Bird by bird: the fine art of rewriting

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I was having a conversation with some other writers on Twitter today about the business of rewriting, and it came up that while there’s initial drafting advice in spades, knowing how to rewrite seems to be a skill that’s harder to come by. I said that I’m actually still afraid of it in a lot of respects, and I am – I just scrapped two novels (in fairness, I now think that was a necessary move in both cases) in order to start from scratch because working through it in a more piece-oriented way was too scary an idea.

But like all aspects of the craft, it’s something at which I’m really trying to get better. So here, if it’s at all helpful, are what I think are some good general tips for rewriting something.

(I should note that, like all writing advice, none of this will work for everyone all the time. Writing is such an individual activity – everyone has their own approach, and every project is at least slightly different, which means they have different requirements. So take or leave any of this as it’s useful or not.)

So.

  • Write. Pretty basic, but sometimes surprisingly hard – I’ve heard others say and have experienced myself that fear of having to rewrite can actually keep one from writing at all. You can’t edit something that doesn’t exist. So you have to get that something out there on the table first.
  • Don’t panic. Again, basic, but sometimes very hard. It’s so easy to look at a writing project that needs a lot of work – especially something the length of a novel – and feel utterly overwhelmed. That’s a natural way to feel, but it’s also your enemy. Fear is the mindkiller. Along those lines:
  • Take it bird by bird. I keep name-dropping Anne Lamott and there’s a reason for that: she’s right about a lot. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her, from which she draws the title of her “instructions on writing and life”:

    Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

  • That said, don’t be afraid to throw it all out. Because sometimes that really is necessary. Like I said, in the last year I had to confront that not one but two novels – novels that I loved, that I worked so hard on – just didn’t work. As they were, they didn’t do what they needed to do. Tweaking here and there wouldn’t get the job done, at least not done enough. 90% of them needed to go. So I did that, and it turns out to have been the right move. That’s rewriting so extensive that you actually end up circling back around to point #1, and I don’t always recommend it, but sometimes it really is what needs to be done.
  • Don’t get intimidated by structure. One of the things that makes rewriting so intimidating for me is that I don’t think about plots in very structural ways. I usually work from only very rough outlines, and my plots develop organically. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, if that’s how you write best, but it does mean that the entire thing can end up feeling like a Jenga tower – you didn’t go through with a very clear top-down sense of how it was all working, because you were immersed much more in the way a reader might be, so it can be scary to imagine pulling out the blocks and putting them in new places. But your book is not a Jenga tower. It’s a book. No change you make is necessarily permanent. If you do something and it doesn’t work, you can go back to an earlier version (provided you save multiple versions throughout the editing process, which you should really do). You cannot destroy your book. There is nothing you can possibly do to it that is irreparable. For all intents and purposes, though you can make detrimental changes, the thing itself is indestructible.
  • Solicit feedback and listen to it. That’s not to say that you should always agree. I once walked away from a book contract because the changes that I was going to be required to make were not good changes and would not have made the book better. I have no doubt to this day that doing so was the right decision, though it was extremely hard. But if someone tells you something and you do disagree, take some very serious inventory regarding the source of your disagreement. Is it because you really believe it would be a bad change? Or is it because it would be a lot of work, or it bruises your ego? I have disregarded feedback for both (bad) reasons, and it’s something I’ve had to learn to recognize in myself.
  • Don’t put it off. This is a hugely important point for any large project. Because the longer you put off doing something, the more you forget what it actually looks like, and that’s when it starts to take on monstrous proportions in your head. Your imagining of a project is always orders of magnitude more intimidating than it actually is. The more time away from it you spend, the more intimidating it will get, and the more you’ll avoid it. Start editing early, and work at it consistently. Keep yourself familiar with your project. Keep yourself on task. But:
  • Give yourself a little distance. There should ideally be a break between the first and second drafts. I generally try to keep mine to at least a week. This is simply because by the time you’re done with a big thing, you’re too close to see it clearly. You need to come back to it with fresh eyes. This break period is also a good time to cast around for people you trust to give you feedback. Just don’t let the break turn into avoidance.
  • Set deadlines and stick to them – which means don’t come in too far under or too far over. This will help you with avoidance. It will also help you pace yourself and keep from feeling crushed under the weight of what you have to do. Give yourself enough time that you can work at it steadily a bit at a time rather than trying to tackle it all at once. I struggle with this, and with the ensuing burnout. Take it bird by bird.
  • Try to remember why you wanted to write it in the first place. There’s nothing that kills enthusiasm for a project like a huge amount of time spent working on it. Again, this is true for so many things besides writing. I think everyone who writes a novel goes through at least a brief period where they just hate the thing. In the rewriting phase, try to find the things you love, not just the things that need work. Focus on the elements of it that are strong, and build the edits around that. Take pleasure in what you’ve created, and in how much better you can make it.

I think this last is probably the most important. Inspiration is never something on which you should depend in order to complete something the size of a novel, but the love of what you’re doing that accompanies inspiration can be a powerful motivator, and it can carry you through hard times. In fact, in my experience, loving a book is sort of like loving a person. There’s the first flush of infatuation, where everything is intense and wonderful. Then things cool off, and you really get to know them, which involves seeing their flaws and the less than lovely things about them, but which also gives you a deeper appreciation for everything you loved about them in the first place, and often reveals new and beautiful aspects of who they are as people. If all goes well, if you’re really a good match, you love the person and then you love the person. I usually find that getting to the end of a book is the same. I may be impatient, frustrated, infuriated, and we might have to have some difficult conversations. We may fight. But at the end of it, I really love it, and I know it so well. That love can carry you through a relationship, and it can carry you through a book.

Be kind to your book. Be kind to you. Go and write.

One response to “Bird by bird: the fine art of rewriting

  1. The thought of a rewrite is frightening. After spending so much time on a draft, the thought of scrapping it and starting over is extremely daunting. The doubt is always lurking…what if I can’t make it any better? I experienced this with my first manuscript but I did it. And it is so much better than what I first wrote. Once I got started, everything flowed. I understood my characters better, I had better direction for the story…it was a million times better, more satisfying and whole. I hate the thought of going through the same angst again, but at the end of the day my job is to make the story as compelling as possible. If that means I need to rewrite, then so be it!

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