Tag Archives: rewriting


Often when we talk about the “rewriting” stage of a manuscript, we’re really talking about editing and polishing. We take the material we’ve written and shuffle it around, cut some bits, expand others, add a scene, correct the punctuation, and so on. This is all very easy to do with a word processor.

But there can be great value in actually “rewriting” the manuscript: turning to a blank page (or opening a new document) and starting again from scratch. Most of us probably wouldn’t do this with a complete nrewritingovel manuscript (though some do, and I have). However, it may be the best approach to a scene, chapter, or short story that just isn’t working. Sometimes, the more you tinker with the draft, the worse it gets. You’re better off starting over.

One approach to rewriting is to change something quite fundamental, and see what happens. Here are a few examples:

The protagonist

Particularly in a short story, it’s easy to make too early and easy a decision about who the main character is. Perhaps, if the story is based on events that happened in your life, you’ve unconsciously selected the “you” character as the protagonist. If the story’s not working, try rewriting it with another character in the leading role – and/or from another character’s point of view.

The point of view

If you’ve written the story in first person, what happens if you change the point of view to limited third person, or omniscient third person? I once rewrote the draft of a novel from limited third person into a first person/quasi second person narrative stance, with the narrator an omniscient being observing and addressing the protagonist (a little like Death in The Book Thief, except that Death commentates on Liesel’s activities rather than speaking directly to her). I ended up changing back to limited third person, but the voice had changed for the better. My limited third person approach had been too limited. Once I allowed a few more insights into the character and her situation to shine through (insights I’d gained courtesy of my first person narrator), the text became much more lively and less opaque.

The framing device

Is this story being told by one character to another, late one night in a pub? Is it a dramatic monologue? Is it being narrated as a first-person reminiscence? Whatever the frame, if the story’s not working, a “reframe” might provide a useful starting point for a “rewrite”.

Mood and tone

Is this a serious piece, that might work better as a comic one? Or vice versa? Is the overall mood sombre or cheery? See what happens if you try for a mood or tone that contrasts with the one you’ve established in the first version. Can you, by taking a radically different approach, achieve more light and shade?


What about the language – is it generally formal, with longish and well-constructed sentences, or is it colloquial and chatty? What about the pace? Voice will of course depend heavily on the choices you’ve made above – protagonist, point of point, frame, mood and tone. But even if these remain the same as in the first version, can you rewrite using a very different voice? Try not to reuse phrases from the original.

The idea of rewriting from scratch is to free your creativity to give you something fresh and new, rather than feeling constrained by what’s already on the page. At the end of the day you’ll probably meld the two versions into something that’s stronger than either. And then it’s time for editing and polishing!


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You’re the voice

There’s an article by Tim Kroenert in this month’s WQ magazine, about audio books. Tim recommends thinking ahead about the possibility of your novel being recorded, and taking steps to retain creative control over this form.

The article reminded me of an experience I had last year, listening to authors read their own works aloud at the Griffith Review Christmas party. These were stories I’d already read on the page, but hearing them read created a whole new relationship between the text, the author, and me. The stories became more immediate, more alive.

As writers, we’re often advised to read our work-in-progress aloud, particularly to check whether dialogue sounds authentic. But it’s not just dialogue that needs to be tongue-friendly. The process of reading is essentially one of talking to ourselves – “reading aloud silently”. When reading aloud, I run out of breath if a sentence goes on too long without a comma or full stop. Silent reading doesn’t physically dictate to the breath, but psychologically I’ll still lose the thread of a poorly-punctuated sentence. Similarly, when reading aloud I’m likely to trip over a phrase with too many incompatible consonants too close together. When I’m reading silently, a phrase like that feels clumsy, and will distract me from its meaning.

Some people write by speaking the story aloud into a recorder, then coming back and turning it into written text using voice-recognition software, a transcriber, and/or their own transcription skills. They edit as they transcribe, and/or edit the transcription. I can’t imagine myself writing like this – maybe it’s a technique for extroverts. But I certainly find reading the draft aloud is a valuable tool when rewriting. It’s much easier to hear when I’m repeating myself, or giving more information than is needed.

I once arranged for a group of actors to read my husband’s draft screenplay, while he listened and took notes. He also recorded the reading so he could listen again later. This technique has obvious advantages for a screen or stageplay, which will eventually be performed by a number of people. I suspect that, even with fiction, having someone else read your work aloud sharpens your editorial ear. Like most people, I cringe at the sound of my own voice, but recording and playing back your own work is another option in the absence of a willing “performer”.

And if all these sound like good ideas you’ll never actually get around to using, consider that when you win a competition, you may be asked to read aloud from your work at the awards ceremony. Why not get in practice now?


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Leaving is fine – it’s coming back that hurts!








I read somewhere that, in ancient Greece, writers were advised to leave a “finished” piece of writing alone for nine years before coming back and editing it. Nine years might be going a bit overboard, but this is still common advice: write it, leave it alone, come back with fresh eyes and edit like it’s someone else’s writing.

I endorse this advice whole-heartedly. (You can hear the “but” coming, can’t you?) I left the first draft of my novel alone for a full three months over Christmas, and wrote a novella. Now I’ve left the novella alone for three weeks while I worked on my PhD confirmation.

Here’s the “but”. When you get back to the piece of writing you left alone, you may have one or more of the following reactions:

  • This is utter rubbish
  • What was I thinking?
  • I can’t remember why I wanted to write this in the first place
  • It really is rubbish
  • Aaaaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhh!

Before you can rewrite, you need to do a few things:

  • Reconnect with why you wanted to write this, what got you fired up about it
  • Identify the strengths – which parts do work, what aspects have merit?
  • Ask yourself whether there’s one overriding problem that’s causing your negative reaction. That’s probably the place to start reworking

For my novel, surprisingly, I did have to reformulate why I cared. Spending a year on the first draft had me bogged down in technical issues; I knew I was passionate about the story, but couldn’t have told you succinctly why. I think I can now.

Identifying the strengths wasn’t too difficult – I like all the characters, still love the setting, the dialogue and description are generally strong, and the second half flows quite well though it’s a bit rushed at the end.

The overriding problem was easy to identify, too, because my five test readers all said the same thing: they couldn’t get a handle on the protagonist. The rewrite must start with letting readers into the protagonist’s head in a way that enlists their sympathy. My problem here is the balance between trusting the reader to do the work, and giving them enough information to work with. I’m also struggling with the idea of “show don’t tell”. With internal monologue, telling is showing if you do it right – but despite reading many many examples of great writing, I still can’t work out how to do it right. Advice, anyone?

The novella is a little different. I know why I’m passionate about telling the story, so that’s not a problem. I’m having trouble identifying strengths in the writing because I’m overwhelmed by what’s wrong with it. The main problem is something to do with pace and momentum in combination with tension. The writing seems to gloss over the story; too much happens too fast with not enough tension or emotional engagement. The result is a story that feels glib and pat, when it should feel complex and powerful. Individually, the events of the plot are believable. The characters are realistic. But something about the way I’m telling the story is failing to do justice to the characters and what they go through from beginning to end. I need to find ways to deepen the reader’s engagement with the characters without slowing the story to a plodding pace. I suspect it needs to be significantly longer – too much happens in 19,000 words – but the last thing I want to do is create “padding”. Again, I’m very open to suggestions and advice from you, wonderful fellow-writers :-).

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