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Writing

How to Master the Rewriting Process: 10 Tips for Rewriting Your Work

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 5 min read

According to author David Sedaris, writing is rewriting: “You need to do the best that you can do, and then you need to take the best that you can do, and you need to rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it.” Mastering the art of the rewrite is essential for novice writers and professional writers alike.

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What Is Rewriting?

Rewriting is the process of going through a rough draft and fixing things that don’t work for you, whether that’s changing the word choice in a single sentence or cutting entire sections that feel like fluff. Rewriting is the part of the editing process that usually refers to the larger changes that comprise a whole new draft. If you put real work into your rewrite, a good piece of writing can become great.

Why Is Rewriting Essential to the Writing Process?

When you’re writing something for the first time—especially if it’s a longer piece of creative writing—you probably won’t know exactly where things are going until the whole thing is finished. Once you’ve finished your first rough draft, you can start the rewriting process, taking everything you learned from the old version and using it to strengthen subsequent drafts. Rewriting is all about finding surprises along the way and starting to tease out the shape of your story.

10 Tips for Rewriting Your Manuscript

The revision process is different for everyone, but here’s some rewriting advice to help you along:

  1. Take time away. You’ve finished the first draft of your written work, and yet there’s something overall that is unsatisfying for you—perhaps a character seems flat or one of your central points is uninteresting to you. It can be very hard to determine if something is actually boring or if you’ve just grown sick of it, which is why it’s important to take some time away from a project before editing it. Try putting the manuscript aside for a few weeks or months before you do start rewriting. Even a little break can give you a fresh eye later.
  2. Break your work and put it back together. Don’t be afraid of “breaking” your piece. Chances are a rewrite will make you work better, not worse. Expect the first draft to need major retuning. Often all of the ingredients of a good piece are there. Sometimes a revision is less a matter of rewriting and more a matter of reordering, digging deeper, slowing down here, speeding up there, etc. In further reads of your manuscript, identify what’s not working. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your early chapters or revise your main characters. Maybe the idea itself needs to evolve. This is all part of the process of editing, and it can be frustrating. But don’t give up on your idea.
  3. Pretend to be someone else. When you do return to your manuscript to edit it, try to pretend that you’re someone who’s never read it before. Be someone else entirely—your best friend, your ideal audience member—but read your writing trying to imagine how they will see it. What would their response be? Don’t focus on perfection; keep your attention on the story.
  4. Get feedback from an editor or writing partner. At some point, you’ll need to show your work to other people. A new reader can provide valuable feedback, but finding a good one can be difficult. You’ll want to choose someone who likes the type of writing you’ve done and who isn’t going to be inclined to praise your work just because they love you—in other words, you need someone relatively objective. Other writers are often a great choice as readers. They understand what makes a novel work and where it can be improved. Often you can set up a trade, where you read their manuscript in return. Listen to your editors and readers and try what they suggest. Each idea might not work, but discovering that is a valuable lesson in and of itself; sometimes by figuring out what’s not right, you come up with something that is.
  5. Spend a limited amount of time working on problem areas. Sometimes it’s hard to decide when you’re done with a manuscript. You may have a whole draft but find yourself disliking it. Don’t spend too much time editing the same problem areas over and over. This is a type of procrastination and will generally only augment your feelings of frustration. Try to find a balance: Edit to smooth out your writing, but don’t edit so much that you ruin the original magic of your novel.
  6. Look for passages that need rephrasing. Once you’re happy with your draft, do a line edit, looking at language, formatting, and style. Look especially for sections where the writing seems different—maybe it’s too sloppy, or something is overwritten—or sequences where someone acted out of character. Search for sections that are too heavy on dialogue, or too dense with exposition, and try to balance them out. Let your instincts guide you to the places where something feels off, and go back to them later for correction.
  7. Try color-coding. Create a color-coding scheme to keep track of the condition of your writing. Mark all the writing you’re satisfied with in green, the writing you’re not sure about in yellow, and the writing you know needs to be improved in red. As you review your manuscript, your goal will be to get everything green. Having color cues and a concrete objective can gamify the experience of editing and turn it from a tedious exercise into a challenge.
  8. Ask lots of questions. When you have a complete draft of your novel, use the following checklist for your editing process: What is my major dramatic question? What areas have problems with pacing (i.e. too much dialogue, too much exposition)? What areas do I need to work on to buttress my main storyline? What areas are superfluous and distract from my main story? Does my ending answer the major dramatic question? Your answers here could make for significant revisions.
  9. Read your work aloud. As you move into the more polished drafts of your work, read the text aloud. This will train your ear to edit and fine-tune your own writing. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch grammatical errors, awkward sentence structure, and typos that your eyes skim over when reading your own words on a computer screen or piece of paper. The only caveat here is that you don’t want to do too much at once, or you will stop listening.
  10. Print a hard copy. When you go back to the manuscript, try to print out a physical copy. This can put you closer to a reader’s experience. This not only gives you space to take notes on problem areas, it makes a mysterious difference in how you read stories.
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