Get Me Rewrite

Many writers hate rewriting. I love it. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Breaking trail is exhausting. (We’ve had a lot of snow this winter. My dog and I have broken a lot of trail. We’re both tired when we get home.)

Rewriting is more like pruning branches, tossing rocks out of the path, and notching trees to mark a trail. Even when it means rerouting a trail to avoid a fallen tree, I’d rather be rewriting than breaking trail.

For now I’m lumping editing and revising in with rewriting, even though they aren’t exactly the same thing. Rewriting means “messing with your first draft.” It can include anything from minor tweaks to a total overhaul.

If you hate rewriting, why should you do it? Good question. Maybe a better question is when should you do it? Not everything needs to be rewritten. Journal entries don’t. Freewriting exercises don’t. Most personal correspondence doesn’t — which is not to say that you shouldn’t reread the letter before you seal the envelope or the email before you hit Send. You should.

Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan nailed one of the whys with these much-quoted and -misquoted lines:

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

When you rewrite, you focus on your intended audience. That can be your boss, your publisher, your teacher, your writers’ group, your legion of fans — whoever you want your writing to reach. My audience includes myself. Yours probably does too. (I just learned from a Richard Nordquist column that Sheridan wrote “vile,” not “curst,” but I sort of like “curst” better.)

At the moment I’m taking a break from Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel in progress, to work on an essay about The Sleepwalker, a statue whose temporary installation at Wellesley College is causing much discussion at Wellesley and elsewhere. No one’s waiting for this essay. I have no deadline and no length limit. I’m writing it because the placement of the statue raises several issues that have fascinated me for a long time, like risk and feminism and the purpose of art.

I’m writing primarily to clarify my own thinking, though if I can inspire other people to consider these issues from different angles, that’s more than OK with me. This purpose is what guides me as I rewrite.

Here’s what the beginning of the first draft looked like:

statue ms

After 13 pages, I figured I had enough good raw material to proceed to the next draft. So I typed my handwritten pages into Word (Word 2010 on a Windows 7 laptop, for those who are wondering). The first two paragraphs look like this:

statue screenshot

The words are almost the same, but they look different, don’t they? Seeing those nice crisp letters, words, and paragraphs triggers my internal editor. At this point, I welcome her on board.

This draft is 21 pages long — considerably longer than its predecessor. At this stage the essay is still expanding. A phrase might trigger an elaboration or a detour: I go with it, not worrying about how it’s going to fit into the final version. At the same time, the internal editor is noting that a paragraph toward the end might be more effective near the beginning, and that I’ve discussed the same point in three different places — could they be consolidated?

Now I’m working on the third draft. My internal editor is having a field day. Word’s various features come in very, very handy. Internal editor is making comments for the writer to consider. She’s highlighting key phrases and sentences that will help structure the next draft. She’s also making additions and deletions, always with changes tracked. Nothing’s set in stone at this point. The writer likes how it looks.

statue screenshot 2

Longhand

By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.

I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.

Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.

I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.

Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life CafĂ© in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.

My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.

Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.

After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.

For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.

Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.

The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.

Whatever works.

This morning's pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with

This morning’s pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with. The dark orange scrawl at the bottom is a reminder of where I’m supposed to start tomorrow.