Do people rewrite anymore?

A lot of my blog posts come from things I put on Twitter, and today it was the search for the hashtag #amrewriting. In writer circles there’s a heavily used hashtag #amediting, and this made me wonder: what does that mean? If you’re either #amwriting or #amediting, where does #amrewriting come in?

Regular readers/listeners know I have a tendency to wax rhapsodic about my typewriters….like this one right here:WP_20150508_21_45_32_Pro

Typewriters keep me grounded, make me feel connected, give me a break from endlessly staring at screens, and are my #1 cure for writer’s block. But I do live in 2015, and I do most of my writing on computers just like you.

I’m too young to really remember when most writing was done on typewriters. By the time I was pounding out my elementary school essays and writing projects, we had word processing programs with pretty fonts to play with. We didn’t have Google, which is a conversation for another time, but we had computers. And I don’t want to go back to before that. The idea of having to totally start over every single time you make a typo would be crazy-making and I’m sure no one who is older than me would ever recommend it compared to what we have now.

But I have noticed something. People seem shocked that I have to re-type my rough drafts, actually rewrite them, when they were created on typewriters. They see this as a gigantic waste of time. Which really surprises me. My response is: you don’t rewrite your rough drafts?

“Editing” is a big word. Everybody knows that once finished you need to do it. You don’t send sloppy unfinished rough drafts to editors. But what does editing mean? If you fix the typos and grammar, is that enough? If you delete the adverbs and work on active language, is that enough?

This advice on writing your book four times is the best editing advice I’ve ever seen online. Although, personally, I can’t edit after every chapter, so for me step 1 is actually 2 steps, but that’s okay. But note the language he uses. He doesn’t say “read through your book four times and make changes.” He says “write your book four times.”

When I take a rough draft, typewritten or on the computer, and retype it, I’m doing more than retyping. I’m playing with the structure, thinking about what order things go in (do I need a chapter 1? does this book start on chapter 2?) and making major structural changes. To illustrate, let me walk through what I’m working on right now.

Draft 1: Eaten by the computer 23 chapters in, never to be found again. Lesson learned. (Note: my typewriters have never done that.)

Draft 2: Created from the handwritten notes I made before I wrote draft 1. Different from and shorter than draft 1 but not by a whole lot. I highly recommend you back up your work and skip this step.

Draft 3: Printed draft 2, read it, made extensive notes, cut chapter 1 entirely, moved several chapters around, retyped the thing from scratch. Huge structural changes that made cut and paste feel overwhelming.

Draft 4: This was the first one that I edited the document in line rather than retyping it. By now some of the structure was solidly in place so I didn’t feel the need to start over, although I did make some substantial changes (the character of the mom became an older sister, for example.)

Draft 5: Wrote the cover letter, was ready to send out draft 4, but it did not feel done or ready. Draft 4 had some substantial plot changes from draft 3 and felt like it needed to be polished. After letting the thing sit for a long time (more than a year,) I looked at it again and thought, this isn’t a novel, it’s a short story. Printed it, outlined it, then started cutting at the outline. (The older sister character is now completely gone.) The draft isn’t really a cohesive story at all, just fragments cut and pasted from Draft 4, but at least I now feel like we’re getting at the heart of what this should be.

Draft 6: Now beginning, with, you guessed it, a blank sheet of paper. (Or, in other words, a new Word document.) Too much has to be structurally done to it for me to want to do that inline with cut and paste editing, plus as I’m typing I’m solidifying what’s important, playing with the language and cutting what isn’t. God willing, draft 7 will be inline edits and then we will be close to being done.

I sincerely hope no one out there has had to go through this process. The amount of editing and rewriting this story has had is ridiculous, and I am in no way suggesting every manuscript needs this. But what I have learned from this is amazing, and I take it to other works so they don’t need this kind of wrangling. For me? Rewriting is key. It’s time consuming and not as energizing. It is, in other words, work. But it is making this story better.

You can do this with any tool. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that can do a structural rewrite without starting with a blank piece of paper, and if that’s you, I salute you. You are probably saving yourself time and headaches. But I do wonder: if the technology made us really rewrite everything, would we have better edited work? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know reading through my manuscript and fixing the language up a bit would not have done the work that needed doing.

So when people use the hashtag #amediting on Twitter, I wonder, what does that mean? What is your process? Have you ever really rewritten anything, and does it make it better, or am I just wasting a ton of time and energy on this? Please share your comments! I would LOVE for you to tell me how wrong I am.

All I know is I’m proud of this piece I’m working on and when I release it on the podcast later this year I know it will be the very best work I have in me.

Happy writing,