Fiction writing: The importance of rewriting

MOST new writers publish their novel too soon. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there” by self-publishing it. These writers saddled themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Jeez, isn’t there enough stress in life already?

So why do they do this? Award-winning novelist Lawrence Block got to the crux of the matter, I believe, when he said, “Too many writers don’t want to write, they want to have written.”

Have written.

Think about this. Do these writers take their work seriously enough to want to improve their craft? Or do they just want to be able to call themselves an “author” and impress their friends?

Successful novelists all agree that writing is rewriting. Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He also called a first draft his “junk pile,” meaning that his initial finished version of anything was the raw material through which he could sift for whatever might be good enough to keep. His junk-pile metaphor encapsulates the most painful truth that any aspiring novelist has to learn: A novel isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Hemingway said, “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”

D.H. Lawrence rewrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover three times. Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. J.K. Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of her first book fifteen times. For one story that was 20,000 words when finished, James Thurber wrote a total of 240,000 words and fifteen different versions.

Some quotes on rewriting

“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.” — Sol Stein

“A first draft is nothing more than raw potential; to rewrite is to take that potential and use it to create a complete story or novel, which is just as much an art form as a painting or a symphony.” — James Thurber

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Fantasy writer Patricia Fuller

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

“Writing is rewriting. Books are not written—they’re rewritten.” — Michael Crichton

Don’t allow your excitement and impatience to get your book published compel you to do so before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you give your manuscript a superficial rereading and how many friends and writing group members read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least twice. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for a heavy dose of disappointment and embarrassment when readers trash your work with one- and two-star reviews on Amazon. Read some of those bad reviews—the ones NOT written by friends, family members, and family pets—and you will occasionally find ones that say the book needed to be edited. I’m pretty sure that any reader who says this is not a professional editor. Mature readers can easily identify a poorly written, unedited book. Bad reviews will kill your sales.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the writing process. Be patient. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run. Do you really want to “waltz out of the house in your underwear”?

If rewriting seems like too much trouble to you, ask yourself: Do I want to write, or do I want to have written?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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