Knowing When to Re-write

I had a sickening moment a couple weeks ago. While thinking how best to put the pieces of a chapter together I realised none of it tied together. Like trying to place circles into squares. In that moment I was faced with a decision. Turn back and right (no pun intended) the wrongs, or scribble on in ignorance.

In my heart and mind, I knew the changes would make the story better. But to do so would mean significant work. Butchering chapters I was pleased with, removing passages I liked. The hours spent thinking and planning all wasted.

I went on. Each word I wrote with less conviction. The urge to go back gnawed at me like an insatiable rat.

I caved. And I’m glad of it.

Being faced with the cruel realisation that something you’ve invested so much time and effort into isn’t good enough, or doesn’t work, is one of the hardest things for a writer to endure. I’ve spoken to writers who forever spend their time re-writing until they get it right. I’ve spoken to others who reject the idea. I’ve spoken to more who aren’t sure if it’s the right thing to do or not.

In the end, I think it comes down to a gut feeling. When struck by this dilemma of either writing on or going back, the idea of re-writing felt like the right thing to do. The newer version excited me. It felt as if I’d unlocked a door, a door leading to the way out of this labyrinthine story writing puzzle.

But when all you have for counsel is yourself, you can never be sure if it’s the right thing to do. What if the original version is better? What if I’ve made it worse? There are, however, some things we can do to help make this crucial and difficult decision a little easier.

Seek the Opinions of Others

I believe it was Stephen King who said that when approaching feedback on your work, if everybody raises different issues, you can probably ignore them. If they all say the same thing, you need to change it.

In my experience, the areas requiring a re-write have often received comments like, “this is confusing,” “this doesn’t make sense,” “what?”“I don’t get this.” A bunch of comments like that is a clear sign that things need to change.

Assess the Damage

In the first moments when you realise things need to change, despair grips you, makes you want to take that manuscript outside and douse it with lighter fluid.

When I decided I needed to reconsider things, after my initial period of dread I went back and looked back at what actually needed to change. It turned out nowhere near as much as I thought. In fact, out of fourteen chapters, I only needed to change three, and two of them in minor ways. I certainly felt a lot better about re-writing as a result.

It Doesn’t All Have To Go

Part of why it’s so difficult to come to terms with re-writes is down to the existing content. Blood, sweat and tears have been invested in the crafting of this literary piece. You can’t just discard it all and start again.

One thing that works for me is to go through with a highlighter and note the sections I like. It might be entire pages, depending on how precious I’m feeling, or it might just be a line or metaphor. Either way, when it comes to the re-write, you’ve got the best of your writing on hand to help you out.

If Word Count’s an Issue, a Re-Write Will Likely Fix It

When it came to editing one of my works in progress, I returned to chapter one, written about eighteen months beforehand, and was horrified by the word count. Twelve thousand words. What the hell did I write about? I loathe long chapters when reading. How can I not practice what I preach? It had to go. The excessive word count dictated so.

After I’d finished re-writing the chapter, the word count clocked in at three thousand four hundred. Just over three quarters less. When it came to that second version, I knew what I wanted to say. I liposuctioned the flab, stuck to the point. Now I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, the newer version is better and certainly more readable.

Ask Yourself, ‘Was This Your First Idea?’

This may just apply to me, but sometimes when mapping out a story I like my first idea so much I settle for it. What I’ve come to learn is that if I took more time to actually consider other options before deciding on a course then I’d save myself a lot of hardship down the line.

So when I get that first idea that brings so much excitement, I take more time to consider it. You’d be surprised how often that first idea now gets shelved. Try and think of as many possibilities as possible. Unless that initial idea is golden, keep on pondering.

Re-writes are neither fun nor are they simple. But when you realise that it has to be done for the sake of the story and characters, it’s certainly a sacrifice worth making. For me, one of the worst feelings imaginable would be opening my book and reading through it with regret. So I’ve come to accept that I’ll never get it right the first time, that re-writes are a part of the process. I feel it’s helped me grow as a writer. I hope these tips help you out too.

Can you relate to these things? What’s your experience of re-writing? Is it something you accept has to be done or do you resist it and write on? What approach do you take if you’re one of those fearless red-pen wielding editors? I’d love to hear your views. Please share in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, why not consider staying in touch by signing up to my mailing list? All subscribers receive a bunch of resources useful to writers, such as a free ebook on the craft, lists of publishers, and lists of book reviewers. All designed to make your life that little bit easier.


3 thoughts on “Knowing When to Re-write

  1. I’ve never EVER had to rewrite a novel. I write so linear, it’s never been an issue. I’ve deleted an occasional scene or chapter that wasn’t necessary, but before I start, I always know A and B and work from there. So far, I’ve never written myself into a trap where I had to back up and start over, not since BEFORE I started writing seriously in 1995, and then, I could barely get a short short story completed. It just doesn’t happen for me. Now, I’ve cut down on fluff, which probably isn’t quite the same as what you’re talking about. My novel Lusitania Gold, published last year, started at a little over 130K and after reading it to my writer’s group and learning my chops better, I pared it down to 97K or thereabouts. I didn’t alter the story, plot or anything vital by one bit. I just honed it, cleaned it up, I did NOT re-write it at all. There’s a big difference.

  2. Aw, shucks! I feel for you, Richie, but I guess it happens to most of us. For me, the thing is, as I get more experienced, my gut gets better too. 😀 (And I don’t just mean all the crunches I do!) When it says something, nine out of ten times it’s right. Then the real issue is listening to the gut, and acting as soon as it speaks up!

Leave a Reply

Want to become a better writer?

My treasure trove for writers will help you

✅ Get a free copy of Thoughts On Writing

✅ An invite to my online writing group (160+ active members)

✅ Writing Tools like lists of publishers and book reviewers

✅ Writing guides and strategies on book marketing and how to build a career out of your writing 

Just enter your email address below