Wednesday 6 December 2017

Rewriting workshop

Congratulations! You've got further than many budding writers - you've actually written something. Pat yourself on the back. But you know there's more work ahead. How much more depends on you.

People have different attitudes to rewriting. For some people it's checking for typos and removing some superfluous words. That's certainly part of the task (often called "polishing"), and we'll do a few exercises on that topic, but that's the easy bit.

We'll also be looking at other changes we can make, and the inhibitions that stop us making them. A particular problem is over-familiarity with the text, and - let's be honest - boredom having to go over the same old stuff again and again.

I'll mostly talk about novels, though I'll mention other genres in passing. Any book on writing will be helpful when you're rewriting. I'll focus on the quick-fixes, throwing lots of suggestions at you, some of them contradictory. Just pick the ones that suit you!

During the re-write you may discover that your novel isn't ever going to work. I'll look at what to do in that situation too, because all is not lost.


What's the difference between writing and rewriting? For some people, a lot. When they write their first draft, they don't expect to change it much. Anthony Burgess worked that way. Other people are always re-writing.

  • "You write a script twice. The first time you pour out all your passion, anger, energy, and frustration. Then you go back and write it with your head" - Jimmy McGovern (TV scriptwriter)
  • "The first draft is like a romance, flowering and easy during its first few months until eventually the situation has to normalise, to settle. The second draft is like a marriage. The passion will not have evaporated but it’s now tempered by responsibility" - Ashley Stokes
  • "I write every paragraph four times - once to get my meaning down, once to put in anything I left out, once to take out everything that seems unnecessary, and once to make the whole thing sound as if I only just thought of it" - Marjorie Allingham
  • "The unconscious creates, the ego edits" - Stanley Kunitz

The hard part's knowing when to stop. Even publication doesn't stop people like W.H.Auden and Nobel winner Alice Munro wanting to change their work. Artists feel the same way. Apparently the Post-Impressionist Bonnard once persuaded his friend Édouard Vuillard to distract one of the guards in a museum while he touched up a work that had been completed years previously.

So let's re-write!

Exercise 1
Improve these
  • They are so gripped by the film, they're frozen in time and sit on the sofa like statues, absolutely still and hardly breathing (from a novel by Dawn French)
  • Eli was not quite seven years old when he discovered that he was different. But perhaps 'different' was not at the time, at least, the right word. For all that time, in most ways, he was a quite ordinary child, with the common traits, good and bad, and many in between, that ordinary little boys will have. But in one important respect he differed from the ordinary (the start of a short story by Salley Vickers)
  • In the not too distant future, college freshmen must all become aware of the fact that there is a need for them to make contact with an academic adviser concerning the matter of a major (from a prospectus)
  • I stepped out of the city and into the park. It was as simple as that.
    It was January, it was a foggy day in London town, I'd got off the Tube at Great Portland Street and come up and out into the dark of the day, I was on my way to an urgent meeting about funding. It was possible in the current climate that funding was going to be withdrawn so we were having to have an urgent meeting urgently to decide on the right kind of rhetoric. This would ensure the right developmental strategy which would in turn ensure that funding wouldn't conclude in this way at this time.
    (from a short story by Ali Smith)

Later exercises won't be so easy - chopping words out is far easier than deciding where words are missing and which words to insert. But at least chopping makes space.

Alternatives to DIY

Before we consider doing all the rewriting ourselves, let's consider alternatives. You could find a trusted person to swap drafts with. Alternatively there are commercial services. One example is They offer several options, amongst them Editing Services: Final Polish for £680 – £1020 which is, I presume, the going rate, and an indication of how much work is involved. So think hard before asking someone to look through your work as a favour.

Re-writers block

Writer's Block is when you're staring at an empty page and nothing happens. Re-writer's Block is when you stare at a full page and nothing happens.

Many of the factors involved with Writer's Block still apply to Re-writer's Block. Indeed, re-writing may itself be a form of Writer's Block, stopping you writing anything new. It can become an obsession - you can re-write for ever.

What factors particularly inhibit re-writing?

  • Fear of destroying the freshness of the original
  • Fear that you might realise it's all rubbish, that you've wasted your life
  • Fear of commitment, that there's no going back
  • Rewriting's boring
  • Not knowing where to start
  • Not knowing when to end
  • Not knowing what to change
  • Self-imposed restrictions - e.g. "write about what you know"; "but that's what actually happened!"; sticking to the same length, genre, era, age/gender of characters

Many of these are more "project management" than artistic issues. Let's see if we can remove some of these hindrances.

Have a plan

Don't be open-ended. Be focused. Don't fiddle about or tinker - that's a displacement mechanism.

  • If it's rubbish, dump it. What's worse than spending 5 years writing a rubbish novel? Answer: Spending 10 years writing it. So put it away in a drawer. With any luck you'll be able to publish it after you've had another novel published (the first two novels that Iain Banks wrote were published well after his breakthrough novel "The Wasp Factory" came out).
  • Focus your attention on the sections with the biggest pay-off - the start, the end, the crisis moment. Editors will do that, so you might as well too. Chekov suggested that you should write the beginning, middle, and end, then cut the beginning and the end. That sounds extreme, but it's worth at least underlining the first interesting sentence in your piece. If it's not near the beginning, have a good excuse ready.
    Ernest Hemingway went through 47 endings for "A Farewell to Arms" before settling on: "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain." Scribner published an edition containing all of them.
    Exercise 2 - Beginnings
    Here are 2 beginnings of stories by James Runcie about Grantchester. The first is rather flat. The second is rather poetical. Swap the styles -
    • Sidney was uneasy. He knew that it was one of his principal duties as a priest to keep cheerful at all times and he liked to think that he was content with his lot in life, but the copy of The Times that he was reading one late April morning in 1963 carried a biblical quotation at the top of the Personal Column that gave him pause
      'Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you'

      ('Death by Water')
    • As the afternoon light faded over the village of Grantchester, the parishioners lit fires, drew curtains and bolted their doors against the dangers of darkness. The external blackness was a memento mori, a nocturnal harbinger of that sombre country from which no traveller returns. Canon Sidney Chambers, however, felt no fear. He liked a winter's night.
      It was the 8th of January 1955. The distant town of Cambridge looked almost two-dimensional under the moon's wily enchantment and the silhouettes of college buildings were etched against the darkening sky like illustrations for a children's fairytale.

      ('The Perils of the Night')
  • For novels especially, you needn't make all the changes as you go along - just make a list; e.g. - 'beef up X's character'; 'sort out lost-letter plot'; 'revise Chapter Six'; 'check geography of Manchester chapter' (Emma Darwin); 'research into what rubbish is dropped onto pavements'; 'find names of nail-varnish colours' (Tim Love).
  • How do you decide what needs changing? Read others' stories critically to practice finding problems, or go through a checklist of features a short story should have. Many checklists are online.
  • You could try to perfect your novel a chapter at a time, as if each one was a short story - see later.
  • Don't put yourself under pressure by presuming that each re-write will produce the next version of an ever-improving sequence. Some re-writes will be dead-ends or experiments - you might learn something from them, but mostly they're disposable.
  • Try to add variety to your rewriting sessions. Try to make them fun!
  • Get in the right mood - maybe start the day by revising the previous evening's work? Work in a different room when you revise? Use rituals?

Version Control

Amongst the inhibitors to change is the fear that you'll make things worse.

You can work in such a way that you can save all versions and compare old and new versions side by side. Knowing that you can go back to older versions helps make you more relaxed and radical about changing your current version. You're free to experiment.

There are other reasons for preserving versions. e.g for Flash, I try places which have limits of exactly 75, max 100, exactly 100, exactly 101, max 200, max 250, max 300, max 360, etc, so I have multiple versions of some pieces.

How do you do this? First, if your Word processor allows you to track changes and revisions, do that (the diagram in the right shows how versions of a program of mine budded and merged). Some versions of Office let you recover earlier drafts, some don't. Or you can use Overleaf, GoogleDocs, etc.


  • O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us! - Burns
  • editing is like sex. If you do it to yourself you can't really call it editing - Matthew Welton

Whatever your attitude to re-writes it can help to distance yourself from the text before attempting a re-write. By "distancing" I mean being more detached from the piece, as if it weren't yours, so you can see it as others see it and you're less inhibited about making changes. This distancing can be achieved by waiting, but if time is at a premium there are other options.

  • Samuel Beckett started writing in French to distance himself from his work.
  • "No passion in the world is greater than the passion to alter someone else's draft", said H.G. Wells. If you're that type of person, then pretend you're someone else when you read your piece.
  • Write a review of it, or a blurb.
  • Try printing it out in a different font, or reading it out, or recording it and playing it back.

Or you can alternate between small- and large-scale views.

Small scale

Re-writing your work is little like a surgeon operating on a loved one. It helps to be detached, to operate on the knee, not the person. Similarly, it helps to look at the details of your story one aspect at a time. While you're making these little changes, don't consider the effect on the piece as a whole - that will come later -

  • Look at sentence length and paragraph length to see if they're too samey.
  • Look at word frequency. Are you over-using "not", "still", "suddenly" or "but"?
  • Add imagery - don't worry about adding too much, you can always cut back later. E.g. "There was a man whistling, walking along holding a can of Skol ahead of himself. He was holding the can like a compass" (Ali Smith)
  • Look at each adjective and verb (change "red" to "crimson"; "walk" to "saunter"?)
  • If you want to look at each sentence in isolation, replace full-stops by new-lines, or go through your piece from back to front.
    Exercise 3 - Sentences
    (Print the start of a story out, one sentence per slip of paper. Give each person a slip and get them to read the story out. Now get each of them to rewrite the sentence. Get them to read the revised story out)
  • Look at each minor character in turn, listing all they do

Medium scale

These change the whole work, but only one feature of it. You can try something out as an experiment, to revive the story's freshness for you. Keeping the original, try

  • Changing the location
  • Changing the gender or age of a character. Making them visually-impaired, wheelchaired, very tall.
  • Changing the viewpoint
  • Changing the tense
  • Change the era (useful to solve the plot refutations involving the use of mobile phones, etc)
  • Halving the word-count (it's interesting to see what parts really matter to you)

Even if you abandon these versions, trying them out may give you ways to add detail to what you've taken for granted. For example

  • if you change the location to somewhere exotic you may mention the meals more. Why not mention meals in your original?
  • if you set it in an Arctic Research Station you ay find that the confinement intensifies emotions.

Large scale

Re-writing from scratch - produce a new draft of a chapter without looking at the old version! The differences between the versions might be revealing.

Outlining - block-out your piece to see if it flows and if the proportions are ok - e.g. A page about Jim. A line about Mary. A page about London. How Jim ended up in London.

Re-conceiving - Sometimes when you re-read a story you might realise that the crux of the story isn't what you'd originally intended. Perhaps a secondary character has become more interesting than the main one.

Re-structuring - Re-order chapters or sections. Are you starting too early? You can put an important chapter at start, as a prologue, or put chapters in reverse. Instead of strictly chronological ordering of chapters, you could use alternate chapters according to location or point-of-view. Such tricks aren't especially avant-garde -

  • Iain Banks' "Use of Weapons" has 2 narrative threads - one going forwards in time, one going backwards.
  • Two recent best-sellers ("The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton and "Days without end" by Sebastian Barry) begin with funerals where the identity of the narrator doesn't become clear for pages, and the deceased's identity takes chapters to reveal (in "Days without end" we're told on p.62). Both first-chapters are flash-forwards.
  • "Chang and Eng" by Darin Strauss is framed by the death-bed scene (the final chapter's a repeat of the first). The chapters alternate between 2 storylines: 1811-1842, and 1842-1874, 1842 being the year Chang and Eng met their wives.

If you can't decide how to end a novel, why not include several options. Again, it's not avant-garde - in "Jane, Unlimited" (2017, it's YA) Kristin Cashore included 5 endings, each a different genre.

Novels and short stories

Maybe your novel could become some short stories. Maybe a part of a short story can immediately become a Flash piece. looks at how related short stories can be made into a novel and vice versa.

It's perhaps better to plan ahead if you're going to do this. One benefit of writing a novel as a set of short stories is that you can start sending the stories off long before you've completed the novel - parts of "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan appeared initially in The New Yorker and Harper's. Jill Widner has published (and won prizes for) several story-like chapters of her novel that she hasn't yet published. Doing this also helps with marketing - a story can be a teaser for the novel.


Here's a piece of mine that I've had published -


Suppose one person’s death could save the lives of many others by providing them with vital organs. Should the state intervene for the greater good?

In 2007 I wrote a story called “Going.” I entered it in a couple of competitions before deciding that no one wanted it. Its street market went into “Late” (published in By All Means), the tea flavours went into “Out” (Ink, Sweat and Tears), and the passage about hearing noises downstairs appeared in “Correspondence” (Necessary Fiction). None of those other stories were true, though “Going” was. Did I do the right thing?}

There are 2 things to learn from this - firstly, you can publish the story of your failure; secondly, it's a true story - those parts weren't wasted.

It's easy to flog dead horses, to work on a piece that you like but nobody else does. I've hung onto stories for years not realising that it's just one scene that I liked. You can cut your losses and recycle the bits (having of course saved the original version first). Pieces of dialogue, or even whole scenes can find new homes.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s "Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses" won the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for 2017. The author said it was in a “process of accrual” for a decade. He said he would be working on his novel and would get frustrated and leave it a while and write a little vignette about a horse. When he started to have enough of the vignettes and his character became a “backbone” to them, he spread them over the floor and called it a story.

I've not gone to that extreme, though I've had success sticking fragments together, putting ``* * *'' between them or numbering them.

Exercise 4 - A complete work
(Hand out a piece of Flash. Get them to identify the sections (3 of them?), turning points, weaknesses)

See also


  1. Great article, Tim! In the middle of the last paragraph of the section "Medium scale" the phrase "A season in Eden" appears.

    In the following paragraph the apostrophe should come at the end of the word:

    How do you decide what needs changing? Read other's stories critically to practice finding problems, or go through a checklist of features a short story should have. Many checklists are online.