Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Rewriting the Beast

by Lazette Gifford
2003, Lazette Gifford


ewriting is one of the things that many new writers seem to fear almost as much as the dreaded idea of submitting work.  There's nothing to fear or get upset about when you look at revision.  No one writes a perfect first draft, but the people who sell stories learn how to find their weaknesses and improve their work. 

I know people who go along and edit every line as they work, but all of them have had to go back and do an edit/rewrite at the end.  It's the nature of the work.  Writers cannot get the story perfect (or as close as any written material will ever be) until we can look at the whole.

There are many ways that people approach rewrite and revision.  In Holly's workshop titled One Pass Manuscript Revision (, she gives an example of how she approaches the work.

I have an entirely different way of doing rewrites that takes several steps of varying complexity.  You may find yet another way to do this necessary, and sometimes annoying, job.  Don't fight it.  Rewrites are a part of the profession, just as submitting stories is another part.

Attitude is an important, and often neglected, part of rewrites.  Stop looking at this work with dread.  Revision is a great opportunity to bring the story closer to what you see in your mind but haven't quite gotten down in words yet.  A little tweak here, a longer passage there... it can pay off in the end.  This is your chance to make it compelling to others.

Even if this entire system of rewrites doesn't work for you, pieces of it might.

Step 1 -- Put the story aside and work on something else

This is a very important first step.  Put distance between yourself and your material.  Write other stories, poetry -- even worldbuilding on a completely unrelated story. 

This does two important things: it divorces your mind from the material and allows you to look at it without any preconceived ideas of what is there.  Your mind, as a writer, will tend to see things you meant to write, or make leaps you know are part of the story but that are not apparent in the written word.

Second, this gets you into the habit of writing more material.  No writer can make a career on one short story or novel.  If you want to take up the challenges of publishing, you must have a good amount of material to work with. Get into the habit of moving on to something new.

How long should you wait?  It depends on how long it takes you to get the story out of your head.  If you are prolific, this won't take long.  A couple short stories will get a novel out of your brain.  If you do not write a lot, it might take working through the worldbuilding of a new novel to get enough of the old one out of that space.  Give yourself time.  There is no reason to rush through this work.


Step 2 -- Look at the big problems first

Okay, so you now pull up your story and need to start the work.  But where should you start?  This is the biggest step for me and the most work.  I read through the story or novel and make notes on big glaring plot problems.  I'll also fix some obvious spelling errors and little problems like that, but this is not a line edit -- that comes next.  This is an expedition in search of places where I sent my characters some place but forgot to explain why.  Or where the reason why now looks lame.  I note these problems rather than fix them right away because there is a chance that I'll find related problems in other scenes.  Once I've done this read-through and note taking I can sort the problems out, and often fix an entire group of them with little work.  This is better than trying to fix them as I read, since often I find that by the end I've defined the problem better and  have to go back and re-fix the early stuff again.

I generally use note cards to write down problems.  Then I can group them.  No matter how you take note, always keep track of the page number and other markers from the manuscript.  The page number can change, so I use Microsoft Word's bookmarking system and give names like 'error1' with a like name on the note card.  This makes it very easy to find the place again when I want to make the corrections. 

By waiting to make the correction, I have a common and consistent answer to some of the problems.  Once you've gone in and fixed something, try to search out related words where the changed scene might be referred to as well.  For instance, if you take out a space shuttle scene, run a word search not only for shuttle, but also for fly.  This is easier in short stories than in novels, but it's still helpful in both.

This is also the time to add in subplots.  If you're like me, and write a linear single point of view first draft, then this is a good time to go back through and look at places to add in depth (not to mention more words -- I almost always write short first drafts).

Subplots must be related to the main story, but you can do some in very subtle ways.  If your story is about a general facing a dangerous war with little hope of winning, then a subplot might introduce a soldier in the army... but another subplot might introduce that soldier's wife, away at home, and seeing the war through a completely different point of view.  They have a common tie, but the stories that revolve around them are going to be completely different in how they view the different events.

If you are looking for subplots and having a problem coming up with them, widen your horizons a little and look beyond the main characters to others who will be impacted by the events of your story.  Some times this can add real depth to a story world.


Step 3 -- Print and line edit

Yes, finally.  Print the beast out and work through it line by line looking for all those little annoying nitpicks that make lines sound clunky.  This is where you make the prose sing and the story fly.  You probably have a good many wonderful lines in your first draft.  Those are the ones that are a gift of your muse.  But you are likely also going to find bad tenses, run on sentences, and places where even you go 'huh?'

I suggest that if you have any grammar issues that you're not sure about that you pick up a book on the subject.  I love Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman -- Writer's Digest Books, ISBN 0-89879-776-4.  This is a fun book to read -- and this from someone who hates grammar books.  I finally learned a few things from this one, and I'll be reading it again soon to try and pound a few more of the facts in.

It's very hard, at this point, to tell a writer what to look for in a line edit.  No two stories -- even by the same writer -- are going to have the same problems.  But there are a few things to take under consideration.

For instance, I you are writing a pre-industrial age story, don't have your character say, "I'll meet you downstairs in five minutes" or "We'll meet up in the woods at ten in the morning."  Until the age of wrist watches, no one lived by seconds, minutes or hours.

Try to be consistent in the way you describe someone or something.  It doesn't have to always be the exact same words, but be aware that a thesaurus gives 'like' words -- and that doesn't always mean they mean the same things.  Be careful.

Reading the story aloud will help.  It's difficult, and I don't do this part as often as I should.  Keep a small tape recorder and read into it.  If you trip over a line, figure out why and change it.  Don't let your love of the words stand in the way of making it 'readable' unless there is a very good reason.

Set yourself a goal in the number of line-edited pages you will do and stick to it as best you can.  If you can see an exact date when you'll be done with the work, it helps to keep going.


Step 4 -- Adding In Senses

Okay, so you think you're done, right?

Well, this is where I usually do one more thing -- and I do this because it covers a very specific problem I have with my stories.  I don't put in enough detail of the world around the characters.  I see the details when I read it -- the colors of the trees and the sounds of the birds -- but I don't often write those things down.

So I go to the last page and I start putting in colors, sounds, scents, tastes, feels -- whatever might work in the scene.  I try to put some 'sense' on each page.

Why start at the end?  I do this so that I don't read through the story and 'see' things that are in my mind, but not on the paper.  I look at each page as a single entity, not part of a larger scene, and this allows me to see a picture that needs a few more touches to fill in the details.

I could do this earlier, but I leave this until the last run because it's actually fun for me.

Step 5 -- Last Reading

Okay, one more time: Read through it.  Since you've done a lot of editing at this point, you are likely going to find a few spots that need cleaned up.  Do any last little fixes. 

Then find your market and if it's a short piece, send it out.  If it's a novel, work on the synopsis, cover letter, and all that other wonderful material that goes with it.


That's it!  Some of you can combine these into fewer steps.  Holly does a single pass rewrite.  However, I have found that I do better if I concentrate on specific problems in each pass.

One last word on attitude, though.  Rewriting, no matter how you do the work, will go far better if you accept it as part of the work all writers do.  It will be even better if you can find the joy of fixing the story.  The act of rewriting is an important tool and a wonderful gift for writers.

Good luck!

Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman -- Writer's Digest Books,
ISBN 0-89879-776-4