I’ve probably written about five sentences in my life that couldn’t stand a rewrite. And when it comes to published work – be it short stories or poems or reportage or whatever – everything gets rewritten. Multiple times. It’s a fact of my writing life, front and center in my manifesto for spiritual scribbling. Writing is rewriting.
But what exactly does it mean to rewrite?
For me, there are at least three important aspects to rewriting, no one of which can be neglected. Each is like the leg of a stool. Try and do without it and the whole project falls apart.
One part of rewriting is considering the piece as a whole. After you’ve got the first draft out of your system and down on paper, you step back, arms folded and eyes narrowed, and assess its quality. Does it say what you intended it to say? Does it say it how you wanted to say it? Does it say anything else perhaps? Something unexpected but more interesting? Something unexpected and terrifying? Is your premise clear at the outset? Does it proceed logically to its conclusion?
And if clarity wasn’t your goal – that kind of clarity, anyway – then does it obfuscate in a delicious way?
All writing is communication. It helps to know one’s audience and to consider how they’re going to respond. Will your writing answer their questions? Pique their interest? Persuade them to take a desired action? Entertain them? Hold their interest?
Anticipating readers is an important qualitative step even if you are not planning to share your writing with anyone. Taking even an imaginary audience into mind can help reveal structural gaps and obstructions in your work.
Another element of rewriting – by far the most pleasurable for me – is going through a piece sentence by sentence. I love to take each sentence on its merits and see if it can’t be wriggled or cajoled into something tighter. Or something more expansive. Or more musical. More visual. More arresting. More energetic. When you get down to it, it’s remarkable how much revision a sentence will stand.
Try thinking of each word as a living thing, possessing its own qualities, expressing its own light. If you’re using a word whose definition isn’t clear to you, grab a dictionary. Find its history. Use a thesaurus to explore alternatives. Take a phrase and run it through babelfish or some other translator. Go from English to German to Japanese and back to English and see what comes up. Rewrite that. Keep going.
The whole piece (the big picture) is a by-product of the many words from which your writing is comprised. Often, pursuing a stronger, more energetic, sentence will provide clues and insights into the piece as a whole. They’ll suggest new connections, new images, a new tenor.
Finally, while rewriting often seems like an intellectual exercise – and in significant part, it is – we don’t need to give it all over to the brain. In fact, I suggest giving a lot of the rewriting over to the heart.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that writing is emotional – it’s felt. I don’t care how meaningful it is, how rich in symbolism it is or how deep the thematic content. If it doesn’t move the heart, then it’s dead and you should move one to whatever is next, whatever is living.
So reread the piece paying particular attention to your emotional response. Where do you feel confident and proud? Where do you feel embarrassed? Where do you feel surprised?
How do you feel?
Our emotions are clues to the voice of intuition – a far more important guide than the egoic thoughts that reside in your brain. I’m not saying that you should ignore altogether that organ between your ears, but I am suggesting that there is something mysterious and, yes, spiritual going on in the writing process. Rewriting from the heart is code for listening to the angels, the gods who attend your work.
Writing that is scary or embarrassing or troubling is often our most fruitful work. That is where the Divine comes in, the crack through which the immortal light glistens. Heed that. Follow it if you can. Trust that it’s going to move you to a place that you cannot anticipate but that will ultimately feel exactly like home.
You are being guided in this craft. Never forget that. Never stop listening, never stop paying attention.
Ultimately, rewriting is about relating to your work and to yourself as creator. You are honoring both the product and the creative process by paying attention to it, following its lead. You are opening up ground in which the writing can find itself, name itself, be itself. Rewriting teaches us that we’re not the boss, the writing is.
When are you finished rewriting?
Maybe never. Even if you’re under a deadline, even after the piece is published, you might still come back to it. Remember – writing is not about what happens to the written product once it’s out there in the world. That’s a whole other experience – fun and important and useful in its own right – but remarkably detached from the actual work of creation. You’re done when the work turns it back on you. You’re done when it won’t yield up any new energy.