To the Far West: Writing is Rewriting

Last time I ended up with a shitty first draft. And it was shitty — I changed my mind in the middle of the story twice, I didn’t like the name of one of the characters after I typed it out a dozen times, and overall the whole thing was a mess. So now it was time to make it better.

First off, I should mention that I generally write first drafts in plain text, either using WriteMonkey on the PC, or PlainText on my iPad. I do this because both work well with DropBox (so I can move between software packages as needed), both have just enough features to be useful, and both lack a particular feature — easy ability to jump around in the manuscript. If it’s irritating to scroll back a few pages and check something, I’m more likely to just push forward, which is what I want for the first draft.

At this stage, though, I need to jump around and edit, so I saved the whole thing as a Word document.1 The second draft was very simple — I took the comments I made to myself in square brackets and turned them into Word comments (getting them out of my text), and did a quick readthrough to get rid of grammatical errors and insert styles. Again, this is where the plain text draft helps me — since I can’t bold or italicize in plain text, I have to do this pass to make sure my formatting is accurate. I also found a few more notes of things to correct, and culled a couple of notes that were redundant.

I then broke my notes up into two categories: local and global. Local comments related to a particular scene or chunk of the manuscript (like “make sure to reference the detective’s bag here”), while global comments were things I needed to check against the whole manuscript (like “avoid an over-reliance on eyes,” which is a tell2 of mine). Draft three then was taking on the local comments, and draft four was taking on the global comments. Finally, draft five was an overall polish and revision. Sometimes I do additional polish and revision drafts, but time was running out and I was getting a bit sick of looking at it, so I kept it to one pass.

It might seem counter-intuitive to change small things before large things, but it actually makes sense to me. If there’s a large thing that really needs to change first (like the character’s name I mentioned), odds are I’ve already decided that it needs to change, and I’ll do that in the second draft as I’m working my way through. If it’s really big, I have scrapped part (or all) of a first draft to address the problem, because usually if it’s that huge, I’ve written myself into some kind of corner. Either way, those kinds of problems never make it past draft two, so by starting small and working my way up, I’m fixing more urgent problems, and then making sure that it all fits together nicely later. If I went the other way around, it’s possible that my small fixes would break something larger in the manuscript, and I wouldn’t notice it.

Also, a trick I’ve picked up from when I was podcasting Whitechapel: for my polish pass, I read the story out loud to myself. I have caught so many errors and style flubs through this one technique that I simple cannot imagine writing fiction anymore without doing this step. It takes longer (and in my case, makes your wife look at you a bit strangely), but it really does work.

And so, five drafts later, I have the first draft for the editor. In the past editors have either taken my first draft entirely or made minor edits without needing my input, but I never assume that. I always expect that I will have to do even more revisions based on editorial feedback, which might include going back to draft one.

Writing is rewriting. Lots and lots of rewriting.

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  1. I have in the past used other software like OpenOffice for this stage, but I find myself coming back to Word time and again.
  2. A tell is what I call a quirk of style that comes up time and again. Once in a while it’s clever and interesting, but most of the time as a writer you want to reduce your tells as much as you would when playing poker.