On the Subject of Rewriting

An essay written in 2011 in response to a writer’s enquiry.

By Matthew Curlewis

A writer recently ran this by me:

“Some people say writing is 5% imagination/writing and 95% ‘red pen’, re-writing, editing. However, that’s the part I would rather ignore. That’s the bit about which I wonder: do we really…? Have to…?

So my question(s)… is partly: to what extent do you agree with this 5% vs 95%? And: is there a way we could practice this – within the workshop or otherwise? An exercise, homework… or are there guidelines as to how to approach this phase in writing?

Curious: have the others in the group got experience with editing/re-writing their own material? If not, is that because you’ve ignored that bit like me? Did you feel it wasn’t necessary? Or…  did you enjoy it? Were you, afterwards, sure you actually improved the material?”

I answered the following:

I have a few thoughts on the subject which I’ll attempt to put down here for you – and in fact these thoughts relate directly to the name I chose for this workshop: ‘Writers’ Stretch & Tone’.

To start with, let’s try the question in another medium, say, sculpture. I think it was Michelangelo who said something like, “David was already there in the block of marble. My task was simply to take away the surrounding marble in order to reveal him.” This process however, was one of endless refinement. If he’d just whacked that block of stone with a mallet a few times and then said he was done, we wouldn’t have been left with one of the world’s most famous statues.

Try another analogy – a musician and an athlete will both practice a gigantic amount. Scales, arpeggios, sprints, warm-ups – all kinds of exercises preparing them for ‘the work’. This ‘work’ might be the performance of a piece of music at a concert. In addition to the general practice, the piece will be practiced over and over again – broken into small pieces where there is great difficulty, memorised perhaps, played in different modalities. In short a gigantic amount of work will occur BEFORE an audience will hear the final concert performance. Similarly for the athlete. Imagine the hours, days, weeks and years of preparation that will go into that minute or so that an Olympic athlete will spend actually ‘performing’ what they’ve been training for.

When viewed in lights like these, I kindof have to say then, who would we be as writers to say, “Oh I just write it down once, then maybe check it for spelling and it’s done.” To achieve a result of high quality writing, I believe a writer must do a lot of work in order to reach their goal. That work is a combination of practice (other kinds of writing), the writing itself, and then re-writing/editing. I’m not going to attempt to put 5% or 95% measurements on these things – what’s more important I think is that you find ways to make the ENTIRE process of writing enjoyable to yourself in some way – or else not bother attempting it at all.

For myself, I don’t feel really satisfied with a piece of writing that I know can be better – and to clarify – I mean that I know that I can make better MYSELF. And I end up enjoying the process of editing and refining, because I know what I’m working towards – which is a piece of writing I will feel happy with and will feel proud to stand behind. It’s important to develop a sense of your own abilities so that you can say to yourself, “For where my skill level is today, I know I’ve done this to the best of my ability.” Or, “I know I still need to work on this more until it is actually ‘finished’”.

And the easiest, most immediate way I can suggest you try this out is to work with something from within the workshop. You might want to try it like the following. One of the pieces you write in the session that you like – take it home and read it over again. Ask yourself, is it complete? Could it be longer? Is there more story here I haven’t yet ‘revealed’ or produced? Are my sentences as ‘full’ as they can be? Am I using all the senses? Could my dialogue be stronger or more precise? Could my descriptive passages be richer? Or perhaps, and very importantly… could the whole thing be shorter? Could it be richer, fuller, more intense, whatever, by actually being more concise?

Then either continue by adding more writing, if that’s what the piece needs, or take a stab at rewriting it. First step might simply be to type it up on a computer and you may already find yourself tidying a few things as you do so. The only way to find out how to do this is to actually to do it, and trust whatever voice inside tells you to add some words here, take some words away there.

And actually now that I really pay attention to it, I think your 5% vs 95% figures are off the mark. I actually find the creative act – coming up with the story in the first place to be the ‘hardest’ part. When I’m editing at least I already have the characters, I have a sense of the plot, I have something approaching the voice of the piece. I want to make them all better and stronger and tighter – but at least they all ‘exist’ – I don’t have to invent them out of thin air like I did during the actual ‘creative’ act.

Find a piece you’ve written in workshop then take a stab at writing more of it, of rewriting it, editing it, adding a character here, taking away another one there. See what you end up with. Then type it up. One page, two pages, five – whatever feels ‘complete’ in some way, then bring in copies for the group, hand them out and we’ll take them home for a week, then the following week we’ll review the piece – noticing what’s good about it, and seeing if we can also find ways of making it better. What do you have to lose?! To get the most you can out of this workshop, I really stress that this is the way to go. Do the best writing you can in the sessions, but then also share a manuscript with the group. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot, and also give the group the gift of learning during the process of structured critique.

Hope this answers the question some, and let’s keep this open as an ongoing discussion.

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