter in Adobe Soundbooth. I save those files, put them on my ipod and when i really really need to step back and view the story as a whole or hear it aloud and make notes, i bring out my ipod and listen to my story as if it was an audiobook. Has worked wonders for my sanity :)

  • Oh yeah. Bugfucked. Big time.

    I’ve also found a new round of beta-readers is helpful for a heavily revised draft. The mix of readers who are already familiar with the story catch different things than readers who don’t know an earlier version existed.

    All these “25 things” ideas would make a good book. I bet you never thought of that. You should.

  • Great post, per usual. A couple additions: 26) Read. Read, read, read while writing. Read other writers, non-fiction, fiction out of your genre, classics, short stories, whatever. Stay fresh and expose yourself to other writers (especially when they’re better than you), and 27) Research. With Google at everybody’s fingertips, there’s no excuse for ignoring this. Details make you look smart, and lead to further opportunities you didn’t even know existed before.

    ‘Chimpanzee humping a football helmet’ . . . that’s going to stick in my head all the way to Cleveland today.

    • @Shtrum:

      Heh, thanks.

      Agreed on researching — both during the writing of the work and after.

      On reading — I agree, but only to a point. I think reading during intense revisions can be good if you’re reading out of genre or reading non-fiction (the latter works for me), but reading anything in genre or in the same vein runs the risk for me of incorporating itself into the draft in unsuspecting ways. Which is weird, but there it is. :)

      — c.

  • I loved this! And great timing since for the first time in ages, I’m literally elbows deep in revision and story notes.

    I especially like the idea of Content, Context, Copy. That’s gonna be my mantra as I overhaul this thing.

    @Amanda: That’s almost like me. I wrote the first draft in 2008. Struggled with it in 2009. Ignored it in 2010. And now, mid 2011, I’ve decided to stop waiting to learn the perfect way to revise something and just jump in and tear it apart to put it back together again.

    I’m going to read this post every morning before tackling my project for motivation. Thank you!

  • Thank you for #3, Cruel to be Kind, I’ll do more damage to my work by being merciful. THIS is why self-editing rocks. I edit other people’s work for a living, and it’s a good living because, you know, no pants. But still, I have to worry about the author’s sensitive little feelings. I can go at my own damn writing like a monkey on meth, sledgehammer in one hand and friggin Uzi without a silencer in the other. Hear me scream and hide the children. I don’t even know what that means.

  • “…read it aloud. Read it aloud. READ IT ALOUD. [...] Read it aloud read it aloud read it aloud read that motherfucker aloud.”

    I feel like there’s a theme here, but I can’t quite make it out…

  • Spreadsheets! I adore them. I used to hate them, but they are SO helpful — from tracking characters to story arcs to submissions and statuses. They are awesome.

    Also, your number two point — YES. It’s like cleaning. Sometimes, you have to make more of a mess to make things right again.

    Great post, C.

  • Wow I know you said last week you’d be writing this but THANK YOU!!! I needed this a whole lot; my rewriting motivation has been waning a lot lately and this gave me a kick in the rear. :)

  • Inconsistency (John has a porkpie hat on page 70, but a ferret coiled around his head on page 75).

    Yeah that. Joseph Wambaugh had a prostitute (as I recall), in blue satin in one scene and blue velvet in the next scene. That ambushed me like a family cat who used to lurk in the bathtub of a dark bathroom, and then fly out when an unsuspecting person walked past…

  • I suddenly can’t wait to finish writing the Cold Iron draft so I can get to revising it. But wait, there’s that other draft that needs serious revision.

    No. I am a writer, and I will finish the shit I started.

    This is a post I’ll be coming back to. Multiple times. Maybe just to curse and cry my eyes out.

  • My husband is going to be seriously upset with me, because when he comes home our office is going to be wallpapered with the contents of this post. Scratch that, he’ll be upset with you for feeding me this information. THEN he’ll be upset with me for ruining our walls.

  • “It’s like coming home and being surrounded by friends and family, and they want you to sit down and listen as they talk about getting you unfettered from your addiction to obscure 80s hair-bands and foul Lithuanian pornography”

    Sometimes it’s like you are actually in my head! Great post as always. I’m about to start an epic rewrite and this is making everything seem a lot less traumatic.

  • Spreadsheets, eh? You’re actually not the first person to suggest this. One of my friends is obsessed with spreadsheets nowadays, and I think he’s on the verge of planning every single detail of his life around them.

    Well, I suppose I should give it a shot. “Don’t knock it til you try it” and all that. Then again, it was that line of reasoning that led to my cousin’s meth addiction, so we’ll see.

  • Thanks, Chuck, for some great advice and encouragement.

    To be honest, I’m beginning the revision process now, and I’m petrified because of all the work involved. I feel like I’m sitting on a diving board above a deep, dark pool without knowing how to swim. Your 25 points have helped a lot, to say the least.

    I like what you said about cleansing your palate and reading it aloud. There are things that I’ve been doing recently.

  • Love your website and the tone of your articles. I write about the same topic, you can check my website out if you are interested! If you give me permission, it would be great to publish one of your articles (maybe this great post?) on my website. I would put a link to your website, and your bio. Your website would also go in our “Blogroll.” Let me know if you are interested, and congratulations again for keeping such a wonderful blog!

  • I was just at school editing a story of mine, and I came home to find this. Beautiful. Editing is the absolute weakest part of my writing, and it’s something that really, really needs to change. Thank you, thank you for this series!

  • I think I need my own addition to this list:

    Don’t start revising until you’ve actually finished the damn book!

    Maybe then I’d get beyond the first three or four chapters…

    Am now tempted to make a spreadsheet for my novel, but I can just see it becoming yet another way for me to procrastinate from actual writing… *sigh*

  • Screw spreadsheets; I make my own charts on a wall-mounted whiteboard. I live in a studio; it’s literally watches me while I sleep. My ex called it “The Wall of Crazy”. I call it the “Whiteboard of Awesomenessicity.” It ain’t crazy if it works.

  • “Not nearly enough laser guns and elf-porn at the turn of the third act.” Ah, Chuck, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve thought that… especially when reading Shakespeare or watching Fringe. Sigh.

  • No matter how many times I hear it. No matter how many times I tell it to myself. I have a problem. With every ‘chapter’ I write, I revise every previous chapter up to that point. I know that I need to stop. And I tell myself just get through this and go back later. But I’ll write something and it will make me think “Shit, I need to go change that.” Or “This would be so much better here.”

    I do this with everything. So above paragraph I edited twice and this one once. If I blog, then my first paragraph was read through the number plus one of all the other paragraphs combined. I outline and then I find problems or add things when I write. This is what I work on every day. Stopping myself from editing, so that I can just write.

  • Yeah. See, this makes me laugh and cry at the same time. Because I just re-read a bit of my latest last night, and I thought “Wow. This is crap.” and proceeded to continue writing, hopefully something that sounded less like crap. As I’m just now embracing the voices in my head and giving them a real voice, I find the idea of editing both disheartening and encouraging. Maybe I’m not an idiot, but my first draft doesn’t define me. And now I’m thinking, “am I gonna come back and read this comment later and want to edit it, too?” Now I’m going to go cry. Don’t worry, it’s not entirely your fault. Having a crap day.

  • Is there a way to tag all of your posts on editing? I put editing into the search box and a million other (wonderful) posts came up. I have all your writing primers on my Kindle but I find it difficult to pull up the editing chapters because I’m a dummy.

    I’ll say it again, you’re the best.

  • Chuck, would you have any recommendations about dividing one’s time between the following four activities:
    1. Reading.
    2. Crafting (writing exercises, reading to understand mechanics, etc.).
    3. Writing new prose.
    4. Revising previously completed work.

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