My 7th grade language arts teacher had a red poster of a lion hugging a piece of paper as little pink hearts floated around his mane. Below the lion were the words NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. I (obviously) never forgot that image but at the time I thought it meant reading a draft over once—or twice if I was being really good—before hitting print or send. In actuality, it means making time for the work of rewriting. When I figured this out, my first thoughts were: Psh! That’s too much work and my stuff’s great first time ‘round!
No, it wasn’t, and it still isn’t.
So, instead of falling victim to one of the classic blunders, don’t fall in love with your first draft and learn to rewrite. Like me, the first thing you’ll have to figure out is: what is rewriting?
Rewriting is an integral and intensive part of the writing process that deals with the adding, deleting, and rearranging of words, phrases, sentences, entire paragraphs, and (in some very distressing cases) the entire paper or manuscript. This is called revising when it’s minor and rewriting when it’s a major overhaul. So how do we rewrite?
Take a break. After that first draft has been written, put it aside for at least a day. The more time you have between the first draft and rewriting, however, the better, and I recommend at least a week.
Now that an acceptable amount of time has passed, you can come to your piece with fresh, objective eyes. Read it over, noting any point where you are confused, where information is missing, or something just doesn’t work. Say, a character’s behavior is inconsistent or you pulled in evidence that hurts your argument. These need to be fixed. Do this several times with short breaks in between each reading session.
Once you can read the piece over without stopping a million times to make corrections, take it to someone else to read. Preferably, read it aloud to that person, because then you’ll hear the nonsense coming out your own mouth, be quite surprised at how erudite you sound, or, more likely, flip-flop between the two.
Rewrite again, having caught all of the pieces that don’t make sense, need to be expanded, or are superfluous. Once you get to the point where you’re no longer making major changes but minor ones, you’ve hit revising. If you have time, have someone else look it over again, but if not, read it once or twice more and then send it off.
- “Kill Off the Little Darlings”: These are the pieces of writing that we perceive as (or know to be) little strokes of brilliance that just don’t fit no matter how hard we try. Delete them mercilessly. They will never fit. Trust me, I’ve tried.
- Print a hardcopy: Reading something on a computer screen generally leads to two things: distraction (chess! Wikipedia! Netflix!) and a focus on the small picture. A hardcopy, however, keeps our focus longer while also emphasizing the big picture that rewriting is all about.
- Time:The more important the project is to you, the more time you want to put between drafts and the more work you’ll want to put into rewriting. For instance, I never worked on a grad paper longer than a week (sans research), but I worked on my Master’s thesis for a year because I put at least a month in between finishing a chapter and picking it back up again and this had to happen several times.
- Accept Criticism: We all want to cry, scream, and/or sink into a hole when we hear criticism on our writing. However, nine times out of ten, the critic is right. But we only see this when we’ve gone back to the draft after time. Then you think, “Yup, that jerk was right. Well damn.” After accepting this disappointment, make the recommended changes and rewrite some more.
- Don’t over think it: You CAN overwork a piece of writing. This is another reason why you need time in between rewriting sessions. It will keep you from overworking something and having to dig out an old copy of the draft, because once it’s overworked, there’s little hope.