Writing Is Rewriting, Unless It’s Stopping You From Writing

A typewriter

Photo: Jules A

I remember my time as a new journalist for a business paper. I remember the events I had to attend, the free lunches I received, the special access that I was afforded.

I remember mingling with the other reporters, giving them a knowing nod as they typed away at their bulky laptops (workplace desktops were still a thing back then).

“Tight deadline, huh?” I’d ask.

I had it easy. My company went to print every week. These guys? They worked for the dailies. “You going to send this in by today?”

“No, by lunch,” my new friend would reply.

Every time the chairman spoke, this journalist would pick out the relevant quotes and pop it into her article.

“Oh,” I’d say. “So, you won’t be doing any rewriting?”

“Please. Who has time for that? I’m going to send this in once the speech is over.”

I don’t remember much else about this encounter—what was I doing there? Which paper did she work for? What was her name?—but I do remember judging her.

How could you send in your first draft for print? I thought. And you write for the national newspapers!

Back then, everything I wrote had to be rewritten at least five times. This is the way of the writer, I told myself. Writing is rewriting.

I’d later learn about the Dunning–Kruger effect, that it applied to writing, and that I fell pretty damn high on the scale of people who overestimated his own capabilities.

Writing is rewriting

Most of us have probably taken this path in our evolution as writers: write something, think it sucks, wonder why, Google ‘how to be a better writer’, pick a famous author’s advice out of context, apply said advice without actually thinking how it affects our craft.

I fell into that trap too. A bestseller told me to avoid adverbs, so I did, until I read JK Rowling. Style guides around the world advised against starting sentences with conjunctions. I did that too, until I read Tolkien.

Show, don’t tell? Never use the passive voice? Don’t carry a notebook? Check, check, check.

It came to a point where I thought simply knowing the tip made me a better writer, so I hoarded them like a Covidiot hoarding toilet paper. Up to this day, I’ve probably read more examples of ‘show don’t tell’ than I ever wrote.

Pretty soon, ‘writing is rewriting’ also made it into my literary quiver. It would take a while, but I’d finally ditch the notion that it takes at least a billion rewrites before my stories are worthy, and here’s why.

Rewriting Exercise - John Arano

Hoarding writing tips is like watching people work out. You learn what to do, but you can’t actually do it. Photo: John Arano

Time equals quality

I used to think that the more time I spent writing something, the better it got. Anything I could bang up in a day was most certainly crap, let alone within the two-hour deadlines I was often given.

Like Oscar Wilde, I fancied myself as someone whose job was to take out a comma from a story only to put it back again later.

Never mind the fact that ninety percent of my paid work involved churning out a piece within a relatively short amount of time. Out of necessity, most of those articles never even made it past the second draft.

And you know what? I’ve been commended on my last-minute work more than I have on features that I’d spent all week on.

This was also reflected in my blog posts, where my drunken first drafts would garner more attention than the ‘perfect’ piece I’d painstakingly worked over.

Eye of the beholder

So who’s to say what’s quality and what’s not? Everybody’s going to have their own yardstick on what makes good writing, and there are so many other factors involved in determining quality—the medium, the formatting, your mood, the retrograde of Venus and Neptune—that it’s pointless to stress yourself into writing the perfect piece every time you write.

As Brandon Sanderson said: “Sometimes rewriting only makes your work different-er and not better.”

Only in recent years did I begin to see the rewriting process for what it actually is: something you do only as many times as it takes. That could mean two passes, or it could mean twenty.

But just because you’re working doesn’t necessarily mean you’re improving it. In fact, I would come to realise that what’s more important is actually coming up with a completed product, imperfections and all.

A pair of Nike sneakers

You can keep redesigning a pair of sneakers, but it won’t be any good if it doesn’t come with soles. Photo: Jeremy Alford

Forest for the trees

That’s right. Having something in its entirety is much better than writing the best intro ever in history. Focus too much on having each word placed exactly where you want it and you run the risk of giving in to false perfection.

I get it. You want to put out the best work you can. You want to inspire with every word, sell millions of copies of your novel, send in a typo-less entry to every writing competition.

But you know what? Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ll never be truly happy with your work, and beyond a certain point, your edits are just going to make things different-er and not better.

So do what it takes to finish your story. Give us a beginning, an end, and everything in between.

And rewrite it as many times as you have to, but remember that no amount of editing is going to help if it means that you’re not going to share your work with the world.

46 thoughts on “Writing Is Rewriting, Unless It’s Stopping You From Writing

  1. There’s a balance act as we seek out our writer’s voice. The author needs to follow rules to a point, there’s no need to get lost in the process. Thanks for stopping in at my blog.

    • “There’s no need to get lost in the process” is such a powerful statement. Often writers just get lost in the process and end up questioning themselves because of that. Thanks for this thought-provoking comment!

  2. Sometimes I think it comes down to the “flow state” people often speak of. If you’re in it, it seems that first drafts come out pretty well. On the other hand, that can apply to rewriting, too. Sometimes it can be exciting pulling everything apart like a kid at Christmas and then seeing a new creation form as you put it back together. Sometimes rewriting produces a stilted piece from which all original passion is gone, and sometimes first drafts put the shit in shitty first drafts. There’s a time to write and a time to rewrite.

    • I’m seeing a pattern here. A lot of writers commenting seem not to know what to expect every time they sit down at the keyboard. It’s as if anything can happen, e.g. sometimes rewriting is good, sometimes it’s bad. Pretty interesting observation if you ask me.

      I guess it’s just like the cliche—just keep writing and you’ll find your way. I always enjoy your thoughtful comments!

  3. I definitely fall into that trap of rewriting and rewriting, then questioning my existence as a writer lol. But there have also been times where I go back to a first draft and tweak it, and it becomes something else entirely (which I’m more satisfied with!). I guess it’s about finding balance between rewriting to ‘polish’ something and make it better, and rewriting to the point where you just give up and your piece never sees the light of day. Good points, though!

    • The only things I can balance right now are the disdain I have for my work with every rewriting pass and the urge to delete everything lol send help. But I totally get the ‘getting something else entirely that’s better’ thing too. I guess that’s all part of the JD, tears included.

  4. I used to think rewrites were not worth the time, but now I love getting my passion onto the page and then going back to add a word, change a word, and make it perfect instead of trying to do everything at once!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. :)

  5. Yes! Get that work out into the world. Bravo! All of what you said….the do’s and the don’t, the this’s and the that’s….Like you, I’ve done them all and then suddenly realized I need to be me. And, that only came after I was told that I should rise at 6am and begin writing immediately….even before peeing….and THAT would make me a good writer. BAH! I was already a good writer….just needed to go out and show everyone. lol. Keep Writing Stuart. So enjoy your blog.

    • It reminds me of Ann Patchett’s journey to being a writer, how people told her that having a desk facing the window was the only way to do it, so she put hers against a wall and still became a successful author.

      Sometimes we need to learn what’s best for us, despite what the world says. Always love your thoughtful comments, Faye.

  6. You raise a lot of excellent points here. I think this is also reflected in how much fans love deleted scenes from movies or deleted chapters from books if the creators chose to release those. Everyone has their own idea of what’s good, and you’ll never please everyone (even, sometimes, yourself). It can be hard to know when to leave a piece alone, though!

    • Yeah, nothing will ever feel perfect, so beyond a certain point, it’s all just an exercise in futility, or at least that’s what I think because my skills only go so far, lol.

      Spot on about everyone having their own definition of good. It’s empowering to know that because it grants you freedom from perfection.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. Stuart – you’re a great writing. I’m glad I found your blog. Wonderful advice to boot. I’ve certainly been guilty of perfectionism in the past. Often letting the words flow onto the page naturally results in my best work. When I over think it, I find I can write myself writing in circles. Thanks again – I look forward to reading more of your work in the future. All the best, AP2 🙏

    • Writing in circles is the exact way I’d put it, and the action of non-stop writing does give you the illusion of progress sometimes.

      But we’re all different, and it’s up to us to find that balance, that sweet spot.

      Thanks for stopping by, and here’s to writing just the right amount!

  9. This post rings so true. I’ve experienced it quite a number of times as well. When I try to polish any piece of my writing, I’ve heard feedback like, the writing sounds forced(?). And other times when I just let it flow and don’t expect anyone to like it, the response is quite the opposite. Of course, rewriting is mandatory but I believe if you squeeze the lemon too much, it gets bitter.
    For advice like, avoiding adverbs and all. I have tried some and realized following other’s style doesn’t do me any good (Again, the output seems forced) .
    I sometimes ask my friends to read my stuff and I figured you can’t tick all the boxes to please everyone. Not everyone will like everything I create. So it’s better to find my own style.
    Great post, thanks!

    • So true that each of us has our own path to find in this world of writing. I love your saying about squeezing the lemon too much and it turning bitter. Don’t think I’ve come across that saying before. Thanks for sharing your perspective! It’s very much appreciated.

  10. This took me forever to figure out! I downloaded ebooks on craft, signed up for newsletters about how to write better, and spent hours editing things that were terrible to begin with. It’s only recently I’ve made the leap to writing good work to start with, and editing for clarity alone. Was this easy to follow? Would I want to read this if I hadn’t written it? Yeah? I’m golden then.

  11. This is a refreshing post. I have had this experience myself–taking such a long time to write a story that was just….okay, and then writing another in no time that was so much better. I also like the idea of basically not listening to the “experts,” because not one formula works for every person every time. Thanks for your advice!

    • I guess we really shouldn’t listen to anyone besides ourselves, as long as we’re self-aware enough to know if something’s not working because of circumstances, or if we’re just not good enough yet.

      Glad you liked it. Thanks for stopping by!

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