Thursday, April 11

Is Writing Rewriting?

Is Writing Rewriting?

Rewriting Is Not Writing


We often hear the saying, "Writing is rewriting."

Dean Wesley Smith disagrees, he does not believe that rewriting can make a story better. Dean writes:
In the early stages you are better off just trusting your natural instincts, your natural voice, write on the creative side, and then just let it go to an editor. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
That advice may seem radical--and it's certainly not heard often--but one could argue (as Dean does) that it's really a different way of saying what Robert A. Heinlein said in his rules:
1. You must write.
2. Finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put your story on the market.
5. Keep your story on the market until it sells.

Creative Mode vs Critical Mode


Ever since I first read Dean Wesley Smith's views on rewriting, that was some time ago, one thing that didn't sit right with me was the idea that rewriting couldn't improve a story.

For instance, I remember getting feedback on one of my first novels; specifically, that the pacing in the first quarter of the book was off. It didn't take me long, a couple of hours, and I fixed the problem. I sent the book out again to my readers and they agreed it was much better.

But I think, now, I might understand what Dean's saying.

When I made those changes to my novel I was still in creative mode. Dean writes:
Creative voice is the white-hot heat you feel when creating. Sometimes, granted, it burns like an ember and it doesn’t feel so hot, other times it is a rushing fire of words. But the words always come out of the creative side of your brain. That is the key, learning how to stay completely, no matter what method you use, in the creative side of your brain.

Long-term professional writers like me can turn the creative voice on instantly. I call it a “switch on my butt.” When I sit down in front of my writing computer (different from my e-mail computer) I automatically just drop into creative mindset. It takes time to train that switch, but after millions and millions of words, it becomes automatic.

The critical side of your brain is where your English teacher lives, where that awful book by Strunk and White lives, where your workshop and all their voices lives. The critical side of your brain wants you to write safe stuff, wants it to not offend anyone or go outside of any rule. The critical side of your head thinks your own voice is dull and will always work to take it out.

No professional writer I have ever met writes quality fiction out of their critical side. No matter how many drafts they do. All drafts are done in creative voice except for the last draft of fixing mistakes found by a first reader.
My readers had shown me a place where the story wasn't communicated to my readers. So I didn't change the story, I just improved the transmission of the story.

Recently I wrote a short story, wrote it fast--it was like a creative gale was blowing through me, sandblasting the words onto paper. Afterward I gave it to my first reader and he pointed out a few things that were extraneous to the story as well as a couple of places I hadn't been clear. I took the story back, worked on it for a couple of hours, and it was done.

I have the feeling that particular story won't be universally liked--it's just not that kind of story--but it's done. I've communicated the story. If I started rewriting it the freshness of the passion I had, the passion that I think is evident in the language, would seep away.

That said, if there is a detail or two my readers would like put in, an explanation of how something came about, that sort of thing, I'm game.

I want to be clear that I'm not saying a manuscript can be sent out with incorrect spelling and bad grammar. Far from it! But I think Dean's right. We learn most from writing, not rewriting.
Question: What do you think? Does rewriting lie at the heart of the craft or does it bleed out all that is unique/creative/original?

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6 comments:

  1. Well, it's a tough proposition. Letting someone else do the reading, indeed may be better to improve the story; but I found that rereading it yourself makes the story even better. And rereading for grammar errors is not the same as rereading it to you as an audience. In the latter you find plot inconsistencies and other artistic faults, which you improve by still being in the creative mode.
    That being said, I don't believe rewriting bleeds out the work. On the contrary, it dusts it off, improves the embroidery, it gives it more shade, more colour, scent, direction, clarity et all. Thus a distinction should be made between technical rewriting (improving grammar, punctuation, and semantics) from artistic rewriting.
    Personally, I screwed ASFT's launch. I've made countless revisions. The majority of it were related to grammar, while the minority were artistic content (in essence, a better painting of words).
    But, I'm new at this; and while I told myself "don't make mistakes", I did make'm and I learned a lot from them. I won't repeat them in the sequel, A Heretical Divide.
    PS: I've made A Stage For Traitors free and have begun sending query letters to literary agents. Though my gut tells me I'll have to wait for a while... a long while.
    PPS: Regardless of the above, the job market in my country sucks big time, and it's been so for the last couple of years. While in the field of journalism, it's filled with political mercenaries, who change sides over night, depending on who is signing their paychecks.

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    1. Hi Serban! It's good to hear from you again.

      I like your distinction between technical and artistic rewriting.

      EVERYONE makes mistakes, especially at the beginning. The main thing is that we don't give up. As Dean Wesley Smith has said on more than one occasion, the only way a writer can hurt their career is by not writing, by not publishing.

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  2. I actually write my first draft without worrying about the language I'm using because I know I can sort it out in the rewrite. I fly through, sparse on description, just getting the story down but I can't imagine anyone would accept my work like this. I have to add a lot of the picturesque stuff later. If I didn't - my work would seem very simple indeed (not in a good way).
    LTWilton’s Blog

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    1. Exactly! That's why I love Dean's distinction between creative voice and critical voice. As long as we write in creative voice we're okay.

      I think what Dean calls "re-writing" a lot of folks would call "polishing". I know when I first started to write I 'polished' the life completely out of a few of my stories! At least my first drafts had life, they had a spark of something.

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  3. I think every writer has a voice inside that says "This is no good and it's going to be crap." That's not the same as being critical, as Dean points out. Listening to that voice does the writer no good!
    And I do think rewriting is key -- I think good rewriting gets closer to the heart of what you are saying in your writing. It could be a scene you avoided writing the first time around, or coming at an existing scene with added context that gives it more punch. It could also be removing a chapter or amalgamating characters or any number of of other things that the story needs to be the best it can be.
    I think the trouble can lie in listening to other people's doubts, rather than taking their feedback for what it is: a reaction. If your work is not having the reaction you intended, that's valuable for you to know. But it's still up to you to decide whether you want to say something else -- or say the same thing, but more vigorously.
    I don't, by the way, think editorial feedback is the same. If an editor is recommending changes with an eye to publication, I think the writer needs to consider those changes very seriously.

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    1. "And I do think rewriting is key -- I think good rewriting gets closer to the heart of what you are saying in your writing."

      I know what you mean! I've benefited so much from my first readers telling their impressions, where the manuscript was slow, where I explained too much, etc.

      "I think the trouble can lie in listening to other people's doubts, rather than taking their feedback for what it is: a reaction."

      Yes, exactly! And--this is an idea I'm toying with--I think it's often difficult for a newer writer to tell the difference. Sometimes feedback can be great and wonderful and constructive and sometimes the critiquer just had a rough day and needs to vent. It can be difficult to tell the difference, especially when one is (usually) so close to the story.

      About editors, absolutely! If someone is going to pay me for the story I'll change (practically) anything they want. (grin)

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