Monday, September 6, 2010

Edits, Revisions and Rewrites (Oh, My)

Writing the first draft of a novel can be thrilling. When a writer feels inspired the words flow. Every word seems a treasure. The writing experience can be equal to Cinderella’s exquisite night at the ball.

Once the euphoria of completing the first draft ebbs, and the manuscript has rested in its cozy little file for a few weeks, the author returns to her novel to continue the writing process. It’s time to do the first read through and fix the little typos and inconsistencies, spelling errors and poorly-worded phrases which are likely to be found in the otherwise perfect gem she created during her weeks of inspiration. In other words, she needs to edit her masterpiece.

Sometimes this return to the book she’s been proud of for weeks or months can be a shocking experience. Sometimes it can be horrifying! Instead of discovering a healthy, bouncy newborn living and breathing in the manuscript she labored to write, the novelist finds an octogenarian existing solely on life support.

Cinderella’s clock has struck midnight, and it’s time for revisions.

Unlike edits which are minor changes as noted above, revisions may require anything from major changes in the plot to cutting unnecessary scenes and characters.

Rewriting and revising may be used interchangeably by some in the writing business; however, revising generally implies something a bit more labor-intensive.

Rewriting refers to such things as taking a paragraph or scene from the “telling” state to the “showing” state or changing a narrative part of a story to a scene.

In case this seems a bit muddled for beginning writers, let me give some examples to illustrate my points.

What is meant by changing “telling” to “showing” in rewriting: If the original prose says, “Mary told Ted she was leaving because she couldn’t handle his humming anymore. Ted was glad to see her go.” the scene becomes:

“I’ve had it, Ted. I can’t stand that never-ending humming another minute!”

“What humming?”

“Your humming! You never stop! I can’t stand it!”

“I’ve been humming? I never noticed.”

Mary gave him a look that would frighten a gorgon. “I’m out of here!”

Ted scratched his head and grinned at the slammed door. “I wondered how long it would take her to get ticked off enough to leave.”

The above example is also an illustration of changing narrative (Mary told Ted she was…) into a scene. Rewriting would include doing the reverse to change a scene into narrative. Instead of creating a scene which may not be necessary because it would only slow the pace of the story without adding a lot of important information, the writer may choose to merely state the necessary information, particularly when transitioning from one scene to another.

Revision example: Character inconsistencies. If the first half of a novel clearly portrays a major character as strong and forceful and the second half portrays him as barely being able to decide whether he wants pie or cake for dessert, the book needs major revisions. The author will have to rewrite every scene featuring this character in order to be sure he has a consistent personality. When she does, what she rewrites will inevitably affect other characters’ actions/reactions and perhaps even the action of the plot. Thus the storyline, characters, many aspects of the book are in for big revisions. I don’t even want to think about the work involved in this type of necessary revision!

Revisions, rewrites and edits are all a part of taking a manuscript from first draft to publication. All are necessary; none are as much fun as writing the first draft, in my opinion. But if we writers want to go from first draft to publication, we’ve got to be willing to put in the time and energy necessary to make our books the best they can be.
Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Triple Award-Winning FOR LOVE OF MAGGIE by Fran Shaff
is now available in paperback at
and in e-book at


Loretta C. Rogers said...

Excellent post, Fran. Great example, too. In relooking at my WIP, I discovered a huge time sequence problem. Rewrites, edits, etc. there are all goo. Oh, and the part about the guy whistling, sounds just like my DH.

Fran Shaff said...

Thanks, Loretta. Funny about your DH whistling. Good luck with the rewrites on your WIP.

Elisabeth Rose said...

Great points, Fran.
Timelines are my weak link :)eg People's ages and the time between events. I have to sit there with a calendar and count weeks and days or whatever to make sure the season matches with the timeframe so I don't write an eleven month pregnancy or something LOL
I've also been known to change a minor character's name or the spelling of a name mid story. A new guy pops up and I think 'Who on earth is that?' Turns out he's the brother with a new name.

So careful, focussed revising is important!

Sandy Cody said...

So true - everything you said about revising, rewriting, etc. I think in many cases the time spent rooting out the small flaws is the difference between a so-so book and a great one. Loved the example of turning a telling scene into a showing one. Well done!

I.J. Parnham said...

Nice post. I've never in my own mind thought up different names for different types of rewriting; it's all redrafting to me and I can end up making big changes at any stage. Everything ultimately is connected. Expand just one scene with a little showing and suddenly the story is a little slower, the pacing is a little slower and a major plot twist happens a little later, which could mean shortening a later scene, which then leads to something else being changed...

Oddly, I enjoy rewriting more than the initial blue sky banging down of words.

Kathye Quick said...

Always a big sigh when the first draft is done; a bigger one when the revisions are done!

I always find holes that need plugging. I suppose we writers just think so far ahead, that we need to go back and read the whole thing after putting it down for a week.

Great post!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Fran, Great post and informative.

Personally, I'm like I.J. I like the rewriting. Its like a big puzzle and it always makes the story better. smile

You made some great points. Thanks again.

Anyone want some coffee?
I have a pot of chocolate velvet to share.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Thanks, Fran. One of my least favorite things to read is TELLING and SHOWING. For example:
Mary pounded on the desk. "You are such an idiot." She was really angry.

Trust the reader to figure this out!


Fran Shaff said...

Elisabeth, you are so right about time lines and character inconsistencies.

Sandy, it's surprising how even small changes can make so-so books into great ones.

I.J. and Jane, also good points.

Thanks so much for all your comments.