How to rewrite without becoming a shriveled shell of yourself

Here’s the answer: you can’t.

That's it. That's the end.

On a good day, I’ll write about 800-1000 words in an hour. On a REALLY good day, I’ll actually decide to use those words. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this before, but when you’re revising your novel and you know you have to cut out 35,000 words (that equates to approximately 38.8 hours of my life/at least a month of writing, down the drain) before it’s even close to readable, it hurts more than just your brain and your social calendar.

It hurts your soul.

The first-draft mindset involves a lot of, “Wait, that doesn’t really… oh well, I’ll cut it later,” and “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S COMING NEXT BUT I AM GOING TO KEEP WRITING ANYWAY BECAUSE I HAVE TO GET MY WORDS IN EGGPLANT DOORKNOB CHEESE GRATER.” A friend once pointed out to me that the revision mindset is completely different. At the time, I didn’t fully believe her, because it’s all part of the writing process, right?

No. *slaps your hand*

Privateer is the first novel I’ve ever worked up the guts to revise this extensively, and let me tell you something—rewriting is totally different from first-drafting. I don’t know if I’d call revising less creative, but it’s absolutely more analytical, more meticulous. I just finished Privateer draft #2 (which I did over the course of 4 months). Here are a few things I’ve learned about second drafting since I started.

1. You are your own worst enemy.

The worst part about revising your own work is that you will inevitably be fighting yourself all the way through. Your first draft is your baby. You friggin’ slaved over that chapter, didn’t you. You spent way too long on that sentence to chop it out. I know.

NO TOUCHY.

NO TOUCHY.

When you enter second draft territory, you take on another identity. You are no longer the tender, loving mother of your brainchild. You are a chemically imbalanced Mary Poppins to whom somebody gave a carving knife.

You must look at your own work as though you have never seen it before (it helps when you’ve let it sit for a couple of months, like I did before I dove into revisions). You must challenge each sentence with the narrowed eyes of a jaded literary critic, and ask, “Why do you deserve to stay?”

And sometimes the mother in you will rise up, pleading for you to let her take over. And sometimes, you can let her. But only if it’s for the good of the whole story.

2. You can always use less words.

But save the ones you decide to slash. My Privateer cuts document is about 13,000 words long. That’s the size of a small novella. There is no way in heck I am going to extract a small novella from my novel and then delete it forever.

Also, on a personal note, I am just a wordy person. I write things with twenty words that would have taken any normal person five to say. I know this about myself. So when I’m revising, I look specifically for sentences that need shortening, scenes that don’t further the plot—places where I was rambling just because I could.

It’s natural to think, “But I can’t cut out [some obscene amount of words] without damaging the plot or a character’s development.” This leads me to my next point.

3. Readers are smarter than you think they are.

If this sounds kind of insulting, it’s because it is. I’m of the opinion that writers should always be readers first, writers second. Do you know how I feel when a book continues to explain a plot point three chapters later, or beats me over the head with a moral that I understood from one sentence?

I feel like the writer is talking down to me.

I feel insulted.

When I was drafting Privateer, there were a lot of moments when I thought to myself, “Is a reader going to get what I’m going for here?” The answer 99% of the time was, “Yup, and you definitely should have quit three paragraphs back.”

People who read have been trained—let me say that again, we have been trained—to read between the lines. We look ahead for plot twists instinctively. We scrutinize characters for any hint of future betrayal. We know it’s coming, so we watch for it, and try to guess what’s going to happen before it does.

For this reason, readers are highly sensitive to any new information you give them. If you start to pound it into their brains, repeat it two hundred times for the sake of clarity, they’re going to throw your book across the room.

4. You are probably not as poetic as you think you are.

Actually, you probably are. I, however, am not.

This point just comes down to knowing your strengths. For example, besides fiction and babbling blog posts, I also write plays. I’m good with dialogue. I luuuurve dialogue.

Description does not come as naturally to me. I would rather pore over five pages of dialogue than write five sentences about the infrastructure of a city I invented. Unfortunately, this means that I come up with a lot of really bad metaphors and add a lot of stupid, fluffy details to my first drafts.

There is such a thing as “overwriting.” It can happen when you’re so determined to force people to fall head-over-heels in love with your writing, that your work reads overly elaborate, overly poetic, overly sarcastic, whatever. That’s when you need to stop and reevaluate your life choices. Why do you care so much? Who are you writing for?

Of course, this can also happen when you’re writing for yourself. You do it because you can. If that’s you (it’s totally me), go back to point number 1. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

5. Step back. Take a deep breath. Go outside. You look awful.

Look, when you’re cutting up your work like Demented Mary Poppins, you’re going to need a break. Because yes, it pretty much sucks no matter what you do. No matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise, rewriting is work.

But seriously, if you get frustrated, put it away. You won’t do anybody any good while you’re aggravated. So close the document. Remind yourself what it’s like to create something new. Go for a run. Play some music. Run through a sprinkler. Hang out with friends.

Do something else. No shame. Sometimes, the draft just needs to sit. Writing is work, but it’s also supposed to be fun! And if you hate your life while you’re doing it, you might be doing it wrong.

–Samantha Chaffin


What have you found helps you when you’re rewriting? What are your revision tricks? Tell me in a comment, because I want to steal them and use them forever.

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6 thoughts on “How to rewrite without becoming a shriveled shell of yourself

  1. thejaneite says:

    Ahhh Sam….so convicting…..darn you. You are also extremely inspiring to me. I’m itching to finish “Finding You” so I can start on Draft #2, and to rewrite my first novel from 5 years ago, but I’m still a little wiped on rewriting from Esmeralda. Thank you for inspiring me to start. 😉 Also, I love point #3. Alas, I used to believe I was a brilliant specimen of humanity because movies that were supposed to be mysteries, dramas, thrillers, etc, never surprised me, and usually the same with books as well. I pretty much always saw everything coming. And then one day, while watching “The Brothers Bloom” (an ingenious movie that actually kept me guessing) I realized that no, I wasn’t brilliant, I simply had a brain, and the stupid writers thought I didn’t most of the time. Then I felt insulted and vowed never to do that to my readers. Then I think I did anyway.

    If it’s any consolation, I never felt like your book was dumbed down at all. Certain things (*ahem*) that come to be revealed about Derek, for instance, I never saw coming. You kept me on the edge of my seat, and I felt enriched at the end of your book.

    That being said, you’re a boss to rewrite (and in 4 months?!? mine took me a year!) and I’m super excited to see where Privateer takes you.

  2. deshipley says:

    Though I’ve been writing for, like, ever, rewriting is still fairly new to me. I never used to do it; just crank out a book, declare it finished, and dash away to the next story.

    Part of that has to do with my writing style. I’m kind of incapable of that “just write it down, move on, It’s Only A First Draft” mentality. I have to tweak as I go. The typical result is a first draft of, I think I can say in reasonable modesty, second or third draft quality. Alas and alack, that still doesn’t equal the perfection I desire. Hence the necessity for me to learn to rewrite now.

    When I begin to feel I know the first thing about it, I’ll let you know.

  3. C.L. says:

    I’m in the middle of my first real major book revision right now and it’s every bit as difficult as you’ve said here. We have opposite problems, though. You love dialogue and I’m no good at it, but I love description. That being said, you don’t need to have paragraphs of prose to describe what you’re talking about and this is something I’m trying to get better at. The other problem is objectivity. I reread my piece and thought, “I can expand. There’s stuff here, but it’s thin.” So that’s what I’ve been doing–putting in as I take out in order to make some things exist where they didn’t before. I’m hoping (hoping!) that I’m right about certain additions. Actually, I’m hoping I’ve been right about needing any additions at all.

    Thank goodness for beta readers, or just readers you can trust who will tell you when your underwear is showing *before* you go into the party. 🙂

  4. Kim says:

    I always feel terrible when it comes to being a blogger, because I have a habit on reading the good posts long after they’ve been posted. And Sam, you are a brilliant blogger. I wish I had half the wit (and GIFS) you do when you put together a post. And this one is no different.

    My writing projects are ALL about revision these days. First, my thesis, having ot revise in order to graduate. Then revising Bg multiple times for various agents (where’s my ice cream?). And now, I’m revising yet another manuscript… only to add another BG revision into the mix. The only break I’ve gotten is writing Stella, which, thankfully, didn’t demand a lengthy revision. Ugh.

    So, I completely agree with everything you’ve said here. You question each little sentence, every plot point, and probably sink into a self-inflicted depression if the process lasts too long, haha.

    Just reading your thoughts about it, and being able to laugh, has done a lot for my spirit. Thank you!

    Revision tips? Hmmm. I like to break each task down into pieces, so that I’m not overwhelmed (and it’s clear when I’ve finished something – pat on the back time!). I’ve also started making bullet points of my goals when going into a revision. I started doing this after approaching the 6th draft of something – making sure that I’m clear to myself about the goals, and not just chewing on a perfectly good manuscript (like a dog facing a buffet, I need someone to tap my nose and say it’s done, haha).

    • samchaffin says:

      Kim, you are just too sweet. 🙂 I’m so glad that this post made you laugh. Looking back on it, I can see all the places where my own frustration with revisions burst through. So if it came across as bitter and jaded at all… it’s because I might have been… a lil’ bit. Haha but I feel ya, for sure. Revising can suck so much. But it’s so awesome to have friends who know what you’re going through and can empathize with you!

      Love your revisions tips!! I found myself making bullet point lists without really planning on doing it… I think I’m a list-maker by nature. 🙂 But you’re right, they’re a great help in terms of accountability and clear goals! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Aubrey Cann says:

    I’ve revised one manuscript of mine so many times that I don’t even feel sad when I cut something anymore. I’ve managed to detach myself so that when I delete a whole chapter, it’s out of my mind. I’ll write a better chapter to put there (ideally).

    Of my 82k word ms, I’d say less than 50k from the first draft stayed. Maybe even less than 45k. That should horrify me, and would have if you told me that when I finished the first draft, but I just shrug it off now. I choose to believe that I need to get through the bad iterations of the book before I get to the best version, that each deleted word was a word I had to write before I could write something better. It’s all mind games, I guess.

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