Rewriting vs. Revising (with an addendum on the virtues of Thought)

I'm in the rewriting stage of my novel The Crow Murders — not the revision stage. The difference is one of degree, the degree to which I intend to make structural changes. I define a structural change as a change that affects the book's overall structure. So, combining two characters into one (something I've never done, but a common example) would, unless they are very minor characters, be a structural change. (More commonly, I have reassigned a character's “work” in the book to another character.) Another example of a structural change would be to add or eliminate a chapter or a number of scenes. What I'm mostly doing with The Crow Murders is shortening, lengthening, adding, removing, and reordering scenes for the purposes of generating suspense.

So I'm rewriting, not revising what I already have or otherwise fine-tuning it. I have a fairly detailed process for this, which is funny because I have no real process for writing my first draft. First, I create a structural analysis of the book. So I write on a file card (I actually use a program called SuperNotecard for this purpose) a quick sentence to describe each chapter, and each scene, with a tally of what major characters appear in the scene, what important objects appear there, what happens, and how long the scene is. After I'm done this, I have in front of me a map of the book. I then make major editing decisions on the basis of this card set.

The point of this activity is to manufacture objectivity. If you're a writer, you've heard the advice about leaving your manuscript in a drawer for a year or a month or whatever, to gain some distance and objectivity. I don't have time for that bullshit. Objectivity can be manufactured or learnt. I have no patience for quasi-mystical attitudes towards writing, or related rituals. Even though this advice, to put the manuscript in the drawer, is good advice in one respect, it is bad advice in many other respects. What you gain you gain by forgetting about the manuscript, and the story, and this forgetting can be the wellspring of other problems. If you have a hard time being objective about your writing (and who doesn't?) then the solution is not to ride jetskis for three months while it collects dust. The solution is to learn to become more objective about your writing.

When I'm done making decisions on the basis of the notecards, I will begin retyping the manuscript. Yes. Retyping. I start a new file and retype the entire book, rewriting as I go. This is slow and difficult. Nevertheless, I would recommend it if you are like me in this sense: when I try rewrite on a computer, I often slip out of rewriting mode and into revision mode. There are already words on the screen, and since I'm just changing words, I start revising. I hold back from rewriting. I try to make what's there better, instead of throwing it away. I find when I retype in a new file, I make more changes to the original draft (which I print and put on the desk in front of me). Sometimes, I'll just retype verbatim. But mostly I add, remove, reword, and otherwise rewrite. The next sentence or paragraph is not already on the screen in front of me, so it is easier for me to invent and create, since I don't feel shackled to the words I already wrote.

If you haven't tried retyping, try it once. And if you're putting your manuscript in a drawer, to collect dust, take it out. Just look at it and think about it, the way any rational person would.

Writers try to solve a lot of problems with waiting, problems which are better solved by thought. “I don't know what to write next!” Think about it. Figure it out. “I don't know how to make this book better!” Um, might I suggest that you think about it? I don't mean idle thoughts while you stroll in a flowered field. I mean, sit down (or walk around that field) and put some serious hours of thought into the problem. Consider various options. Weigh the pros and cons. Try things out, experiment with options. Action and thought trump the drawer every time.

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Jonathan Ball is a writer, filmmaker, and scholar living at www.jonathanball.com.

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5 thoughts on “Rewriting vs. Revising (with an addendum on the virtues of Thought)

  1. I’ve never thought of retyping my entire manuscript. I’m currently completing a hugs revision, which in the end was probably more like a rewriting.
    I’m going to keep this idea in mind for the future.
    Good luck with, The Crow Murders.

  2. This is another superbly useful post. Thank you. I’m sticking to my deadline of getting my novel out this week (thanks to your other ‘Sucks’ post & Heinlein’s Rules kick) but I’ve already downloaded the notecard program and will start using it.

    I’m better at getting my poetry out there (though I am an obsessive editor) but I will admit I’ve been hoarding my novel. Probably in part because it felt unwieldy–too big for me to feel I knew it well enough to let it go, if you know what I mean.

    That’s why I like your notecard/chapter outline idea. I’ll get back to work on my next novel next week. And will apply.

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