Getting the most out of a rewrite: Tips for authors

You thought you’d finished up a darned good manuscript ready to send out into the world, so you decided to give yourself a well-deserved vacation.

Upon your return, you started rereading your opus and began unexpectedly to channel your stern fifth grade teacher Mrs. Spellman. Remember her?

In a blinding flash, you realized you’d produced endless pages of boring backstory. And essential characterization, plot, even the climax itself somehow never made it onto the page.

Time to get back to work…

Reasons for rewriting

That’s a fairly typical reason for embarking on a major revision.  Or, you may have deliberately written a rough first draft, sketching in the big ideas, major characters, and what could be a rudimentary structure for the plot.

Or maybe you’ve gotten feedback that was less than enthusiastic. You might be able to ignore one or two vague or even snarky rejection letters from an agent or contest. But if you’ve received more than a dozen turndowns, you may have a problem that can only be solved by rewriting.

An editor’s perspective

Every manuscript has unique problems. Revision and rewriting involve entering the story, finding the issues and making substantial changes. There may be problems that have to do with structure, with narrative voice, with literary style, authentic dialogue or other elements.  As a developmental editor, here are some of the types of solutions I might suggest to a writer to resolve specific situations:

.

Juggling your options

• Adding or removing flashbacks (plot structure)

• Shifting the narrative voice from third person to first (POV)

• Deleting or adding paragraphs or chapters (focus)

• Adding major dialogue and visual description (characterization)

• Subtracting or combining characters (tightening the plot)

• Converting long passages of telling to showing (literary style)

• Changing motivation (theme)

• Repositioning the ending (emotional takeaway)

.

Outlines are golden

Make an outline. It’s a flexible, working document to reveal all the important elements so you can study and move them around. Consider an outline as a cinematic storyboard, to get an overview of your core scenario — the basic concept, story content, and plot structure — before you make any false turns or go too far down the road in what may prove to be a wrong direction. This is equally useful for non-fiction and fiction.

Consult a pro: Get a road map for revision

Writers these days often consult with independent professional developmental editors for overall evaluation and specific suggestions for rewriting before launching a proposal or manuscript out into the world. Here’s my advice on choosing a freelance developmental editor.

Your manuscript may be ready for a full-scale developmental edit, which will provide you with a road map for revision.  Depending on your editor’s approach, you’ll get back your manuscript marked up with page-by-page recommendations, including suggestions for additions, deletions, revisions and specific ideas for developing the concept and ultimate book.

Or an editor may advise you to rethink your core content and start again. Either way, earlier in the process is better, since it will ultimately save time and money by cutting down the number of rewrites necessary.

Avoid desperate choices

Faulty or dangerous advice can decrease the quality and potential of a manuscript, so watch out, it happens. Evaluate and reconsider the source of any critique. Always hold off on your own first impulses and wait for more long-term instincts to take hold.

Go slow. Take a deliberate pace to begin with.  You’ll save time and energy in the long run. The first rewrite is usually the most extensive and time consuming. Subsequent rewrites usually go more easily.

Don’t obsess. That independent editor-for-hire can serve another crucial role: to tell you when to stop. Enough! Some writers go crazy with too may rewrites, unwilling to let a book go forward on its own and give agents and publishers a chance to respond.

Remember if you haven’t had any luck connecting yet, that agents and acquisition editors must sell and publish books or they’ll go out of business. They really do wish they could say yes to your submission. They just didn’t like what you sent enough to take it on, unfortunately. When this happens, in most cases it’s because the proposal or manuscript needs rewriting.

Are you about to start a rewrite?

Or in the middle of one now? Any advice or questions for fellow authors?

26 Responses to Getting the most out of a rewrite: Tips for authors

  1. Fran

    Alan,
    Great post. I’m in the middle of my first rewrite for my novel, which is taking me months and months longer than I expected to complete. The rate at which I was working worn me out and frustrated me (oftentimes 8 to 10-hour days). The first rewrite has definitely been challenging. I’m currently on hiatus from the novel, to regain some focus and perspective.

  2. GTChristie

    Sometimes you do need to walk away for awhile. The vacation is well earned and fresh eyes improve things. A forced hiatus due to other priorities sometimes works out even better — the energy builds back up, the original vision stews awhile and the way forward comes in a flash: “Why didn’t I think of that before?” I’ve been through this a couple of times and the most recent one solved a puzzle that had dogged me from the beginning. I had tried to force my narrative (non fiction) and write through it, but something wasn’t working. Forced to stop for six months, when I picked up the piece again I saw what was missing immediately. Now I’m writing like a madman, incorporating the new flow, totally unconcerned that the original “chapter flow” is shot. I love it!

    Rule #1: keep writing!

  3. Alan Rinzler

    Fran,

    The most successful writers I know do three or four rewrites over as many years before they consider their manuscripts ready to go out. They all work with editors, either the publisher’s or their own hired guns, to have a creative and intellectual collaborator. It’s tough to do alone, I agree. So if possible, it’s great to have an inventive partner who can also provide practical feedback.

  4. Melissa Constantine

    I’ve just begun a re-write on a novel for which I’ve been trying to find representation over the last year. It took all of those rejections for me to come around to the idea of re-writing the novel a 4th time. Certainly not all, but a fair bit of the resistance to re-writing on my part was due to the contradictory nature of the feedback I got from the full manuscript. I was “lucky” enough to get personalized rejections from literary agents, but I’d get one that said they didn’t think my characters were developed enough, and without making a change, one later that would say that while my characters were nicely developed, they didn’t buy the logistics of the story. In more than a dozen such rejections, I had hardly any similarities between them, except that the “didn’t fall in love” or some variation of that statement (I just have to add here, MOST FRUSTRATING LINE EVER). So I guess what I’m trying to say is that it took the total accumulation of all those rejections for me to get anything out of them. I had to conclude that there was an undefinable “something” that wasn’t working. Maybe no one person could put their finger on it and give me that magic bullet “do this and get published” answer.

  5. Alan Rinzler

    Melissa,

    Agents aren’t editors. They may know there’s something wrong, but it’s not usually in their skill-set to be able to describe what it is precisely or what to do about it. That’s the job of an editor.

    Some agents do have that ability more than others. but their business primarily is having good relationships with editors, finding hot authors they think they can sell, and selling, selling, selling.

    It sounds like you need an editor you can trust, who is able to subsume themselves in your work, to absorb all its strengths and weaknesses and advise you through a definitive developmental revision.

  6. Terri Osburn

    I’ve never posted before so let me start by saying thank you for this blog. You provide amazing tips and advice.

    I’m revising my first novel while taking an in-depth six-week revision course. The best thing I ever did was create a storyboard for the MS while writing the rough draft. This gave me the ability to see the whole picture in one glance and the power to see where I could change/add/delete to make the structure and the story work. I never would have guessed a bunch of post its on my dining room wall would be the key, but they’ve completely saved my sanity and this book.

  7. Livia Blackburne

    One unexpected choice I’ve had to make is whether to rewrite blind or while looking at the manuscript. I get much better prose if I rewrite blind and combine the two versions. But that takes so long! On the other hand, it’s easy to get lazy when I have document in front of me.

  8. Brian

    During my first rewrite I found two blaring weaknesses. The dialogue was not authentic. All my characters were saying what I wanted to say, rather than what they HAD to say. Second, was the theme. It was too weak. My protagonist’s motivations felt counterfeit, almost procrustean. But even with an outline, I did not discover these faults until I finished the story.

    Is there a way to avoid these pitfalls in the first draft?

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Brian,

    In some cases, there’s really no shortcut to writing it all out before you see these problems in the characterization and theme — even if you’ve made an outline. Maybe you could have benefited from more feedback on that outline before you began writing, but the flaws might not have shown up even then, until you wrote the actual draft. Every writer has a unique process, but the important thing is to learn from each pitfall.

  10. RosieC

    I, like Terri, have never posted before. Alan, I have found your posts to be amazingly helpful, as well as your suggested questions for this discussion.

    I’ve only recently returned to writing after a much-too-long hiatus, and have found that I’m a bit rusty. I’m working with someone to help with my first rewrite. But I must say that I’m happy to hear that others also take years in the rewriting process. Thank you.

    And thank you to everyone else for sharing your tips. Rewriting blind, a post-it storyboard, taking time off, and working with editors are all wonderful ideas.

  11. Evelyn Arvey

    This is a timely article for me!

    I am very much looking forward to your developmental editing of my novel. Time is passing so very slowly, even though I’ve been busy finishing up my other commitments. I’ve been eagerly reading your great blog and website for the past month. So much information! So many links to other great sites! I love it. I was very excited today to see the theme of the most recent article, and I can hardly wait for early August to receive your edits and GET TO WORK!!!

    Thank you for this great resource.

  12. GTChristie

    Just realized the title of your post has a second meaning: “Getting the most out of your rewrite” can also mean getting the most words out. Hemingway in particular taught us to cut, cut, cut. Not everyone needs a style like that, but spare prose is beautiful and the opposite had better be great fluff, if you keep it in.

  13. Alan Rinzler

    GTChristie,

    That’s a wonderful piece of advice. Thanks so much and I totally agree. The myth about Hemingway has become focused on his macho misogynism, when his true genius as a writer was saying a lot with as few words as possible. My hero Fitzgerald did the same thing, famously cutting Gatsby by 20% plus in galleys.

    Down with fluff.

  14. Easier Read than Done

    Alan

    Thank you for your blog.

    Could you discuss the typical “shape” of MS’ submitted by agents? Do almost all need work? What are the main MS problems/challenges editors find? What more can or should agents do with manuscripts before submitting?

    I would love to hear some generalities on what editors think of the quality of work being pitched by agents.

    thanks,
    ERTD

  15. Alan Rinzler

    Easier Read than Done,

    I’m not a great fan of generalities, but to respond to your questions, most manuscripts that come in from literary agents are in better shape than those received unsolicited.

    Nevertheless, you’re right, a great many still need work. The problems range from an incomplete or unfocused core concept, like what’s the book about and who is it for — to confusion, inconsistencies, wrong turns, and unfinished aspects of the narrative, to structural issues, as in where to begin and end the book.

    Many agents avoid these problems by asking the writer for a revision or sending the proposal or manuscript to a developmental editor for focus and polish — or by not taking on the book in the first place.

    As an acquiring editor, however, I’m grateful to agents for the screening and matching up they do. We especially appreciate it when they keep submitting new works, despite past rejections, in order to build a long term relationship of trust and mutual support.

  16. Easier Read than Done

    Alan
    thank you for your answer and insight you provide on the blog.

  17. Book Publishers

    I’ve only recently returned to writing after a much-too-long hiatus, and have found that I’m a bit rusty. I’m working with someone to help with my first rewrite. But I must say that I’m happy to hear that others also take years in the rewriting process. Thank you.

  18. Kelly Wittmann

    Thank you for this excellent and informative post, Alan. I will definitely be linking this one!

  19. Julie Musil

    I’m forming an outline now, in hopes that this rewrite will be less extensive than my last. That’s the hope anyway! Thanks for this wonderful post.

  20. Bart Cleveland

    Your post was very helpful to me. I’m on my fourth rewrite of a 70k words novel. It is easier each time, but I find I must be more cautious to not undo things I have done well. Also, I agree that advice can be well meaning, but faulty. Time gives perspective and has saved some of my better efforts. Great advice. Thanks.

  21. Jessie Mac

    Really appreciate the ‘juggling your options’ bit. I’m actually looking forward to the editing part after months of allowing myself to go crazy with puffing my novel up to 125,000 words and counting. My first draft of my second novel will be finished by the end of this week and then I’m putting it away to marinate. While marinating, I’m going to be editing my first novel that has been marinating for a few months now. Editing is a totally different skill and it’s like the points on your list, you need to make sure to trim and cut but also that everything else is the best it can be. I can’t wait. Thanks for a great post.

  22. Tricia Gibbs

    I was so glad to see the topic of this post, since I actually have a lot of experience with the subject of “rewrites.” Alan, my editor, knows this better than anyone!

    I started my first novel four years ago. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I suddenly found, after writing non-stop for nine months, that I had written over 200,000 words. When I printed up the document for the first time, it was the weight of an oversized baby. One look at this monster and people would run away screaming!

    Discouraged (and exhausted!), I did what many bloggers have suggested above: I took a break. Three months later, I went back to the novel, and immediately had a couple of important insights: 1.) I didn’t need to actually describe every moment of my characters’ lives and 2.) things written in the book really have to have something to do with the plot.

    With a newly sober eye (and a sharpened computer cursor), I went back and cut out half of what I had written. And that was before I even went to Alan for help!

    When I did smarten up and go to an “expert,” after hearing my plot idea, even though I’d already written the whole book, Alan suggested I do an outline. I followed his advice. Then I started writing the book over from the very beginning. Once. Twice. Three times.

    Anyway, to conclude what’s becoming a long story (again!), Alan finally suggested I quit obsessing and just go ahead and send some inquiries out. Fortunately, my novel appealed to a small publishing house, and so, it will be published after four years of “marinating,” writing, and rewriting.

    As for how to deal with “running dry” on ideas, and using “tincture of time” to fill the tank, you don’t need to take the word of a novice (me!), but instead consider the words of the American great, Mark Twain, as quoted from his soon-to-be-published autobiography.

    Here, he is referring to his work, Tom Sawyer:

    “For I knew quite well the tale was not finished, and I could not understand why I was not able to go on with it. The reason was very simple. My tank had run dry. It was empty. When the manuscript had lain in a pigeonhole two years, I took it out one day.

    “And it was then that I made the great discovery that, when the tank runs dry, you’ve only to leave it alone, and it will fill up again in the time while you were asleep, also while you were at work on other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.”

    While this is heartening news, nevertheless, in my case, I am hoping that with my second novel, I’ll be able to avoid some of the pitfalls of the first, for the sake of my sanity and all those poor trees!

    Thank you for this wonderful blog! I’m looking forward to returning!

  23. Aline deWinter

    Hi Alan,
    Wonderful article as always. I am just wrapping up 6 months of re-writing. It has been arduous and rewarding because when you realize when you got something right — its a real thrill!

    I have found that when I feel all alone out here trying to judge the quality and professionalism of my manuscript, that an excellent work of fiction by someone else can set guidelines—to observe what is essential to a story, what drives it forward. I have found that sometimes I don’t let go of the story—it seems to want to run off on its own like a team of horses and the sheer flow and pace are overwhelming. But the horses always seem to know where they are going. Its my job to get out of the way. I think I need to always think of obstacles, but when I read good books I notice how seamless they are and how the tension ebbs and flows. I am now working on precision. I love long descriptive passages but have learned there is an art to making those come alive and be another form of action. To that end I am studying short but atmospheric novels in my genre, listing scenes and paying attention of descriptive words.

    Anyway—its a life long learning process.
    Thanks Alan,
    Aline

  24. @SmithEClaire

    Thanks for such a great post!!

    I’m in the process of my re-write and it is very daunting. My editor loved my ideas but basicaly told me to make my plot bigger if I wanted to attract the YA crowd.

    It’s great advice and I have completed the new out line but I find myself procrastinating with the task lol.

    Good luck fellow writers!

    <3 Claire

  25. Joanne Huspek

    It is all so very clear as you state it, but putting the good advice into action is the hard part. I will print this post and attach it to my laptop. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  26. Stop Editing

    [...] Getting the Most Out of a Rewrite [...]

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