The first draft: is never the finished version of any piece of writing. At best, it’s a clear preliminary sketch of what the final product might look like. At worst, the writing may be so poor that it’ll put you off from making the changes that may well result in an effective and enjoyable story.
In the first instance: give yourself perspective/distance from the first draft. Don’t go straight back into making revisions; leave the writing for a few days at least. Even better, print a copy of the first draft off and then don’t read it. Wait. The longer you can wait, the better the final result. Why? Because you need to be able to approach rewriting with a clear mind, so that you can work with the ideas that are on the page, not the ideas that you remember writing. Also, in the gap between first and second drafts, a tiny proportion of your brain will be ticking over thinking about how to improve the first draft. You might get little flashes of inspiration, plot ideas, better twists, neater phrases. Be open to these, and record the ideas as they come to you.
Then go back to work.
Rewriting tip 1: work from a print copy wherever possible. This gives you distance from the work in hand and also it allows you to express yourself on the paper. Try it. The experience will be a little like doing a crossword puzzle. It’s a good feeling.
Rewriting tip 2: read the original work out aloud, in a steady, even tone. Act it out if you like, particularly if you’re imparting physical action or emotions. Make notes where and when the writing doesn’t work. Only after you’ve re-read the first draft and made some notes on the paper printout of the draft are you ready to begin work in earnest.
Rewriting tip 3: consider the story. Does the story work? If not, what’s wrong? Be honest with yourself. Make changes. If the tale relies on a twist, does it work? A twist should be both logical and surprising, so have you planted sufficient seeds to make the twist work and covered your tracks into the bargain? Then look at the beginning of the story. Can you start the story later? There’s often a tendency to write our way into first drafts. Is there early exposition that can be either integrated into the meat of the story or, better, be cut altogether?
Rewriting tip 4: consider the characters. Is it clear who your protagonist is? Have they changed from where they were at the beginning of the story to where we find them at the story’s end? Are there too many supporting characters? If so, can characters be combined or cut out to give greater clarity to the story? How efficiently are the characters drawn? What can you cut? Also, consider dialogue. Early drafts are often undernourished in terms of dialogue. As people, we’re interested in human interaction, in conflict and in listening in on the private lives of others. Stories told through dialogue satisfy all these desires.
Rewriting tip 5: work in layers. Stories communicate in five layers:
1. The story as a whole
2. Each scene in turn
3. Paragraph by paragraph
4. Sentence by sentence
5. Word by word
Revise your story on a level basis: story, then scene, then paragraph, then sentence, then word. We’ve dealt with the story layer above. Let’s look at the others.
Scene: a scene is a unified sequence of story (in time and place). Many short stories are told in one scene (a conversation, for example) . If we move time and/or place, we’ve got yourselves a new scene. Questions to ask: does each scene justify its place in the story? Does something happen in each scene to drive the story and/or at least the protagonist onwards? If not, what can be cut or amalgamated into another scene?
Paragraph: a paragraph is a piece of writing within a scene that’s unified by subject or character. This is why we have a new paragraph for each new speaker in a conversation exchange, for example. Questions to ask: is your paragraphing accurate? Is every paragraph necessary? What can you do to make the paragraph service the story as a whole, rather than being a stand-alone bit of writing that doesn’t move things along?
The rest of this piece will look at sentence and word levels of rewriting.
Rewriting tip 6: be active in your writing. Cats sit on mats. First drafts often read passively as they’re often conversational in tone, and in speech we’re thinking up as we’re going. Be prepared to find, when you’re rewriting, that there’s rather too much passive rewriting. If in doubt, rewrite the sentence so that it’s active. Apply this rule to dialogue tags as well. “Bob said” rather than “said Bob” wherever you’re using dialogue attributions.
Rewriting tip 7: adverbs and adjectives – knowing your enemies. Ask yourself a question each time you’ve used either an adverb or an adjective.
Adverb: these qualifiers act to modify a verb (in the example “she walked quickly”, the last word is the adverb). When we’re speaking, adverbs are handy because we can alter and focus our meaning by correcting what we say as we’re talking. On paper, the writing needs to be right. Solution? Choose a more specific verb (“she strode” perhaps, rather than “she walked quickly”). Think of adverbs as a weapon of last resort; only use them when you need to, not just because you can.
Adjectives: these describing words can add handy and precise detail, but too are too often over-employed. Think of adjectives like seasoning; use them to enhance the writing. Again, over-use comes from being reliant on speech-modes when writing. We use adjectives in speech often but in written prose we should use them only when they’re necessary to the story, the character or the setting.
Rewriting tip 8: being aware of hyperbole. Don’t exaggerate in your writing. Pay particular attention to physical description, and to similes and metaphors; is the writing controlled and accurate, or is it too much? Be particularly aware of this when revising first-person writing because it’s easy sometimes to let the character take on a life of her/his own.
Rewriting tip 9: look for repetition. We all have verbal tics, favourite words and phrases, recurring ideas and images that we call upon. Scrutinise your work so that these aren’t infecting and multiplying across your writing. In first drafts, these may make themselves evident. In second and later drafts, the task is to destroy that evidence.
Rewriting tip 10: check and check again. This applies to factual information, to any detail that’s researched. Is the story right? There’s no excuse in making things up when you can save yourself the embarrassment at being incorrect with a quick fact-check. Check your spellings and punctuation. If you’re not sure, then seek advice. Make sure that you’re consistent in your layout. Follow any house rules for layout for magazine/competition submissions to the letter. Beware of homophones and of differences between American and British spellings. Don’t rely on the inbuilt spellchecker in your word processing program. You’re a writer you should a) know these things for yourself and b) want to make your writing better.
Rewriting tip 11: be wary of “writing”. If you want to be a poet, go and write some poetry. Your job is to tell the story, not to draw attention to your vocabulary, your facility in inventing complex comparisons or your personal taste for baroque sentence construction. The great thriller writer Elmore Leonard says: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”. So should you.
Rewriting tip 12: writing is rewriting, so get used to it. Rewriting is where writing comes alive. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.
Rewriting tip 13: be prepared to be brutal. If in doubt, cut. Look again at dialogue tags, for example. Only keep the ones you need to orient the reader as to who’s saying what.
Rewriting tip 14: watch for cliches. Cliches may well form part of the first draft, and if they’re useful in getting a vague idea of what you want to say down on paper, then that’s okay. But treat cliche as placeholder text only. In the rewrites, find another way of getting the same idea across. There’s perhaps an exception if you’ve got a character who speaks in cliché, but be very careful of overuse here.
Rewriting tip 15: go for simple. Use the simplest means at your/your characters’ disposal to express yourself. There are no prizes for polysyllabalism here. Cats sit on mats. Mammalian felines do not perch upon Axminster offcuts.
The overall effect should be that your prose is invisible. We want the reader to be engrossed in your characters and the story, and not distracted by the way you’re communicating that story and those characters to them. Anything that gets between the reader and your made-up world is wrong, so make sure that you’ve done all that’s in your power to make your story as strong as it can be.
Rewriting tip 16: do it again. There’s no absolute protocol on how many passes it’ll take to have your story completed, but I’d suggest this as one possible model.
First draft: write it. It’s okay if it’s messy as long as the ideas are there.Then wait as long as you can (and never less than a week) before reading it.
Second draft: focus on structural fixes, on fact-checking, on researched detail, on layout, spelling and punctuation. The completed second draft should look and feel like a story. Focus here on the story and scene level of writing.
Third draft: now think in terms of words, sentences, paragraphs. Question everything that you’ve done.
1. Does each sentence work?
2. Does each sentence work well?
3. Have you done all that you can do to make the sentence as clear, simple and as relevant to plot and character as you can?
4. If it can be done better, do it better.
Fourth draft: re-read the story again out loud. Be honest with yourself. Make a checklist of the fixes that you need to do. Make a second list of the items you left off the first list. Now make the fixes. All of them.
Fifth draft: repeat the fourth draft steps until both lists come up empty after your re-read.
Now get your story out into the world. It doesn’t fully become a story until it a) reaches a readership and b) readers begin to respond.
Rewriting tip 17: read more. You’re not reading enough. Go and read some more. And in particular, read writers who are alive, active and who are having their work published now. By doing this, you’ll absorb more of current conventions in story structure, in effective characterisation, in layout, in communication, in pace, in the use of humour, in genre sensibilities. Read around fiction as well; reviews, book sections in newspapers, industry magazines and websites, author websites, blogs and twitter feeds. Read publisher and agent websites, magazine sites. Know your potential markets and your potential readerships. Read in and around your subject areas / genres / comparator authors, but take time to read more widely as well. Read how-to books as well; you’ll pick up plenty of good ideas along the way. Get a feel for what published writers do, the ways they do, and the reasons why they do.
Notes: these notes are a synthesis of many sources and my own ideas and observations. What’s encouraging is that, when reading textbooks, articles, writer memoirs and craft how-to books, how the same notions repeat. Which ones work for you? And why?