You are at the end of your story. What began as an imagined scene, something you heard, or a moment of reflection has been transformed into words on paper. You’ve worked hard for hours, days, and weeks . . . in increments of minutes, pages, and scenes. In that time you have poured your creativity into the narrative. The characters, alive in your mind, have been your constant companions during the arduous journey of crafting your story. The sense of accomplishment you now posess is both empowering and exhilarating. It feels great. Now what?
Go back to the beginning.
Many people write. Some write in journals, some write memos, some write proposals, some only write grocery lists. Very few people write stories, and even less write good ones. Good stories come from writers who know that “The End” is not always the end. Good writers know that when you finish your story, the next item on the agenda is to start at the beginning and make the tale everything that it can and should be.
Readers don’t see the behind-the-scenes work that every published author had to do in order to get her book or story in print. It’s deceptive. What we buy when we purchase a book or magazine is a finished product, produced by a tremendous amount of thought, time, sweat and decision-making. A large portion of the writing and publishing process involves rewriting, or revising, to be certain that the story contains everything it needs and does not include any word that does not add to the plot, background information, or character development.
There are nearly as many tools for rewriting as there are writers who use them. What follows are suggestions that I have found very helpful in developing my own rewriting techniques.
Put It Aside
When you’ve made it through the story and have written “The End”, congratulate yourself. You have reached a milestone on the journey. Pat yourself on the back, enjoy the moment, and put your story aside…for a while.
Letting it linger is valuable in several ways. The first draft is for getting it out, getting it down on paper, taking your ideas and running with them. Some writers edit as they write, which may not be bad, but often this stifles the flow of creativity. Blast out that first draft, then let the story sit and simmer in your mind. Though you’ve put it on paper, the story remains in your head. Time allows your subconcious mind (or muse, if you prefer) to explore your experiences and add appropriate ones to the mental file in which you’ve placed your story. When you go back to the page, you may find other inspirations occur simply because you have allowed your mind time to tinker.
Putting it aside gives the writer some distance. Having lived with a story while writing it tends to alter one’s objectivity, which you will need when you return to the work. A writer needs to be able to examine his story not only as a writer but as a reader, too. This ability enables you to make important and necessary decisions as you rewrite.
Another approach to consider while you are refueling is to have someone else read the story. Find a friend (it doesn’t have to be another writer) who will give you an honest, objective opinion. I usually don’t do this with a first draft, because a rewrite or two gives me more confidence in my story before I consent to let loose the constructive critic. I emphasize the word constructive. Don’t give your work to someone who will only rip it to shreds, offering no solace or insight. This is counterproductive, and only serves to damage and dishearten. Make sure that the person you choose to read for you will be fair as well as firm in his or her opinions. Even though you may be convinced that you are capable of reading your own work, a less-biased reader will filter your words through his personal experiences and can usually come up with insight that may not have occurred to you otherwise.
How long to leave it? That’s up to you. But let it go for at least a day or two, maybe even a week. You’ll be able to ignite the fire of creativity again, and it may burn brighter because you are now able to give it more fuel.
Questions and Decision-Making
You have put it aside, the story has simmered, and you have gathered solid feedback from a reader-friend. The rewrite is about to commence. Now the real task of crafting is at hand.
To create the best story possible, a writer must be willing to revise, cut, and edit, no matter how painful and bloodletting the operation may be. At this stage, the writer needs to ask serious questions of himself concerning his manuscript. Answering these questions is the essence of rewriting.
Does the story have a solid and captivating beginning ? The writer has to seize the reader’s attention within the first few paragraphs. Any beginning should engage the reader through a specific character, a specific incident, a specific conversation, or a specific mood.
Do the characters come to life? Or are they empty words with names but no human experience? What do pain, love, joy, or other emotions feel like to them? Have you portrayed this to the reader? Use the characters’ senses. They are people, and they should smell, taste, hear, see, and feel as people do. The differences in the ways that people do these things are vital to the character’s believability. Show their personalities by what they say and do. Also ask yourself: do the characters act according to who they are? A woman who has lived a contented life as a housewife will not just jump on the back of a Harley with a biker stud and ride off for adventure unless there is something in her background or immediate situation that would make such an act plausible for her.
Question the dialogue. Does it sound natural and authentic? Does it advance the plot or allude to the personality of the character? Dialogue can be a two-edged sword. If done properly, it adds depth and emotion. Done poorly, it will jar the reader out of the story, and you’ve lost her attention. She may not allow you the chance to regain it.
Other questions to ask include (but are not limited to): does the plot have natural and believable consequences? Does it have a point? If the point is not evident, you may wish to add scenes or dialogue to make it so. Are the transitions smooth between scenes or flashbacks? Does the tale end where it should? Does it go too far or not far enough? Is the climax climactic? Have you eliminated every word, thought, scene or conversation that does not advance the story?
The final piece of the rewriting puzzle is to make certain that your English teachers and professors will be proud of you. Check that punctuation, examine those tenses, do away with the sentence fragments, and don’t dangle any participles. One of the best authorities on the subject is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Everything you’ve ever forgotten about grammar but are afraid to admit. Proofread twice, at least. Be sure that what you have written is not disparaged by something as simple as a misplaced comma or a confusing tense shift.
Writing is an art and it is a craft. The best writing comes from writers willing to take the time to sculpt their words into clear, coherent, concise communication.
Rewriting can be as rewarding, if not more so, as your initial plunge into the page. It is an indispensable part of the writing process, the process of ideas becoming words which establish a connection to the minds and hearts of others. Take rewriting seriously. Your writing will be better for the effort, and your effort will make you a better writer.
Originally published in Dream Weaver: A Magazine for Beginning Writers