The Art of REwriting

9 Nov

by Susan Dennard


It’s NaNoWriMo month.

In other words, it is currently hell-on-earth for many writers around the globe. A self-induced hell that anyone who isn’t participating in just CAN’T UNDERSTAND.

Yes, we clearly enjoy torture, but no, we are not insane. (Though, ask again in 3 weeks…)

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to soothe the minds of worried first-drafters. Everyone will tell you this (including Vahini, here on LTWF), and all I can do is reiterate:

It is okay to write crappy first draft.

In fact, we’re all expecting you too…because so will we.

And, if I’m REALLY HONEST with you, then I’ll just go ahead and share a little secret:

I’m a really bad writer.

Like, downright dreadful.

Here’s a quote that pretty much embodies me:

“More than half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.”

~John Irving

This is so, so, so me.

My first drafts are riddled with long pages of backstory and slow, unnecessary scenes in which characters (i.e. me) get to know each other. Every piece of dialogue has a tag–many of which are “snapped”, “hissed”, and “growled” (my characters, it would seem, are easily annoyed).

My first drafts are so bad, in fact, that I would rather be paper cut to death than share them with anyone. I’m serious–no one reads my first drafts. In fact, my crit partners are usually eyeballing third or even fourth drafts. It’s not just that I’m self-conscious about my prose–it’s that I am perfectly aware I can’t write well.

The issue is that my first drafts come out fast. We’re talking all my first drafts are NaNo-worthy, month-long passions of speed-typing.

I usually have a strong idea of the primary external plot, but I have zilch for my subplots or resonance. And as I write, my Muse strikes me with ideas for clever (or sometimes not-so-clever) threads to weave in.

By the time I finally reach the end of my book, the manuscript is what I (lovingly) like to as one giant clusterf***.

But you know what? That’s okay…

Because, by golly, I am one hell of a REwriter.

Just take a look at these massacred pages from the very first REwrite of Something Strange and Deadly. (It was still in third person! HOW WEIRD.)

Ah, but one REwrite wasn’t enough. Here’s the same section during round 2 of a total REwrite:

So let’s lay out some ground rules about rewriting–some things you might want to come back to when NaNoWriMo wraps up and you find yourself crying maniacally in the corner.

The first key to rewriting is to NOT STRESS. You may have a disaster on your hands, but you can always, always clean that up.

You have a story now (something you didn’t have when you began). All you have to do is take what you wrote and make it WHAT YOU WANTED TO WRITE.

If you want to see why stress is a killer, then read this hilarious post by author Libba Bray. My favorite line?

…then Tim comes in, takes a look at the dirt and staples all over you, your bloodshot eyes and borderline psychotic grin, puts his finger to his mouth in a thoughtful way and says, “I’m concerned.” And you say, “No, Tim, it’ll all work out—I swear!” And you staple some fertilizer to the floor and laugh.

The second key to rewriting is to STAY ORGANIZED. Go in with a plan and that messy first draft will seem way less scary.


Plus, if you need help figuring that “plan stuff” out, well, I’ve got an entire revisions series that you can work through.

The third and final key to rewriting is BICHOK. Get your Butt In that Chair, your Hands On that Keyboard (or pen, if you’re like me…making it BICHOP) and work! You need to max out your stamina and determination for all they’re worth.

Because eventually and with enough hard labor (and possibly tears–those have been known to happen), you can turn any horrible first draft into a masterpiece.

I mean, just look at what my tattered pages above became:

Yeah, that’s an ARC of my book–an ARC of my REwritten, multi-revised (at least 8 times by the end…probably more), crappy-first-draft-in-a-month BOOK.

And with a little elbow grease and drive, you, my friends, can do the same.

So what about you? Do you write clean first drafts or rely on re-writing to get your novel where it needs to be?


49 Responses to “The Art of REwriting”

  1. Laura Hughes November 9, 2011 at 8:15 AM #

    Great post, Sooz! It makes me feel slightly less stressed than I was last night, as I am currently on re-write FOUR! I must admit, it’s getting harder to keep my BICHOK with this story, but I know if I do it will be so worth it! I’m workshopping it in a Media Bistro class right now, and my biggest challenge is to not freak out when someone says ”oh, this doesn’t work” or, ”this is confusing.” I want to stop everything I’m doing and fix it, rather than plugging on and coming back in the next re-write to address it! I think I’m going to start using a pen. That looks quite handy!

    • Susan Dennard (@stdennard) November 10, 2011 at 4:44 AM #

      I know exactly what you mean about the “STOP, FIX NOW” urge. That was one of the hardest things for me to learn to control, and I definitely get worse at fighting the urge after more and more drafts…

      And yes–pens are great! Your brain works in a totally different way when you’re staring at a print-out and writing by hand. 😀

  2. Arianna Sterling November 9, 2011 at 9:22 AM #

    Love the post. I’m working on Weeping revisions, which is involving a loooot of rewrites…some scenes just need a little work, whereas others need me to add in a character, and some need me to take the character who used to be a man and stuff him back in as a woman. (Yeah, that was a weird change to think about, but he became a lot more important post-sex change, so he/she can’t complain.)

    Personally, I like to think I write relatively clean first drafts. But it hasn’t always been that way. My first novel, for which I did zero outlining, is absolutely terrible. I look at it and go “Uhhh…what was I doing?” and yet I’ve promised some old readers I’ll make it available as an e-book in a few months. After editing the crap out of it.

    Still, I LEARNED from that first draft. I wanted my next novel (here we’re talking about Weeping) to be about a million times more awesome. To not make me want to gouge my eyes out while reading through it. So I outlined. I outlined a LOT–a nice four-page synopsis that hit most scenes, some in meticulous detail, letting me make sure I didn’t have plot holes and that everything was cool before I ever started typing up the first draft. I like to think it worked, considering all of my betas so far have told me it feels pretty complete and not like a first draft.

    Sadly I’m not doing NaNo this year because the writing of a non-fiction book is eating my life.

    Jeebus this is a lengthy comment.

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 4:48 AM #

      Lengthy comments are the best. They give me more to read! 😀

      You’re so right about learning from the first draft.I learned SO much from my very first bottom-drawer-never-see-the-light-again book as well as my first draft of SS&D. I also learned from every brutal round of revisions with SS&D, and my first and second drafts come out much cleaner now.

      And even though you’re not doing NaNo, you ARE putting a book together–how freaking cool is that?!?!

  3. Ladonna November 9, 2011 at 10:14 AM #

    Thanks for this post. I’m going to be working on rewrites very soon. I don’t write clean first drafts. They are a mess on top of a mess, but when I go back I get rid of all the fat and trim it down. I’m so glad for beta readers and critique partners.

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 4:50 AM #

      I know! I couldn’t live without my CPs. This sequel will go through at least two CPs *and* my agents before I hand it off to my editor. I’d die without people to catch the crap I’m too invested in to see, you know?

  4. Ellen November 9, 2011 at 10:55 AM #

    Total rewriting fiend here. The story I’m querying now went through thirteen drafts to get to the point where I thought it might actually bring in some interest, and of those thirteen, the last three or so were major overhauls where a ton of changes were made.

    Quite frankly, my first drafts suck too. And it’s far more comforting to know you can go back and fix something than it is to know you have to get it all right the first time.

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 4:51 AM #

      13 drafts–this is awesome. I wish I could keep an accurate count of my SS&D revisions–some sections *have* to be 13-draft-worthy. 😀

      It IS far more comforting to go back and fix than feel pressured to get it right in round 1. Blank pages are scary!

  5. Kat K November 9, 2011 at 11:14 AM #

    I think that this is really one of the most encouraging topics you can read about when you’re writing a first draft. I know that when I really started to get into novel writing, reading it taught me that the reason I couldn’t write books before (I couldn’t stop going back and fixing every thing I hated) could be avoided!

    Or you know, I’m ninety five percent sure I can, because I’m not that far into my novel yet. 🙂

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 4:52 AM #

      I totally couldn’t finish my very first novel because I would edit every scene ten bazillion times instead of just moving on. Then when I would finally write something new, it wouldn’t work with what I had already written, so I’d go back and re-edit the scenes twenty more times. It was ridiculous!

      But once you figure out it’s holding you back, then you can power through and finish! Good luck!! ❤

  6. Jenny November 9, 2011 at 11:30 AM #

    Thank you for this. I’m still on my first draft (well, like a third attempt at a first draft) and while it’s a mess, I’m so in love with the story that I’m writing. It’s so easy to get discouraged, but this time around I’ve stopped editing what I already have and I’m just focusing on getting the story down on paper. It’s actually really liberating. I just hope I turn out to be good at rewriting!

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:13 AM #

      It is entirely too easy to get discouraged… I can’t even count how many times I’ve just wanted to stop this ridiculous, emotionally-draining job, BUT…then you remember how much you love the story and you dive back in. 🙂

      And it *is* really liberating to be able to just get that story out!

  7. Ellen Levy-Sarnoff November 9, 2011 at 11:43 AM #

    So, reassuring, Susan! I wrote the first draft of my first novel Dewitched (currently on submissions) in 6 months (that included a 1 month hiatus) and spent two years revising. I still have my early pages — eeks!– frightening! But I agree- best to get your characters and story down quickly and then perfect. Congrats on Something Strange and Deadly. The cover is gorgeous!

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:14 AM #

      Eeks is RIGHT! My very first draft of SS&D–completely different book. But, I got the characters and events down, and in the end, it was just the writing, pacing, and voice that changed!

      And thanks–I’m just over the moon that I can now share my cover. 😀

  8. Katelyn L November 9, 2011 at 12:08 PM #

    I love this post so much, Sooz! It’s definitely one of those things that always get in my head. I don’t even want to think about how many times I’ve completely psyched myself out, but NaNo is definitely helping shut my inner editor up and just plow ahead.

    And when I’m done, I have every intention of using your revising technique. Organization is a wonderful thing 🙂

    Congrats again on the cover. It’s absolutely gorgeous!

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:15 AM #

      yay! I’m glad my revisions might help–organization is at least a good way to keep from feeling overwhelmed.

      And good luck with NaNo–it really is a great way to keep the inner editor silent for 50,000 words. 😉

  9. ChemistKen November 9, 2011 at 1:03 PM #

    My first draft (I’m still on my first WIP) is terrible, as expected for a newbie writer. Even though I haven’t finished the first draft yet, I’ve gone back over some of the earlier chapters numerous times and I’m still appalled at how much more I have to do before I would even show it to my 11 year old daughter. No matter how well I think it reads each time I finish revising a chapter, I find that when I come back a month later, it still needs a lot of work. I despair that I’ll never come back to a chapter and think it’s almost there.

    My biggest fear is that I simply don’t have the skill to beat it into a publishable state – no matter how long I spend revising. We’ll see.

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:17 AM #

      Oh, Ken, I’ve sooo been in your shoes. I’m still in your shoes. Even reading my ARC, I wish I could whip out the red pen and line-edit it into something better…but…at some point, you’ve just gotta say, “This is good enough.”

      Do you have a crit partner? Working with someone else is a great way to learn when things are “good enough” (but not perfect…sadly, never perfect…).

      And remember: you’re always your harshest critic. 🙂 I bet your 11-year-old daughter would love what you’ve got.

      • ChemistKen November 10, 2011 at 10:02 AM #

        Susan, no I don’t have a crit partner yet. Since my first WIP is technically fan fiction, I’m a little embarrassed to ask others to critique it as they may not feel it’s a serious attempt at learning how to write.

        As far as my daughter is concerned, I’m positive she’d love it, no matter how poorly written. She thinks any Youtube video set to the Benny Hill theme song is awesome, so the bar is set pretty low.

        • Susan November 11, 2011 at 10:54 AM #

          Ahh, I see your problem. Having written my own copious amounts of fan fiction (as have all of us on LTWF, I think…at some point or another), it’s a GREAT way to get your writing in shape. . I mean, look at Cassandra Clare who started out writing HP fan fiction and is now a HUGE name in YA.

          And fan fiction also a great way to meet other writers. You can always find other FF writers and try to exchange with them.

          As for you daughter: this is adorable. I LOLed at your comment about Benny Hill. 🙂

  10. Kae November 9, 2011 at 2:39 PM #

    o 3o My first draft w/ co-writer was…messymessymessymessy. We lost a lot of vision in exchange for figuring out our rhythm as cowriters, and we’ve been slowly scraping the thinking away as we go. We’re on our fourth restartrewrite in a year, but it’s changed SO much and is finally on the page we want it to be. : ) So hopefully we’ll have another year of revisions and then it’ll be PRETTY.

    We hate first drafts though. We’re both obsessively intensive, critical, detail oriented revisers. Writing a first draft is like sticking your hand in the garbage disposal…painful, unnecessary, and makes it REALLY hard to be able to write again.

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:19 AM #

      HA! I love your analogy. That is EXACTLY what it’s like–my hand in the garbage disposal… It’s so hard to just accept that it will suck, it can be fixed, and we can’t let this debilitating fear stop us.

      Good luck with your revisions! I’m certain you’ll get there–and it’s always nice to have a coauthor to bolster you as you go. 😀

  11. Holly Dodson November 9, 2011 at 4:47 PM #

    I’ve been staring at the notes from a beta reader for a few days now, and this is just what I needed to hear, Sooz. Anything is possible if you stay organized and put in some real effort. All that’s left is the BICHOP! 😉

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:22 AM #

      Yay! I’m glad this came at the right time. You can SO tackle your revisions–I’m sure of it. You’ve got more self-discipline than anyone I know. BICHOP FTW!!!

  12. Amber November 9, 2011 at 4:51 PM #

    I think one thing this year of NaNoWriMo has taught me is what just about everyone has always said: It’s okay to write crap. I’m already at about 27K, and I know some of it, even as I’m writing it is horrible, but the general idea of what’s supposed to happen is there so I’m just like okay that’s cool, I’ll clean you up later. Amazing that it’s taken me…*counts fingers* well, YEARS to develop this concept.

    I love how you say you’re one of hell of a rewriter because that’s how I feel about a lot of my stories. Though there is one person I do send anything to no matter how crappy. All my other writing buddies – they don’t see it until I think it’s damn perfect….or close to it.

    • Amber November 9, 2011 at 4:52 PM #

      Annnndd I forgot to add in: Wonderful post, as usual 🙂 I am so glad I found your guys’ site!

      • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:26 AM #

        Thanks! I’m so glad you found us too! ❤

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:24 AM #

      I think it’s awesome that you realize what *needs* to be on the page is, and even if it’s crap, you’ll clean up later. That’s the EXACT attitude a professional (re)writer has to have. 😀

      And I’m jealous you have someone who can eyeball your first drafts…I don’t even give my hubby the very, very first drafts (I’m just too ashamed at how BAD they are!).

      Good luck with NaNo!!

  13. Tim November 9, 2011 at 5:14 PM #

    Has anybody ever heard of Brandon Sanderson? On his website he posts a first draft of Warbreaker up and its preety cool to see the differenct. I’m gonna post my line from my current first draft:
    So, Max strode manfully among the trees.

    • Tim November 9, 2011 at 5:15 PM #

      *what I think’s the worst

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:27 AM #


      I should so share places that changed…though you can kind of see it above.

      And I’ve *definitely* heard of Brandon Sanderson–he’s a real inspiration to all writers. He took a long time and a lot of BICHOK to get where he is.

  14. Laura Ann Dunks November 9, 2011 at 6:21 PM #

    I write awful first drafts. I still can’t believe I let my Mum read my first draft of BWBW which I wrote during Nano 2009. It was awful. i knew nothing about writing at the time too. I hadn’t done any since GCSE english.

    Even now my first drafts are poor and I hate it when I have a tutorial and have to share what I have written and not even read through. Funny I thought I was towards the bottom of the class last year based on these first drafts, but it soon became clear in my assignments that pretty much at the top. So YAY for rewrites! The good thing is though that I don’t actually hate doing it and I’ve never had writers block. Does that make me weird?


    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:29 AM #

      That’s AWESOME that you thought you were at the bottom, but in reality you were at the top. It just shows you how skewed our own opinions of ourselves are. 😀 And congrats on being at the top–that’s quite an accomplishment!!

      I don’t hate rewriting…but I sure do get writer’s block (or clog, as I like to thin of it) on first drafts. First drafts are a toiling, high-speed process for me–like ripping of a bandaid. 😀

      • Laura Ann Dunks November 10, 2011 at 12:04 PM #

        Thanks and that is a good thing if it words. Just go with it!


  15. renate November 9, 2011 at 8:42 PM #

    omg, that Tim quote is hilarious.
    Love this post…actually, since I don’t usually write a first draft all the way through without revising the first 20 pages about six times, I love all posts that encourage me to forget that I’m sucking and just WRITE!! I love BICHOK!

    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:30 AM #

      YES! JUST WRITE! BICHOK to the finish line! It’s sooooo hard to do it, but that’s the beauty of NaNo–it really helps draw you in and get you to the end.

      Good luck!! 😀

  16. Mac_V November 10, 2011 at 12:29 AM #

    This post seriously made me feel ten times better about what I’m writing now. I know I have a ton of things that I’m going to need to rework. It makes me feel SO much better about moving on past those moments now and getting the story out because I know someone else is in the same boat as me!

    I really love seeing your pictures of your drafts as well as your finished product. If any of us needed motivation, that was the perfect one to give!


    • Susan November 10, 2011 at 5:31 AM #

      There are a LOT of people in the same boat as you! And it’s always good to learn you’re not alone. Reading Libba Bray’s post on revisions made me feel a bazillion times better about my own slaving process. 😀

      Good luck and happy writing! YOU CAN DO IT!!

  17. Meredith November 10, 2011 at 9:11 AM #

    I love that Libba Bray post. LOVE. And I’m going to have to start killing some darlings here very soon. One scene in particular that I love but just isn’t working, no matter how many times I revise it and try to make it fit. Sigh.

    Anyway, yes, I am huge fan of rewriting. I’m learning to write cleaner first drafts, but there will always be a lot (a lot a lot) of rewriting to be done. It’s definitely hard work, but for me it is infinitely less painful than cranking out a first draft. That I suffer through just so I can get to the rewriting stage.

    • Susan November 11, 2011 at 10:52 AM #

      Yep, I definitely suffer through that first draft just so I can get to the fun of rewriting. I feel like I am In Control when I’m in revisions mode.

      And man, Libba Bray is THE BEST. Her blog never fails to crack me up.

  18. Sophia Chang November 12, 2011 at 5:43 AM #

    Oh I LOOOOOOVE this post! Just like I love Susan Dennard. And I don’t even know her in person, just via email, isn’t that creepy and writerly?

    I have recently realized that I too am a horrible drafter, particularly when I go fast. My CP’s also don’t see anything but the 3rd or 4th. Telling you, we’re brain buds.

    • Susan November 13, 2011 at 7:03 AM #

      Ha! 1) you’re freakin’ adorable. ❤ Totes not creepy, but VERY writerly. 😉

      2) We're definitely brain buds. But it's kinda sad that my CPs still find so much wrong even though their eyeballing my 3rd/4th drafts… :-/ SIGH. Will not get frustrated. 😉 POWER ON.

  19. Ezmirelda November 13, 2011 at 3:17 AM #

    Great post! I feel the same way about my own writing. I revise way too much but then otherwise it would all be a big mess; much like how my current WIP will look at the end of NaNo. Lol, reading this makes me feel better. Some of my writer friends can type out first drafts so pristine with absolutely no editing that need way less work than my 2nd or 3rd drafts do. But maybe it’s just me being overly-critical of myself. Lol, the editor in you will always be your harshest critic. Anywho, the cover for this is beautiful! Can’t wait to read your fantabulously-covered book. 🙂

    • Susan November 16, 2011 at 6:02 AM #

      I get SO jealous of those pristine first drafters. My drafts–even if parts are well-written (which most parts are NOT)–the story or character or dialogue or WHATEVER won’t work…

      And definitely true about the harshest critic is yourself. I beat myself up…but, the book does come out stronger because of it!! 😀

  20. Sammy Bina November 13, 2011 at 7:04 PM #

    Since I’m using NaNo to rewrite a manuscript I wrote about five years ago, this came at exactly the right time, Sooz. First drafts are ALWAYS messy, and as I cut away bits and pieces from the old draft, I’m still thinking in my head, ‘man, what else can I cut?’ Because there’s always something.

    Thanks for the motivation, love!

    • Susan November 16, 2011 at 6:03 AM #

      There IS always something. Seeing as my final round of edits for SS&D involved cutting 9K (O_O!), I can tell you that there is ALWAYS something more to trim away. I’ve become a master with the scissors, in fact. 😀


  21. anniefish July 15, 2012 at 4:33 PM #

    You’re posts/website are AMAZING…you’re so enthusiastic & helpful. Thanks for sharing!! You’ve inspired me not give up on a tough rewrite 🙂


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