Everybody says to do it. No matter where my writing life has taken me, the message, the orthodoxy, the shibboleth, has always been the same. Journalism profs have said it. Writing manuals spell it out in black and white. Every successful author mentions it at some point in an interview or essay.
Good writing is all about rewriting. Full stop.
Yes, and yes. I don’t know of any writers I respect who believe that whatever flows out of their mind to the tips of their fingers in that first draft is the best thing they could have come up with. I remember hearing the late Stuart McLean, host of CBC’s The Vinyl Café, once say that he expected the first drafts of his stories to be terrible. But he also said that what sets the real pros apart from amateurs is that the pros never stop there. And it’s true. People who are serious about the craft constantly rewrite their fiction, plays or poems, doing draft after draft until they’ve taken the work to as close as perfect as their talent allows. To even point this out feels like the least original thing one could say about the craft itself.
But how do you actually go about it? What does “rewriting” entail? In the halcyon days before the invention of the typewriter, novelists probably blanched at the prospect of doing multiple version of their books, considering they were handwriting them. I read somewhere that George Eliot, after a false start, wrote her monumental 700-page novel Middlemarch in about a year. Imagine how black her fingers must have been with ink by the end. The typewriter made life better for authors, and it also gave birth to the era of “discrete drafts” of books, since rewriting manuscripts became infinitely easier. Then the arrival of the personal computer blew the wheels off everything. Now, you don’t even have to “rewrite” a book at all; you can simply revise and edit and tweak a single version until you’re satisfied with it. You can literally leave behind no trace of your first draft, full of botched beginnings and chewy sentences and continuity errors.
But let me pitch an idea to you. Let me pitch the idea of rewriting your book.
And by that, I mean actually rewriting it. This is a technique that I’ve employed for a long time with my own writing, and I’ve become a big advocate for it. When I set out on a new novel or short story, I usually write a rough first draft start to finish, then print it off. I even write it in a really terrible font – Courier New, which makes the text look it was hammered out on a rickety old typewriter with a ribbon that is just about to die – because I find the more standard Times New Roman makes it look too much like a finished, polished book. Then I do a heavy, invasive revision right on that print-out, marking up the pages until they bleed blue ink from my trusty Uni-ball Vision pen. This involves fleshing out or eliminating whole characters, adding in suggestions to move entire scenes around, handwriting in flashbacks or internal monologues, and leaving detailed (often snarky!) comments or edits on a particularly crappy passage. Then, instead of simply transferring those changes into the existing Word document, I literally create a new one, and rewrite the book from scratch, incorporating the changes I made on the print-out, as well as many others I missed.
If this sounds like a lot of extra work, it is. But there are many advantages to handling composition in this way. First and foremost, I find I catch a lot more errors and issues than I would have otherwise. I also become more intimate with the work if I rewrite it at least once: I know the characters better; I can solve issues like pacing a lot more easily; and I get a more effective bird’s-eye view on how the story’s themes are modulating throughout the text. The other advantage is that, if I edit out something and then discover later that I need to put it back in, it’s much easier to do that if I’ve maintained a discrete version of the first draft.
The disadvantage to writing this way is, of course, everything takes a lot longer. The rewriting of the book usually goes faster than the initial writing of it – if I averaged three pages a day on the first draft, I might average five on the second – but it’s still a slower process than if I was simply editing onto one version of the text. But it’s worth it. The final result is a book I feel much more confident about, a book I feel closer to and can discuss in better detail with my workshop group, editors and publishers, and, eventually, hopefully, readers themselves.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off Book, Sad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.