To re or not to re

To re- or not to re-write, that is.*

We all know we’re supposed to. We pick up advice from classes or workshops or writers' groups: hash out the first version and then return to do the real work, the work of uncovering what it is we’re really trying to say. Chisel away the unnecessary dross or fill in colour. Whether we’re adders or cutters, we’ve most certainly learned that to take ourselves and our work seriously, we must be rewriters. Only an amateur beams with delight in the one-draft finished product. 

Except… whatever flaws that first draft has, there is an effervescence in the flow of it that often gets lost in the remodelling. A sensible, orderly, methodical approach to troubleshooting can turn a vibrant first idea bloodless. For me, (sorry for banging the same drum three posts in a row) the problem lies with the division of labour between creator and editor. When I first came across this notion of the two halves of the writer, I embraced it with Eureka! reverence. Dorothea Brande outlined it in Becoming A Writer. She had put into words what I’d long felt – that the act of writing fell into two distinct modes – the wild mind of creating and the schoolmarmish restraint of the editor. I loved that. I enjoyed it. And I think now, it is an essential phase in a writer’s development. Only by separating the two do we find which is dominant in our writing self, which needs to be strengthened.

But at some stage we need to lure them together and get them to work in unison – like conjoined twins or three-legged racers, who get nowhere fast if they’re at loggerheads. Working with the creator then the writer is like trying to follow the direction of Doctor Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu. (A gazelle-unicorn crossbreed with a head at each end that sets off in two different directions every time it tries to move.)

But if we work first at getting the two facing the same way, we may well find that the first draft is not so far off the desired final version. If we're working a novel, it's almost guaranteed revisions will be necessary. But rather than cutting and pasting and fleshing out or paring down, perhaps we’re better off with a fresh stack of paper and sharpened pencils in a room at the opposite end of the house from the computer glow of the existing draft. Because that faulty version with its big, fat, beguiling word count will only try and coax us to tinker with it rather than start from scratch and rewrite an entire chapter again.

New work has edge. It has energy. It surprises us and romps off through the wooded rough land of our ideas, where rewriting would have us stick to the known path. And if that new work harnesses, in equal measure, editor nouse and creator verve, then a first draft may be the one.

How though? What is this first work we must do to get those two heads facing the same way? No easy answer, nor one sole answer-fits-all. For me, I’m pretty sure voice is core. When the language flows with a surprising brightness and clarity, that I can both direct and follow simultaneously, like lucid dreaming, then the chore goes out of the writing, the joy returns and that shows on the page.

*When I wrote this post, I didn't know Susie had covered the same topic the day before. I think our attitudes are not opposed. I'm not suggesting a single take at a novel will suffice, but that tinkering can kill. Perhaps writing from scratch for a piece that is stalling produces somehting stronger than shoring up holes in a lively but too-flawed draft.


Helen Black said...

Very interesting.

Editing is my least favourite part of the writing process.

I think because I plan my structure and plot in detail, then write each scene in my head, by the time I come to type it - that is an editing stage in itself.

Then when I print off and edit, that feels like several stages down the line. The draft is certainly not 'rough' at that point if that makes sense.

HB x

Caroline Green said...

Very interested to read this, as I'm just about to embark on a major edit of book 2. Both stages always leave me feeling quite daunted, unfortunately...not sure either of them ever feels easy.

Susannah Rickards said...

Helen, from what I've read of your work, I can see why. It is so direct and lean - it reads as though it was never very messy in the first place. Reads as though your ideas are clear and sorted as they reach the page. I can imagine you don't need to edit much.

Caro - There's been a huge discussion of this over on my online writers' forum wiht lots of writing coming out of the woodwork to admit they don't revise - they get it right first time - either in swift flash-fiction style seat of pants, or methodical correct each sentence as you go mode, but they work with both halves of the writing self in union. They're all way further down the line than I am in ability so I sat up and listened. Interesting stuff, isn't it. And lummee it could save us months of work.

Christine Donovan said...

I've never done any kind of creative writing course and have only ever gone to one talk but that was about publishing, so I haven't any preconceptions in my head as to what I should or shouldn't do. I don't think Jack Kerouac revised On the Road, and that's certainly ok in my opinion. Not one word, because the first word, he said, was the best word.
When you turn writing into a craft instead of inspiration you do lose something. Because I'm a housewife who spends a lot of time washing up I use that time to plan the creative bit, and so when I revised my novel after writing it I only had the sunspots and the gaps and the other bits of inspiration to put in. That sounds very precious, but I'd never want to lose that first word.

Roderic Vincent said...

I think the complete rewrite is the optimal solution, not just rewriting a chapter here or there. A complete rewrite, after editing the first draft as far as you possibly can allows for the freshness of a creative draft and incorporates the lessons from the previous version. That's what Hodges recommends in A Passion for Narrative, and it's another reason why I've given up writing novels for now. Who wants to write the whole damn thing again?

For poets and short story merchants a complete rewrite is less daunting.

Thanks for the post, Susannah, you've inspired me to write one I've been meaning to - about the three parts of the writer, not two.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Brilliant post, Susannah. But terribly scary, too. I'm in the middle of revisions and, whilst I'm writing some new sections from scratch, I'm also doing a lot of editing on what's already there. Part of me thinks I should be rewriting the beginning of the novel as a new draft but at the moment I'm just too scared to.
I don't think we are opposed at all, by the way - I think everyone holds various parts of the jigsaw which is the Whole Thing.

Rosy T said...

Fascinating post - and discussion.

I'm another one who will admit to never rewriting. For me, the process of going-back-over, when I have occasionally tried it, whips out all the froth and leaves something flat and colourless. All my novels have gone to print in what amounts to first draft form - except that whole chapters have, in one case, been deleted and replaced from scratch. But there has been no re-working of the original prose; that, in my case, would certainly kill it dead.

Rosy T said...

P.S. But I do work and work at each sentence as I go along. I write slowly, not moving on from each sentence until it's as right as I can get it. Hence it makes some sense that although there might need to be structural changes - holes filled in the plot with a brand new chapter; chunks deleted and replaced to make the thing hang together as a construct - the actual writing shouldn't need revisiting.

(I love how we all write differently!)

Roderic Vincent said...

Sorry to hijack your post, but I wanted to announce that I've just posted the arrangements for the final of The Strictly Writing Award in the sidebar alongside the blog.

This will also be featured on Friday.

We look forward to receiving your votes. Rod.

Karen said...

I learnt my lesson the hard way, after editing the life out of novel 1 and having to start again.

Novel 2 has been largely left alone - apart from the obvious grammar and typo checks - until I get feedback from my agent!