Monday, 5 March 2012


Michelene Wandor's "The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else" is about Creative Writing courses. She thinks that the traditional workshop must go, because it emphasises re-writing rather than writing. Nancy Rawlinson thinks of re-writing rather differently - first Write it out in order to know it, to understand it (whatever "it" is here: story, idea, feeling). Then write it again, with this new knowledge having been dredged up and placed, to some degree, at the front of the mind. These two documents might have very little in common. The first enables the second, and the second isn't so much a rewrite as a re-imagining.

Even fine writers have second thoughts, sometimes years after publication - a belated "director's cut". In The Paris Review Alice Munro said "The story 'Carried Away' was included in Best American Short Stories 1991. I read it again in the anthology, because I wanted to see what it was like and I found a paragraph that I thought was really soggy. It was a very important little paragraph, maybe two sentences. I just took a pen and rewrote it up in the margin of the anthology so that I'd have it there to refer to when I published the story in book form. I've often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn't really in the rhythm of the story anymore".

Whatever your attitude to re-writes it can help to distance yourself from the text before attempting a new draft. This distancing can be achieved by waiting, or by seeing the piece in print, but if time is at a premium there are other options. You can try printing it out in a different font, or reading it out. Alternatively you can alternate between small- and large-small views.

Small scale

  • On his blog Jim Murdoch tells us how he spent 3.5 hours getting a sentence right (via Heinz beans, Gillian Anderson, etc). He ended up with "From now on, whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane's book, Barley Patch, I'll think of a girl with red hair on a bus" but he didn't think that would be the final version.
  • Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times and used to brag about it
  • Gustave Flaubert's perhaps the most famous re-writer. His manuscripts have been scanned in. Have a look at the University of Rouen's collection

Large scale

Working on details in isolation help you see the text afresh but it needs to be combined with a more holistic approach

  • Checklists - how are characters using their 5 senses? Do the start and end work? Do readers learn the Who-What-Where-Why-When information at the ight time?
  • PoV - should it be 1st or 3rd person?
  • Reality check - forget that it's literature. Put yourself in the character's situation, or imagine you're the character's friend. Have they missed the obvious? Have they behaved out-of-character?

What I do

I need to re-write. I try to keep earlier drafts because sometimes rewriting smooths away interesting quirks. In general though, if I write quickly I revert to self-parody - samey characters, plots, details, sentence-length - so my re-writes can be extensive. I individualise the characters, sneak in twists and hints, change the phrase order in sentences, go through checklists.

Some of the small-scale weaknesses I commonly fix in my work are

  • Uniform sentence lengths
  • Over-use of "something" and "some of"
  • Beginning too many sentences with a sub-clause - "Seeing her gaze, he ..."; "Pausing for a reply, she ..."
  • Over-use of "but". I can replace it with "although", "however", etc, but that doesn't change the repetitive shape of the sentences.

Sometimes I add or delete a character or scene, or change the PoV. I've been known to delete all but a paragraph, or join 2 pieces together. My financially most successful piece went through 19 years of re-writes. By the end of that it looked bruised and battered to me, a war veteran with an artificial leg, sewn-on arm and a dangerously damaged soul. I have a different, more benevolent attitude to a piece written in a fortnight and accepted by the first mag I sent it to. But do readers see any difference between the 2 pieces? I doubt it. There are many ways to end up with a good story. If you try a route you've not tried before there are bound to be more dead-ends.

I tend to start with a handwritten draft. Once I have a few hundred words I type it in. There's sometimes a phase when I juggle things around (the example below is taken from that phase) and I frequently re-print drafts.

Browning, Poe, Goldsmith and Coleridge all did prose drafts of their poetry sometimes, and weren't averse to de-versing a troublesome section of a poem-in-progress, working on it and then re-versing it back into poetry. Sometimes (especially with poetry) I cut a draft up and re-order the pieces on a table. I rarely write at the keyboard. Gradually the piece takes shape, but not before changes small and large. I think that lots of little changes can have a big impact. Here's a later snapshot with multi-colour edits

I sometimes an aware that rewriting has become an avoidance mechanism. At that point I send the piece off.

What to do with old drafts

Keep them! You may want to show them to others. You may want to revert to them. George Watson in the Times Higher Education (July 2010) made these points

  • In a 1979 talk entitled "A Neglected Responsibility" [Larkin] called on British libraries to acquire and preserve poetic manuscripts, hopeful that a corrected draft might persuade the young that a poem is the end of a deliberative process rather than a spontaneous act.
  • Revision can disimprove, and a poet can bother to the point of being bothersome. Auden's publisher used to tell how hard it was to choke a new edition out of him when he was endlessly intent on revising; Wordsworth spent half a lifetime rewriting The Prelude without improving it

I have a few poems and stories that I have more than one version of. You could offer the reader alternative endings, or display some of the editing history in the document by using deletions.

See also


  1. I’ve never got the whole draft thing. I have never been able to write anything, not a short story or a poem, without editing as I go. The idea that underpins NaNoWriMo is lost on me. I just couldn’t do it. Novels always come the same way. I write a bit then I edit what I’ve written, then I write a bit more, go back to the start of the text, and read through/edit until I get to the end of what I’ve written, write a bit more, go back to the very start and go through the whole rereading/editing process. Okay once I get well into the book I might only go back a chapter or two but it’s very important to me that the text flows and the only way I can be sure to do that is the way I’ve described above; the very next sentence I write has to flow seamlessly from what has gone before. That said the text I’m working on just now—which I hesitate to call my sixth novel but that’s what I’m hoping—is being written like a diary and the important thing here is that is doesn’t flow too smoothly. Quite a challenge. But I’m still rereading the earlier entries and editing as I go.

  2. I think Anthony Burgess said he wrote a chapter, revised it, then wrote the next chapter, never looking back.

    I've recently found this, which surprised me "Munro often revises her stories between their original publication in a periodical and the republication in a collection. For example, she frequently writes a story from both the third-person and first-person point of view before deciding which to use in the final version"

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