Knowing When to Rewrite

Written by A Guest Author

By Richie Billings

I had a sickening moment not long ago. While thinking how best to put the pieces of a story together, I realized none of it worked. It was like trying to place triangles into oblongs.  Before nausea came panic, and when at last they both settled, I realized I had a decision to make. Turn back and right 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 written with less conviction and the urge to go back gnawing at me like an insatiable rat.

I caved. And I’m glad of it.

Being faced with the realization 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 just 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 I was struck by this dilemma of either writing on or going back, the idea of rewriting felt like the right thing to do, as much as I loathed it. The newer version excited me. It felt as if I’d unlocked 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 realize things need to change, despair grips you and 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 rewrites is down to the existing content. Blood, sweat and tears have been invested into the crafting of this literary jigsaw. 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 be a line or a simile 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 rewrite will likely fix it

Not so long ago I returned to chapter one of my original work in progress, written about eighteen months beforehand, and was horrified. Twelve thousand words long. 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.

After I’d finished rewriting 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 and 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 my 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 to think of as many possibilities as possible. Unless that initial idea is golden, keep on pondering and jot down every option that comes to mind.

***

Rewrites are neither fun nor are they simple. But when you realize 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 too.


Bio: Richie Billing is a writer of fantasy and historical fiction. A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook is his first foray into non-fiction and the product of years of studying the craft of writing and experiencing the peaks and troughs of the writer’s life. It came out on 12th June 2019. You can order it here.

 

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