Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is Writing Really Re-Writing? (A Roundtable)

The axiom states that "Writing is rewriting" -- well, in your experience, is it really? Or is it the great lie that writing teachers and books about writing try to fool us with?

Is it possible to get it right the first time and require little to no really editing other than grammar and spelling from your draft version?

To get the skinny, we checked in with a group of tenured and new writers, and writers of both genre fiction and literary fiction, short stories and novels, poetry and comic book scripts.

In 3... 2... 1... Go!

Patricia Boeckman: My hubby, Charles Boeckman, still-living pulp author from 1945 to the death (he thought) of the pulps after TV swept the country, wrote first draft. He always knew the beginning and end of the story, usually had some idea of the plot, and then just let her rip. His typing skills were great, his punctuation and spelling, not so fantastic. But he never had a story rejected due to mechanical errors. At two cents a word, he didn't have time for revisions.

I think writers, me included, don't write stories so much as they "find" them. Those with extensive reading backgrounds have a wealth of plots, characters, complications, etc. stored in their memories to draw on to produce original stories that grow out of the teeming cauldron of their subconscious as they put words on paper in the semi-dream-like state that living in the imagination induces. Hubby no longer writes original stories, but he has put together an anthology of some of his vintage suspense type pulp stories, and we are now preparing to start on a collection of some of his vintage western tales.

Nancy Hansen: Of course my first drafts are perfect! All 50 of them, in fact.

Seriously, I am a back and forth editor while I write. My brain while writing is like a pinball, bouncing from this bumper, off that flipper, to hit a bell way over there... Still I attempt to work in a linear fashion from beginning to end, and make notes as ideas occur, but unless I've written a proposal or am working from previous material, I generally have no idea where a story is going until I dig pretty deeply into it. Almost every one starts with some cinematic trailer idea that I need to work a story around. My usual modus operandi is to get some words on that first page, make a scene that works toward the next scene out of that, put some more words down, and keep generating scenes until they stop making sense, and then call it day. I always try to end a session while I have something left, so that next time I sit down the mojo is there. That next session starts with a re-read to get the juices flowing, with tweaking along the way, until I get into uncharted territory where the muse takes the reins. I set bookmarks in the document and when I figure I've about done all I can with a sector, I move the starting place forward to a new spot, and begin there next time with the re-reading and re-working. I use one particular bookmark to hold my place while I go back and add in something I forgot or change anything I've had second thoughts about. Eventually I do make it to the end, and while it's not a fast process, it does work well for me.

That's just the first draft though. Once I am satisfied I have the story pretty much the way I like it and it's relatively complete, I'll set it aside for a while—a few days for a short story and a couple weeks at least for a novel—and work on something else in the meantime. That way when I come back to it, I have fresh eyes and will see things I missed. I read it through from stem to stern without as much going back and forth, doing far less tweaking as I go. That's usually where I catch the majority of typos and continuity errors or notice problems with pacing. Seldom do I need extra scenes or anything complex at that point, though I will do some serious pruning where necessary. Then it either gets handed to the beta reader (usually Lee) or I read it aloud, where the awkward stuff makes itself known in a hurry. Once I'm satisfied I've done all I can and the proper formatting is in place; off it goes. If-and-when I get it back for revision, the changes needed are generally pretty simple, and several times I've handled it through a single email conversation.

All that said, this is simply what works for me. I always stress with newbie writers that what matters most is not whose writing style you emulate or what advice you take, but that you do whatever it takes to get words on the page. Everybody has to find their own happy place at the keyboard.

Bill Craig: I usually do a first draft, turn it over to a reader to go through and spot typos and see if it sounds right. One of my writing mentor's Jerry Ahern taught me to get that first draft as close to camera ready as possible. Don Pendleton taught me to write the story, and then go through and cut out what was unneccessary. Mainly I work very hard to get it right the first time.  But that's me.

Van Allen Plexico: It all changed with the advent of computers and word processors. Before that, you'd have to rewrite (unless you were one of those Westlake-Ian writers who could just crank it out fully-formed, like Jack Kirby drawing a picture by starting in one corner and working his way across!). With word processors, rewriting happens constantly so there should be far less to have to redo at the end of the first draft. My second drafts are largely confined to word replacement (if I spot something repetitive), typo repairs, and the very occasional major repair if I discover I've made a larger error, such as having a chapter out of order or forgotten part of a sub-plot.

Tim J. Finn: I find myself doing both, agnozing until I think I have it right the first (and sometimes I actually do) and rewriting and changing it back sometimes also.

Selah Janel: Although I'd love to say that everything I write is perfect right away, that's just not the case. For me, I tend to go into a story with an idea, but I'm not really sure of the ins and outs until I'm in the thick of the story. Sometimes this means a lot of rewriting to sync up all parts of the piece, and sometimes this means actually starting two or three versions and then continuing the one that works the best. I'll admit that sometimes I find it frustrating, but at the end of the day I want to do what's best for the story. If putting aside my ego or giving myself a little more work is what it takes, then I'll suck it up and do it. Writing a story isn't just a linear process. It would be great if ideas and character development just magically fell into place all the time, but that's not the way my brain works, at least. After all that, it still doesn't guarantee that others will read a piece the way I intended it, which is why there are edits. I think of it like this: so many great authors revamped their stories after they were already published. Tolkien changed things, Ray Bradbury either changed parts of stories or added parts (there's a whole other scene of Fahrenheit 451 circulating around). If these amazing guys (and others) feel that it's acceptable to tweak works that have become iconic, even after the works have been published for a while, then I think that it's obvious that writing is a process that's meant to be revisited until you feel like you get it to its best possible outcome.

I. A. Watson: At the moment I'm revisiting The Dark Lord, a novel I first completed in 2001 that has sat on my hard drive doing nothing ever since. It's a political fantasy tale that would sit well with Game of Thrones fans.

I've written three or four million words of fiction since then and my style had evolved, matured, and I hope, improved, so proofreading that story is more by way of a rewrite. Whole new chapters are appearing to unpack events I originally referenced in a paragraph . Conversely, scenes I thought were effective and powerful before now seem corny and trite. They must die. I imagine when I've finished I'll have a novel I'm happier with and that is a better balance between drama, action, and politics. This is the benefit of proofreading.

I generally need a couple of passes to get things right in my work, sometimes more for the longer material. First draft I concentrate on getting what I can out of my head and onto the page. I often leave myself little highlighted notes like FIND NAME OF STREET or CHECK PREVIOUS QUOTE rather than stopping to look up reference while I'm steaming ahead.

After that first rush, I need to go back and refine things. I tend to slip into some bad habits, like structuring quoted speech with action descriptors in the middle all the time: "Watch your back," he said, drawing his revolver and peering round the darkened space, "There's more than one of them out there." Sometimes I get the subject and object obscured, because I know what I was talking about even if the reader doesn't. And often I run on sentences where I should better break them up into seperate ones. So that next run-through is mostly for style. It also serves to point up any plot problems where I've missed something or contradicted myself.

A third pass helps with pacing. The dramatic beats need to be set up, or supported, or followed on from. Sometimes an extra line, a minor description, even an extra or deleted word is all that's required. Occasionally a new cutaway scene helps cleanse the palate for the next major twist. This is the run-through that usually adds to the word count, though I try and delete as much extraneous wordage as I add in.

It's amazing how an oral rendition flags up clumsy sentence structure and corny dialogue. If I have time, I read the work out loud, preferably to someone other than the cat. That's usually to my daughter these days; my wife has been a less enthusiastic listener since our divorce.

Then comes the spell check/grammar check from the computer, wherein I disagree with Microsoft Word's grammar rules and we eventually reach a corrected compromise.

If possible, I then leave the story to lie fallow for a while and write something else. I come back to it fresh after a month or two - The Dark Lord's twelve years is atypical. By then I've forgotten all the stuff I knew I meant, so unlear bits are easier to spot. I've fallen out of love with whatever odd sentence structure seemed so clever when I wrote it, so I can revert to plain English that tells the story. This is the final proofread before the work goes off to an editor.

Most editors send back their edited version of the text for approval, or at least notification. Often these days it's for more free proofreading too, which I'm fine with since it gives me a last chance to check my stuff. Very occasionally there's a new problem that's slipped in at the compositing or external reading stages - perhaps the proofer hasn't understood a technical term or has corrected some grammatical error that I'd deliberately put in someone's speech pattern. Mostly, seeing the story all dolled up and ready to go out somehow makes hidden errors missed so far stand out nice and plain. That's especially true of plot errors; I only caught a massive continuity gaffe in my Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective volume 4 story "The Clockwork Courtesan" at this stage. It was Watson's first wife who was American. Mary Morstan was brought up in India. Rookie mistake, only picked up twenty minutes after I'd e-mailed back the final final version to the publisher.

Even then, there's usually some error I only spot when it's in print before me, six months after publication.

I'd better get back to The Dark Lord. The villain's about to give the hero the choice of who deflowers the princess, right here, right now, and becomes her father's mortal enemy - the hero or the villain's minions.

Marian Allen: Whether I rewrite after the rough draft is finished or rewrite in my head before I put anything into fixed form, writing is rewriting.

Mark Ellis: Yes. Yes, it is. Really.

Ron Fortier: Most of what I write usually gets at least 2 look-overs. Before starting work on a new section of a story, I read through what I did the day before and usually change some things.  That's number one. Then when finished I start the new stuff after which I had it over to my wife.   Her grammar is far better than mine.  She makes red-pencil edits and gives it back to me.  I make the corrections, or change the phrasing and that's # 2.

This process repeats daily till the story is completed.  Then it goes off to whoever wants to publish it and most likely will return to me one more time with some editorial notes. That's # 3.

I think most of us go through a similar process if not all exactly the same. I never ever turn anything after writing it once. Perfection is not my thing.  Ha.

Lee Houston Jr.: I hate to admit this, but I'm my own worst critic when it comes to writing. I will go over a passage as many times I think is necessary until it is "right". I prefer quality to quantity, and always want to create the best work I can for the readers.

Dave Creek: I "write to final draft," as I think of it, which I believe comes from my journalism experience, where you have to write a story properly the first time out.

Joe Bonadonna: Writing is rewriting. Rewriting. And a lot more rewriting. I've spent an hour trying to get one paragraph right. I've spent 6 hours on one page! I'm currently on the 4th version, and the 5th draft of the current rewrite of a story. If I had to earn my living writing, I'd starve.

Also, each story is different. I sold a story that took only two drafts. I have stories that have gone through 10 rewrites -- still no go. I should give up on those.

I'm my own worst critic, I'm a brutal editor, and 99% of what i write no one ever sees. I hold myself to a high standard: if I don't like it, it stinks. I will spend six months on a 20-K novella. I'm not prolific, and most of ideas never get past that stage. When I wrote a short story and a novella a month back in the 70s, and a novel a year -- nothing got published. George Scithers once told me, "Go for quality, Joe. The quantity will come in time.

I go for when it "feels" write. Too much of what I read seems rushed -- written fast and furiously to make a deadline or whatever. Little time spent on characters and relationships and human drama. Maybe I'm just a slow writer, too. I do prefer spending more time on character stuff than action. Comes from studying too many playwrights, lol! I also like to return to an old story and see what new I can bring into it. I just did that with an old story. Brought in a psychological aspect. I think i will do more of this type of thing. I'm calling it Sword and Freud.

Martin Page: My experience is otherwise, though I will spend time on key paragraphs.Otherwise, I like a 3-pass approach. 1st pass produces readable prose but is missing stuff. 2nd pass expands the sections where stuff is missing and fixes arcs and continuity. 3rd pass spots and fixes any cohesion and comprehension issues.

This is the danger of rewrites. It's like telling your soldiers to fight harder when you really need to fight different, or in a different place.

If a story doesn't work, then the issue is at a higher level, e.g. not enough conflict, wrong kind of conflict, issues with setting or story logic.

For me the outline is like... rolling up a flag in a strong breeze. As you roll, the flag whips this way and that. It's position is only fixed as it wraps around the flagstaff. So, as the characters come alive, the outline changes. If I don't like the changes, I tweak the characters.

Duane Spurlock: I rarely get it right the first time. Before I start the writing day and write a new passage, I read over the last bit I wrote and tweak it. Never really stops. Even if I read over something after it's published, I see things I'd like to change. And when I read something by someone else, I see sentences i'd recommend changing. Is that OCD?

Dafydd Neal Dyar: Just has the first casualty of war is the battle plan, so too the first casualty of writing is the story outline.

A story is a combination of a plot and characters. As writers get to know their characters better in the process of developing them, there inevitably comes a point when those characters begin to take the story in entirely directions than the writer originally envisioned.

Good writers pay attention what their characters are trying to tell them and adjust the story accordingly. This generally requires the writer to revise and rewrite already completed text to accommodate the new story directions.

In short, writing necessarily entails rewriting as part of the process.

Thaddeus Atreides: Writing is editing for me. Either I hit it or I miss it. I rarely feel as if I need to completely rewrite a story to make it right. And if I do, then I just call it and mark the time of death. Then I get out and write something new.

Roger Keel: Sometimes I have to re-write a scene or panel, other times it's a full page and on occasion the whole story. Depends on how I like the first draft (and everything is a first draft!!).

Michael L. Peters: Whether writing or painting a project often isn't "alive," until it all goes to hell and you have to scramble and save it...

I'm currently doing an extensive re-write because I recently heard about a story that has a few eerie similarities to mine, so... I'm replacing those bits, which, of course, causes major shifts in other bits, effecting the shape of the whole story... and I think the re-worked story is all the better, even putting worries about being perceived as copying plot points, aside.

I letter my own comics work, so, up until I need to have it print-ready, I'll re-work dialog or captions - - there are always few lines that are sort of "place-holders", which sometimes end up being used and sometimes get replaced.

Arthur Gibson: For scripts, I work it as I write it so I only do one version. But also for scripts, it isn't "done" until the artist has their interpretation, so sometimes a slight edit is needed to match dialogue to layout.

For prose, self-editing is a must and I can go through up to six drafts before I am happy. Sometimes that makes it perfect. Sometimes it can use another set of fresh eyes one more time.

J.R. Mounts: Rewrite, redraw, erase, erase, erase...oh, the humanity.

Christopher Collins: Absolute, hand-to-God truth for me! My first draft is just getting the ideas out on the page, and there's nothing like the rush I get from the creative process...except making it live and breathe. That's where the rewriting comes in. It's harsh, sometimes--you're cutting out whole scenes, killing your darlings, ripping them apart and putting them back together into something that hopefully, is a little bit closer to what you had in your head when you began the process. You're taking flat characters and turning them into three dimensional beings that have personalities, histories, goals and everything else that makes us human. You're giving the story a depth it wouldn't otherwise have. I forget where I read it, but one person likened the first draft to vomiting out the words, and the rewrites to picking through the chunks and keeping the best bits. And that, friends and neighbors, is my two cent's worth.

Gordon Dymowski: To me, it's both. I end up writing and rewriting so much, it reminds me of what Michaelangelo said about his David statue - that he basically saw a block of marble and chipped away anything that wasn't David. I had a story where I ended up cutting quite a bit -- not because it wasn't good, but it wasn't the story.

Ed Crandell: The first and third novel have basically been matters of grammar and spelling. The second novel revised several times in the sense of rearranging, not so much rewriting. I think this is a major benefit of working from an outline.

Carlo Carrasco: Most of the time rewriting happens for me, often on slight editing. A few times a major rewrite happened.

Wayne Reinagel: I re-read each sentence as I write it, often more than once, making changes in spelling and changing words for better ones. When I finish the paragraph, I reread the entire thing, making certain all the sentences belong in the same paragraph and that it all flows smoothly. Once the chapter is completed, I reread the entire thing that day and at least once more the following day. When I complete an entire novel, I re-read and edit the whole thing, making certain I've linked chapters and information throughout the entire story. Then I re-read te entire thing again, before handing it off to my five proofreaders.

And yet, somehow, I STILL wind up with minor spelling errors!

Robby Hilliard: Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite!

Kathleen Bradean: I believe in rewrites because I've seen my first drafts.

Jason Gregory Banks: Rewrites absolutely. I mean not even the greats can churn out awesome with out fact checking or making sure male 1 isn't dressed like male number 4 or a blonde doesn't become a red head from paragraph to paragraph all while you call them james instead of Jamie

Phil Brucato: It really depends on the project. My short stories, comic scripts, articles, essays and game books suffer very little revision; I give them editing passes and input a few changes here and there, but with few exceptions, they tend to be close to first-draft/ final draft projects.

My screenplays, on the other hand, undergo extensive rewrites. And if I HADN'T revised and rewritten my novel-in-progress forty-eight bajillion times, it would have been finished a long time ago!

Krista Cagg: Oh Lord, if I kept just my first drafts I'd look like a babbling idiot.

John Warren: My rewrites aren't usually dramatic, and I usually just make them directly into the draft rather than make a whole new document.

Mark Kurall Schuenemann: I have to go through everything I write at least a two or three times, rewriting to make things clear, get it grammatically correct, and to keep in the theme, and sometimes I go, I have to write more, this story just doesn't have enough flesh on its bones - I better do something about it!

K. Anthony Pagano: I'll touch a story anywhere from 2-15 passes for narrative/structure/edits. Most of the time the initial "writing" is fast. I get out what I can and then come back to it later, after I'm written the scene.

Selene MacLeod: My poetry gets very little revision. My short stories...depends on the editors, but they say most of it's "clean" copy, because my grammar, punctuation, and spelling are OK. I try to trim any extra on the second draft, for the most part (and I tend to overuse commas). My novels...I've written four novels and hate all of them, so they all have to be revised. Possibly from start to finish. I've been procrastinating on that last part, which is why I'm sending out shorts but not novels to publishers. I'm hoping it gets easier with practice.

Thomas Deja: I only do two rewrites, accepting that there might be a third rewrite requested by the editor/ can't rewrite meticulously over and over, lest you leech all your artistry out of it...and there comes a time when you have to send your children out into the world to be judged, no matter how ugly or stupid they may still seem to be to us....

Colleen Ranney: In my experience no, but then again I am married to an editor lol

Bryan McAnally: Fiction, yes. Nonfiction, no. Except for when I re-write my nonfiction. Then yes.

Troy Hickman: No, I get it right the first time. Also, I find that the work comes out the same whether I work fast or slow (so I always work fast).

John Seabaugh: Well, since I have Dyslexia... Revealing my ideas is often a challenge.

Jeremy Wiggins: A few things magically come through the first time, others need work. The truth is I'm constantly rewriting in my head even before it hits the page.

Jennifer Dorough Hancock When I do my writing, I first go back and read the chapters that I've already written to get myself back up to speed before I start new stuff. However, in doing that, I generally catch places where the flow isn't what I want it to be and I can fix it quickly. I also catch the grammar and spelling, so it's rather like editing myself. Then I start the new parts with a fresh reminder of what hints I've already worked in and plot lines I've set up.

Elizabeth Donald: I have never been able to write a book once. The first draft is hell, frought with dead spots and horrible passages lacking any coherent description. The second draft is when the book comes alive, when I rewrite that dreadful mess into something like a...See More

Ruth de Jauregui: Edit, edit and edit again.

J. Walt Layne: I think the story is born in the first draft, and the submission draft is either married or murdered in the rewrite... I hold the opinion that stories suffer beyond a point with technical perfection, the same with wordsmithing... Never break the bank with a five dollar word where fifty cents from the cookie jar will do. I put simple characters in complex situations, I make them as plain spoken as possible. A multiplicity of storylines only works if you can make the reader care. If youre still trying to figure it out on the third edit.... Stick it in the drawer for a year while you write other stuff... Dont even read it for fun.... When you get back to it, the stuff that works will be sweet, that which doesnt will not be, abd the parts you didnt cover will stink to high heaven...

Adam Miller: There's always some rehearsal and revision whether you admit or not. Writing is rewriting if you're serious.

Bobby Nash: Edits and changes happen. I can't think of too many times I've written something with no rewrites or changes before sending it along to the publisher. The first draft gets the story down. Then I go back and flesh it out.

Josh Dahl: Most of my edits and re-writes happen before I hit the keys. That said, I probably write double what actually ends up as the finished product.

Krystal Rollins: I hand write the whole manuscript then type it up. After that, I break it up into chapters. I re-write three times, after that, I can't read it any longer. Then off to my editor....

Michael D'Ambrosio: There's always a rewrite. Whenever I read a completed chapter, the characters say, "I don't think so." Then I wind up altering the storyline somewhat.

Robert Krog: I've written a few short stories, maybe just two, that came out just right the first time, excepting typoes. Generally, I do a few sessions of editing for content, flow. etc. 

Abigail Beerman: I am finding that it helps for me to write things out long-hand, then type it up [changing as I go], then read it aloud, then edit some more. Even though I am a visual learner, I am most flexibly creative when I am able to bounce things around out loud, preferably with someone else nearby [and if they know what I'm talking about, all the better!].

Griffin Holbert: It all depends on the person. I personally re-write multiple times, but I also know people who pour the words onto paper, and never need to refarrange, add to, or subtract from the content of the story. All they do is proofread. I am envious, but whatever works for you!


  1. Thanks for compiling all these perspectives!!! It's really interesting (and in many cases here, encouraging) to see what everyone has to say.

    1. You're very welcome, Susan. I love doing this roundtables.

  2. I write, then revise on my own several times before passing it onto my critique partners. I still ended up with an agent requesting a revise and resubmit (to tighten my ms). Even if you've got the grammar, spelling, plot, characters down pat... no one is perfect. There's ALWAYS room for improvement.

    1. Absolutely. Well said, Mary. And welcome to the blog.