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Jay Lake
Date: 2008-01-30 05:08
Subject: [process|poll] The gentle art of rewriting
Security: Public
Music:hotel noises
Tags:poll, process, writing
blakehutchins comments that rewriting coherently is a skill. Coincidentally, I got an email this morning from another friend commenting on the fact that he first started writing fiction on a typewriter, which gave him a radically different work habit than word processors do — specifically, rewriting each page after he'd first drafted it, before going on to the next. This, of course, in order to avoid retyping the bulk of the manuscript due to a few changes somewhere in the middle.

The transition from longhand to typewriter significantly affected the structure and flow of fiction. The transition from typewriter to computer has certainly had a profound effect as well, though I'm uncertain how much scholarship has yet been done on this. (See here for a discussion of this phenomenon.)

For me, writing fiction would be close to impossible without a computer. I have a very difficult time with handwriting, in part because I'm quite literally unable to hold a pen or pencil the traditional way, so I in effect scribble with my fist. In high school and college I did some work on a typewriter, but the rewriting process was an absolute horror. (This is almost certainly one of the reasons I learned to write very clean first drafts.) I obtained regular access to a computer in 1985, and my own computer at home around 1987 (don't recall exactly when now), and never touched a typewriter again except for special purposes.

I've commented a number of times before that clean first drafts can be a real trap. When "good enough" is good enough, the motivation to reach for better, or even excellent, can be vitiated. I've never struggled with ideas, and even my very earliest attempts at wordsmithery have a detectable cleverness. Rewriting, or more precisely, refining my prose, has always been my struggle. I've gone from hating it to disliking it to, just lately, rather enjoying it. That only took about 25 years.

If I had to rewrite on a typewriter, I'm pretty sure I'd have another line of work. The Muse is vulnerable to the toolset. (Both the physical toolset and the mental toolset, btw, but that's a topic for another post.)

I know there's people out there who first draft longhand. I suspect some of you might even use a typewriter occasionally. Me, I'm quite happy in the land of word processors. And I'm finally getting the hang of rewriting coherently.

And just because there hasn't been a poll hereabouts in a little while, I give you the writing and rewriting poll.

Poll #1129905 Writing and rewriting

How do you first draft?

"Classic" word processor
Current or recent generation word processor
Eldritch glyphs of my own devising, scrivened in the blood of hummingbirds
Something else I'll explain in comments

How do you rewrite/redraft?

Hah! Rewriting is for wimps!
Line by line
Scene by scene
Tear it all apart
Blank sheet redraft
Haruspicial divinatory aids and some good Scotch
Something else I'll explain in comments
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User: threeoutside
Date: 2008-01-30 13:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My first draft method varies with story, sometimes between chapters, in a novel. Handwriting is more intimate and it's useful when I am trying to inhabit the POV character's world. I'll use handwriting 1st draft also when I'm groping for the story's direction. If it's a redhot idea I'll use the computer. Computer word processors were a godsend to me, because when i'm really rolling there isn't a typewriter that can keep up with me.

Except for the Scotch (alas), I use all the editing methods, correcting glitches page by page if I catch them, then going over yesterday's work before starting today's, then when the story or the chapter is finished I will re-read the whole thing and correct anything I catch there - from typos to eye colors to moods. By the time I finished my first book, it had probably been "edited" about 80 times, so when I typed "the end" it was as done as it was ever going to be.
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scarlettina: All my own stunts
User: scarlettina
Date: 2008-01-30 13:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:All my own stunts
I chose for my second choice under "How do you rewrite?" the answer "Haruspicial divinatory aids and some good Scotch" because that's how it feels sometimes: arcane and requiring anesthetic--for myself, because the animal will be killed in the kosher manner: quickly and without pain.

Although...lately even first drafts feel that way.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2008-01-30 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My usual first draft method is on the computer, although I've been known to draft in longhand if I'm away from the 'puter for some reason (less common now since I have the Mac). What I've done in the past is write on the computer, then print out, do edits and extend the first draft in longhand, then retype it the next day and extend.

The laptop is changing my writing style, at least for this current novel. For one thing, the printer and the laptop (Mac and HP) don't seem to want to communicate well, either wireless or Ethernetish. So I have to go through the flash drive dance, and the USB port on my desktop isn't happy with USBs at the moment. For another, this story doesn't seem to need the change of methods, and I don't seem to need the amount of time I was taking to rack up the words with the stuff I was writing last year.

Am I getting better, or is it the pacing of this story? I don't know yet, but so far I've racked up a respectable 22k words for the month on this novel. I have another snow day, so more mileage is gonna happen today, as well as some short story work.

I think I might post something over on my blog about the changes I've observed between having a computer to write with and writing a novel on a typewriter (my first trunk novel was exclusively typewriter, and my drafting style was completely and totally different). My very, very first novel written back in 6th grade was completely longhand. I started a second novel then, on the typewriter, but never finished it.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2008-01-30 14:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
1st = Computer

Rewrites = Iterative and ongoing at multiple levels while in process, followed by cover to cover for beta drafts.
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A large duck: Cooking with Pooh
User: burger_eater
Date: 2008-01-30 15:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Cooking with Pooh
I've done blank sheet redrafts more times than I care to admit, because it's always a sign that something is very, very wrong with the work I did.

If you switch the scotch out with bourbon, I'd be tempted by that one.

Also, I only use my typewriter to surf the web.
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User: twilight2000
Date: 2008-01-30 15:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Still new at this fiction stuff, but in general I've (since they became available) I've worked on the WP "of the day" -- which, of course, is now "Classic" -- that is, I work in the latest version of Word, because I know it and can get work done it without thinking about the tech much. I use it at the day job and that makes it the easiest tool to use "at home."

I, too, started out on typewriters and like you found re-writes to be an absolute horror, so got very good at the "clean first draft" for both HS and College papers (tho I wrote longhand extensively, the idea that I would have a perfectly good paper that I would then have to COPY onto a typewriter, where I would have to type at 1/2 my real speed so as not to make any errors on the bloody piece of paper was also an absolute horror to me).

As for rewrites -- I've not gotten to where you are yet -- let's hope it doesn't take 25 years of practice to get there :>.

I tend to do two kinds of "rewrites" so far. First, I tend to change bits up once while writing. That is, I'll write a bunch, lay it down for a couple of days, pick it back up, go over it once with changes made as I go, then go on to the next "bunch" of writing. "Bunches" can take many days (so far, seems to be up to about 2 weeks of daily at about 1000 a day). Based on some things a bunch of you pros mentioned (and my own instinct to not bore myself to death), I never go back to the beginning during this process-- I only go back to the previous "bunch of words" -- usually several chapters worth. It freshens my thought process and gets some immediate editing done.

The other "rewrites" I've done to date seem to be more "scene by scene" if I understand that term correctly. I rewrite whole scenes so that they hang together better -- which might mean changing lots of lines or very few, depending on the shape of the scene.
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Ellen Million
User: ellenmillion
Date: 2008-01-30 16:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My first drafts may as well be Eldritch glyphs, as no one but me would possibly make sense of them - they are generally bits of real writing, stitched together with brief outline notes with rearrangement notes all over the place in the margins.

It generally transfers to a WP (Open Office, because I like free), and gets not so much coherent 'drafts' as line-by-lined every time I open the file and start replacing the outline notes with actual content.
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User: bridget_coila
Date: 2008-01-30 17:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I tend to write in a combination of longhand and on computer- often the same story, depending on what is available. I often carry a little journal notebook with me and write in that, then will write the next scene on computer after I've typed in my longhand (as in- I wanna keep going and I'm on the computer already so why not...) Works in reverse, too- if I've been writing on computer and want to wander to coffeeshop and not lug the laptop along, I'm perfectly fine starting mid-scene in the notebook. (which makes for a lot of notebooks filled with partial stories)

Rewriting, I tend to do a basic edit one time through (looking at scene and line issues) and then pass it along to a few particular people- Rick, Misty, my mom (she's a English teacher) and sometimes my writing group, then do another revision keeping in mind things they caught (or things that caught them and made them stop reading or lose interest).

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User: irismoonlight
Date: 2008-01-30 18:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I use BBEdit (it's an HTML editor) to draft in because if I used a word processor I'd waste HOURS formatting the file so it looked beautiful (the wanna-be graphic designer in me goes NUTS.) BBEdit won't even let you double-space lines. All you can do is write.

I also have an AlphaSmart Neo, because I can write anywhere and not be distracted by teh Intarwebs or e-mail. Also, I'm a clutz and they're cheaper to replace should I, say, drop it in a puddle of slush.

Rewrite: I print it out and paper-and-pen edit, two passes at least, and then go back to the BBEdit file and work with what I have.

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calendula_witch: First Book
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-01-30 18:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:First Book
For me it's been a complete transition, moving a little further with each project. I started longhand only, typing (once!) on a typewriter. Hence, basically no editing once it was typed. Then in college, computers started becoming available, but I was still wedded to longhand, and that's how I wrote my first novel (the one under the bed)--handwrote, typed it in, printed it out; edited, changed, reworked all on the printout; entered the corrections; lather, rinse, repeat. With each novel since then, it's gotten less and less handwritten (as my handwriting has gotten less and less legible)...I abandoned drafting in hand pretty early on, but still hung onto working with all that paper until my most recent novel (#5, I suppose), which is out to two crit groups without ever seeing paper!

As for how to edit: depends on what's needed. Probably all of the above, at different times: sometimes huge chunks are clean and can stay mostly as is. Sometimes they need tearing apart, or deleting altogether. I'm best at line by line editing; my crit partners are better at showing me the larger changes needed. Once I took Caitlin Kittredge's method and printed each scene starting on a new page, sat on the floor with them spread all around me, and reworked, reorganized, scribbled notes, etc until I had something that looked like it would hang together. Mostly I try not to let a book get to such a stage, where it requires such major surgery... :-)
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User: scottedelman
Date: 2008-01-30 19:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
All of my writing is done longhand. First draft is done on a legal pad, transcribed onto the computer, then printed out. All editing is done on the hard copy, with editing once more input into the computer. For me, the only purpose of the computer is to prevent having to retype the entire manuscript over and over again from beginning to end. It saves time, and produces cleaner manuscripts, but does nothing for or to my creative process.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2008-01-30 19:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I split-screen my text editor so that the original's on the left and a blank screen is on the right. I take my first draft (which will contain all sorts of story decisions as the process went along-- date changes, gender changes, characterization changes) and read through it, then create an outline of the scenes and the intended impact in the blank document. I then go re-read the scenes that I intend to re-write, and re-write them, aiming for maximum emotional effect on the customer reader.
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Dave Bara
User: dbara
Date: 2008-01-30 19:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Could you delineate the difference, in your mind, of line-by-line to scene-by-scene?

I tend to start at the beginning of a scene and finish at the end of one, but I still go line-by-line through the scene, and bounce around as needed for continuity.

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Jay Lake: jay-southpark
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-31 03:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Line-by-line, to me, is where I'm going through looking for echoes, clunks, passive constructions, crutch words, infelicitous phrasing and flat out typos. Often I do this by reading aloud. Generally speaking, this read isn't looking for plot, character or continuity issues, though of course I don't ignore them if such beasts jump out at me.

Scene-by-scene might be a misnomer, but I'm reading a level above the lines. Here's where I'm checking for character issues, plot bobbles, potholes in continuity or storyflow — especially trying to figure out of I missed something. Still not reading it holistically (ie, as a reader), but not looking at the mechanics of word and sentence either. As with the other direction, I don't ignore line level stuff if it jumps out, but that's not the snark I'm hunting.

Did that help?
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2008-01-30 20:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I nearly picked "classic" word processor in the poll above because much of my writing is done on Word '95. (Much of the rest is via Open Office.) I do occasionally do first drafts in longhand, but that's almost always specifically for poetry or flash fiction.

I started with longhand--my first novel was 120 handwritten college-ruled notebook paper sheets, the second about three times that--then went to a late 60's lime green Hermes typewriter, then a Kaypro 4. I didn't get around to learning Word until I started at a four-year college in the Fall '95 semester, but didn't start using a PC regularly until '97.

On the other hand, when I did all of my drafts in longhand I had much less of a tendency to overwrite. I discovered full-blown overwriting with the typewriter...but never wanted to do any rewriting because of all the typing that would've been involved. The Kaypro, with all of its word processing features, was a revelation to me--even though its disks could only hold 40 pages of single-spaced text each. :)
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Leslie Claire Walker: The Adventures of Joan
User: lesliewalker
Date: 2008-01-30 21:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:The Adventures of Joan
Redrafting for me is a process of

1) manuscript to first reader
2) receive first reader's comments
3) incorporate the ones that ring true


4) line by line or scene by scene, depending on what the scrip's strengths and challenges happen to be


5) Good Scotch
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User: dsgood
Date: 2008-01-30 21:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I first draft using a text editor (Metapad, freeware Windows program.)

Rewrite/redraft: For minor changes, I simply go through what I've written and change wording -- sometimes taking out a paragraph or two and substituting something else, sometimes adding a bit.

For major rewriting, I do something like retyping from copy. I don't print out the old stuff; I retype below it, erase the old stuff when I've got the new, go on to the next paragraph or paragraphs.
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User: ex_frankwu
Date: 2008-01-30 21:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Unlike Jay, my first drafts are atrocious, with key foreshadowing missing, conclusions that don't snap, characters that aren't interesting.

So I rewrite the whole dang thing from scratch. I tend to alternate fully-hand-written drafts with type-written (on a type writer) and the final draft is written on a computer (though notes and fragments often wind up on computer). I write articles for Chris Garcia's fanzine that way, too, but in fewer steps: Usually one written on the computer, printed out, and then completely re-typed/re-written once or twice to smooth it all out.

It's a hard process and takes a long time. Maybe that's why I've written two stories in the last year, and Jay wrote... what, two or three books and dozens of stories?

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User: mmegaera
Date: 2008-01-31 01:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First draft, generally http://www.alphasmart.com.

Technically, it's a keyboard emulator, not a word processor.
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User: kmckiernan
Date: 2008-01-31 01:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
To borrow a term from SW development, I'd say I'm an iterative writer. I liken my style to that of a sculptor, mallet in hand, I slowly chip here and cut there until the shape takes form. I usually have the complete story laid out (outlined? - for lack of a better description) in my head prior to starting. I rewrite both at the paragraph and scene level before pressing on. And, yes... I do suffer from re-writing too much. It's something I'm working on.

I've never been comfortable with long-hand, although the nostalgic sap in me wishes I could do it. I've envisioned myself sitting before a warm fire, blanket wrapped snugly about my shoulders, feathered pen scratching across the page at speed. Other times, I see myself sitting atop the Sierra Nevada mountains, gazing down into Yosemite, graphite pencil blazing effortlessly across my sturdy notepad. Sigh...

I'm certain my addiction to my laptop is due, in part, to my job. Living day to day in a world where our very existence demands we stay ahead of the leading edge of technology has changed this mountain girl. I'm more paperless and "connected" than ever. Honestly, it's just a little frightening.
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User: manmela
Date: 2008-01-31 01:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Unless it's one of those times when I feel everything I write is crap (when I screw up the paper and start again) I tend to rewrite as I go, but then I find that I write 60% of my first draft in a linear fashion and then start working on the end, to then go back and join the two parts up. But my best pieces (in both my opinion and the opinion of others) are where I write non-linearly and do little rewriting / redrafting (mainly changing the odd word, sometimes a sentence, and trying to remember to put a full stop at the end of every paragraph

Darn! Forgot again.

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dinogrl: bookish robot
User: dinogrl
Date: 2008-01-31 08:19 (UTC)
Subject: You asked for it.
Keyword:bookish robot
Hieroglyphics. No, really. Sometimes I storyboard because I am visual that way, and most of my stuff is geared toward a *ahem*, younger audience. Then put it on MSWord for notes, and then type, type, type. Expository much different, as in articles for drink tank. All MSWord.
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Leah Cutter: Pen Porn
User: lrcutter
Date: 2008-01-31 17:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Pen Porn
My process has changed so much. I used to draft on the computer. Now, I can't. All first drafts are done longhand. But while it's a draft, I don't really consider the first draft to be complete until I've typed it up. Then it's the true first draft. And a lot of editing takes place between the longhand draft and the typed version. Still, the first typed version is the first draft.

For a novel, then I go through scene-by-scene, I think. I'm trying to make the novel not broken. It's an iterative process, all done on the computer, and involves all of the things you mentioned, blank sheet rewrite for a few sections (not too many though, I've found.) Scotch and long walks and divine intervention for solving the insolvable, intractable problems. Some line-by-line stuff, but that doesn't happen until the third rewrite, when I print out a copy of the novel (in a different font than I've been using, so I can truly re-vision it, see again) and read the thing out loud.

Then it goes to my first readers, and another rewrite ensues.
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User: jedinemo
Date: 2008-02-02 05:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I prefer to draft on my laptop, thus using a word processor. However, so that I can squeeze in more writing time, I write on my lunch hour at work, which I do longhand.

I've wondered about the cognitive differences involved in writing on a keyboard vs. longhand, since a keyboard involves using both hands. I have a vague recollection that longhand writing causes signal transmission to pass through Broca's area, but would two handed writing be the same? Do you thus get different types of writing depending on method? My general observation of my own writing is that keyboard use results in better quality drafts.
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