All good writing is the result of rewriting, and rewriting is more than rearranging words on a page. Yes, an effective rewrite improves sentences, but it also strengthens structure, sharpens plot, adds suspense, deepens characterization and enhances dialogue. I will expect to do three or four rewrites on a project before I am even close to feeling satisfied, and because writing is so hard and takes so long, it’s important to have a system to keep you on track.
For my latest project, a novel, the first step I am taking in the rewriting process is re-reading a hard copy of my manuscript for story structure, plot and content. By reading all the way through, I can get the big picture and see what is repetitious, what is confusing, and what is missing.
Next, when I’m finished reading the manuscript, I attempt to answer each of the following questions:
- Does each character have a distinctive and unique “voice”?
- Does each character feel “real”? Or do they require more development?
- Are my secondary characters consistent? Do they need additional fleshing out?
- Have I given all my characters the right name?
- Is it clear who the antagonists are?
- Is there suspense? Is it for the right reasons?
- Is there enough of the right kinds of description? Or is it lacking?
- Are the funny situations funny in the ways I had hoped?
- Is the dialogue sharp and distinctive?
- Does my heroine’s initial level of personal awareness leave room for her to grow and change throughout the story?
- What is my rewriting schedule going to be?
For example, answering question #11 solves another big problem: when will I actually work on the book? I will open my calendar and schedule writing time. This raises my self-esteem because I am facing the biggest problem first.
In another example, I will address the suspense question by noting where major events happen using my own Mythic Journey Map® (from my 10 Weeks book). Using this technique I can then determine if the events are good enough, plentiful enough and in the right places. For example, I am trying to decide how many times the heroine of my new story needs to break up with the villain. This type of analysis will answer that question. This scrutiny will also reveal whether there is enough suspense for the reader to care whether or not she will end up with him.
I will also address the character and dialog issues by reading aloud to myself. However painful, all is revealed when I hear my own words spoken.
While this list is by no means comprehensive, it’s a start and will help to get a good flow going.
My third step is to go back through the manuscript again, this time making notes on the actual pages. Here you can start to fill in spots that need work, or simply make notes that something else is needed even if you don’t know exactly what that something is. (In publishing, we write “TK,” which is lingo for “To come.) In addition, this process will spark even more questions, which, when answered, will lift the level of your story. For example, I am working on a section where the heroine gets on a dating site, and then want to add experiences she has on the site throughout the rest of the book. I haven’t decided what goes where so I will simply write “TK” wherever I think one of the little anecdotes could work.
The final step is to review all of the related notes and research materials you have collected and determine where they might, or might not, fit in. This is perhaps the most stressful part for me since not only do I have a 250-page manuscript but also more than 300 handwritten pages of additional thoughts and ideas, not to mention piles and piles of research material. But by taking the time to go through it all, I invariably find precious ideas and possibilities that I’d forgotten about but am now ready to incorporate into my story.
Paradoxically, my writing method, The Horowitz System®, is an additive one, meaning that, although I have a lot of material to work through, much of it will be condensed and, ultimately, I will add new material rather than trying to salvage all the existing stuff I already have. I will apply myself diligently because, at a certain point in the process, the story will suddenly “click” into place. This is a moment of pure magic and is so thrilling and satisfying that it makes the entire previous struggle worthwhile. This sudden cohesion is when I know that I am ready to dive into the rewrite process efficiently and effectively, with both confidence and enjoyment.
One final note: Rewriting can be wonderful and rewarding, but, make no mistake — it can also be nerve-racking. Like many writers, I find my self-confidence waxes and wanes. My inner critic can still beat me down and serve up a healthy portion of self-doubt. One minute I am full of enthusiasm, the next I’m despairing over my story’s shortcomings and relevance.
How do I keep my spirits up and soldier on to the end?
I make sure to tell myself the same thing I always tell my students: the key to success is not just talent but perseverance. This gives me something concrete to focus on and which I can control, helping me maintain my self-confidence and get the work done.
I hope this discussion of how I manage a rewrite has been helpful. If you are interested in sharing your own process, I would like to hear about it.
Here’s to your successful writing,
Professor Marilyn Horowitz