You’ve finally finished a draft of that short story or novel you’ve been working on. You breathe a sigh of relief, save the file, and start celebrating. Congratulations, you’ve gotten further than many people who aspire to be writers. But don’t pop that champagne yet because you’re just getting started. Novelists and short story writers don’t publish first drafts. They don’t even submit them unless they’ve already sold so well in the past that editors will buy whatever kind of dribble they send out. In fact, writers don’t often publish second drafts.
Writing fiction is a process. You've done most of the construction but you aren't quite done. The first draft is a foundation. It lays out ideas and develops characters. The good news is that the first draft gets almost all the grunt work out of the way. The rewriting process is entirely creative. All of the research is done and the strengths and weaknesses of the story are in front of you. Because you’ve done the hard work you’re ready to polish and develop the idea.
Reinventing the wheel
Rewriting should not be the intimidating part of the process but for some people it is. Some writers look back at what they’ve done and are afraid that they’re out of ideas. They think, “this is the story. This is the only thing the story can be.” In other words, they don’t want to reinvent the wheel.
Consider this: The wheel has been, and is still being, reinvented. If a car shows up on the market with roughly carved stone wheels, no one will buy it. The wheel needed to be reinvented and even though it has the same shape, it’s exponentially better.
The same is true for your story. It will probably have the same structure when it’s rewritten because you’re working with the same idea, but the themes are more developed, you’ve eliminated the clutter, taken out the dead weight, and you’ve made the content more valuable. Reinventing is inventing. Rewriting is writing.
Rewriting vs. Editing
So you’ve taken some time after the first draft is done to let it settle. You now can come back and see it with a fresh perspective. When rewriting don’t worry about spelling and grammar. That’s for the editing process. You're rewriting, not editing. It’s okay to correct problems when you see them but don’t become preoccupied. If you’re focused on the grammar and spelling mistakes that you’ve inevitably made, then you thinking like an editor, not a creative writer. Go through the draft and look at the main elements. Is your plot believable? No matter what type of fiction you’re writing the plot has to be believable. Even in a fantasy world things have to happen for a reason. You can’t simply have a character turn a different color in every chapter because you want him to. You have to explain why he does it and how it happens.
Are you’re characters pushing the action forward or reacting to events? There are points in every story where it’s okay for the characters to react and there are times when they need to be proactive. If you find that your character is simply reacting to a series of coincidences, look for ways that he or she (or it) can push the action on his or her (or its) own.
What are the main themes and how are they coming through? Look at the ways the themes you set out with are working and not working. Did the technique or scenes you used really address these themes? After you have a first draft written you may discover themes that you didn’t originally have in mind. That’s good. It means your story has a life of its own. Find the places where those themes come out and ask what the importance is. Are there other places that you could use that theme to add more gravity to your writing? Make notes and highlight lines.
Where can you add and where do you cut? Mel Brooks told Gene Wilder when they were working on the screenplay for Young Frankenstein that he had to take a sledgehammer to every scene. If it cracked at all, he had to throw it out. Listen to Mel Brooks. It helped Gene Wilder and it will make you a better writer too.
Return To The Scene(s)
So now you’ve found the scenes in your story that need to be developed and the scenes that need to be eliminated. Open a blank word processor page or get a blank piece of paper and write a new scene. Write as many new scenes as you need and print them. Now comes the little bit of grunt work that you have left.
Retype the whole thing, deleting or inserting scenes where necessary. It’s irritating, I know, but it will help you get into the flow of the story. Even though you aren’t focusing on them, you’re going to catch a lot of your grammatical mistakes while you’re doing it. Retyping is better than the cut and paste method for a three reasons. 1. It will help you keep a consistent flow and rhythm in your story. 2. It gives you an even better idea of what’s working and what isn’t as far as themes, characters, and plot. 3. It makes you interact with the story in a way that reading doesn’t.
Repeat as Necessary
The more times you rewrite, the better the story gets. Some authors go through three drafts, some go through ten or more. You’ll get better and faster every time because each draft polishes the story a bit more. A good story is alive and can change and grow with every draft.
Warning: Don’t become the blonde in the shower. She used an entire bottle of shampoo because the instructions said, “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.” Eventually your writing needs to go out into the world. Many authors get attached to their story and think, “it’s not ready yet. I can do better.” At some point the story doesn’t get any better, it just changes. Once you’ve overcome the major problems, start sending it out. You’ve created something that needs to be shared with the world.
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