Chapter Four: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting Part Two

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


Okay, for the second time early in this book, I’m going to dive into the rewriting myth.  But please, before you go any farther, please go read the first chapter on rewriting. You can find it here.

(Note: The workshop chapter in the book, the former chapter four, will follow this new chapter four. The fun of putting together a book like this puzzle.)

Okay, this chapter came about because of an exchange in the comments on the first rewriting chapter about not worrying about writing what is hot, just write your own stuff. It suddenly became clear to me that when Heinlein and others, including me, tell writers to not rewrite, a brand new myth appears.

Myth: Without rewriting, the manuscript is sloppy and full of errors.

Or flipped over: Myth: Rewriting must be done a number of times to make a manuscript clean.

Both, of course, are just silly because no writer is the same. All of us work differently. (I’m going to be saying that a great deal in this chapter.) And often rewriting introduces many errors into manuscripts that were not there before.

If a so-called professional writer turns in a sloppy manuscript full of errors, they are not being professional. But that does not mean they must rewrite beyond a fix-typos draft. So here we go into the rewriting myth part two.

Types of professional selling writers.

1) Rewriters. This type of professional writer usually does a fast first draft, usually thin, then goes back in second and third and more drafts layering in more and more and more story and detail and everything. This type of writer is called an adder-inner and the drafts are done with creative voice in control, not critical voice. This is a learned skill and from my observation almost always fails with new writers because they don’t know what they are fixing. And they always take out their own voice that makes their stories unique.

2) Three-drafters. This type of writer fires hard all the way through the manuscript, putting everything they can think of at the moment. Then in a second run-through, they take out what is repeated, often shift chapters around like a puzzle. Then a first reader reads it and they fix problems and mail. This method only works for professionals also because that second draft must be done in creative mind-set as well, and that’s flat hard to do. These folks are often called taker-outers.

3) Cyclers. This is often a one draft writer, but the draft is cycled through a number of times. I fit right here. I start and go for a ways until I bog down, then cycle back and run at the place I stopped, often tweaking and fixing as I go until I get up to speed and keep typing new until I bog down again. When I get to the end I have a first reader read it, fix the mistakes they catch, and mail. This method is a little easier for newer writers because they naturally stay in creative voice more often. The difficulty they have with this method is not touching it after they are done. Trust in your own craft and voice comes from a lot of years of writing and success.

4) Pure One-Drafters. This is where Harlan Ellison and others working on manual typewriters fit. This type of writer is a master of storytelling and craft and sentence structure and everything else. They make few mistakes because when they type, they are clear on what they want to put down. Computers have killed this type of writer for the most part, and replaced it with the Cycler types like me.


What have I been talking about anyway when I say follow Heinlein’s Rules, including #3? What is the definition of rewriting in fiction, because it sure seems that the examples above are mostly of professionals rewriting in one form or another. Well, sort of.

Notice a couple of details in my above examples:

1) I am talking about professional writers.

2) All are working solidly in creative voice.

Creative voice is the white-hot heat you feel when creating. Sometimes, granted, it burns like an ember and it doesn’t feel so hot, other times it is a rushing fire of words. But the words always come out of the creative side of your brain. That is the key, learning how to stay completely, no matter what method you use, in the creative side of your brain.

Long-term professional writers like me can turn the creative voice on instantly. I call it a “switch on my butt.” When I sit down in front of my writing computer (different from my e-mail computer) I automatically just drop into creative mindset. It takes time to train that switch, but after millions and millions of words, it becomes automatic.

The critical side of your brain is where your English teacher lives, where that awful book by Strunk and White lives, where your workshop and all their voices lives. The critical side of your brain wants you to write safe stuff, wants it to not offend anyone or go outside of any rule. The critical side of your head thinks your own voice is dull and will always work to take it out.

No professional writer I have ever met writes quality fiction out of their critical side. No matter how many drafts they do. All drafts are done in creative voice except for the last draft of fixing mistakes found by a first reader.

Stages of Writers

Stage One: A beginning writer is only concerned about proper grammar and pretty words and wouldn’t understand storytelling if it bit them. They think perfect grammar and spelling makes good writing and are just confused when their attempts at stories get rejected. This writer will polish and polish and polish to make sure every sentence is perfect with no regard at all for story.

In Stage One, if a story is written in white hot creative voice, the writer instantly gets worried about it because it seemed “too easy” and it was written “too fast” so it must be garbage and therefore the writer polishes all the good stuff out of it to make it “perfect” sentence-by-sentence writing.

(Yeah, I know, that hit home. We all did it in the beginning. I was no exception.)

Stage Two: A second stage writer is still concerned more with sentences than with story, but slowly the idea that character development must come in, that pacing might be important, that storytelling is what sells stories. All that starts to dawn on this stage of writer. But the focus is still on polishing those words to a shining examples of “perfect” writing.

More stories in this stage are written in creative voice than in stage one, but the writer has yet to learn to trust that voice, so they polish all the good stuff and their own voice out in critical voice. Also the writer still doesn’t understand enough about story to not take out the good stuff. Rewriting is a learned skill and at this level a writer doesn’t know how to do it. And in this stage any attempt at rewriting comes out of the critical side.

Stage Three: This is where most early professionals live, selling professionals with under a dozen novels published. Here the writer has made the jump from not worrying so much about sentences, but more about storytelling and character and setting and emotion and pacing so much more. This jump is made somewhere around a million words, different for every pro, but it takes some sort of awakening to make this jump.

By this point most stories are written in creative voice, and the writer is learning what method works for him or her. At this point the different styles of professional writers start to separate out as each writer finds what works and sells.

Also, at this stage, the focus on story and other pacing and such by the writer causes rewrites to remain mostly in creative voice. However, when a newer professional in this area, such as the ones we teach here in workshops, get worried, they drop back to stage two critical polish and hurt their own stories. They have the skills, but they don’t yet trust them under pressure and drop into critical voice rewrite, which always dulls down a story.

Critical voice rewriting, called “polishing” by beginning writers, always kills or dulls a story.

Stage Four: This stage includes me and Kris. This stage is full of the longer-term professionals. We know how to write stories that sell. We know how to rewrite in creative voice if we need to or want to. We are focused only on story.

I takes almost no attention for writers in this stage to produce clean manuscripts because we have our methods down and we have worked for decades learning how to create clean manuscripts. I cycle, Laura Resnick does many drafts working story into shape and cleaning, my wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an taker-outer, powering first draft and then putting things together and cleaning. We all do “fix-mistake” drafts, even the pure “one draft” writers. I saw one of Harlan’s manuscripts that actually had three corrections in ten pages. He read it, found three mistakes and corrected them. He had done a basic “fix-mistake” draft.

So, when Heinlein was talking to new writers in his article and came up with the five business rules of writing, he wasn’t talking to long-term established professionals of his day. Those writers already were set and knew what they were doing. He was talking to stage one and stage two writers.

Heinlein’s Rules

1) Write

2) Finish what you write.

3) Never rewrite unless to editorial demand.

4) Mail what you write to someone who can buy it.

5) Keep it in the mail until someone buys it.

Five very simple, yet very tough business rules of writing. They work.

But #3 is where everyone in this myth-heavy world has the most problems.

To a Stage One and Stage Two writer, who has no skills at rewriting, my way of looking at Heinlein’s Rule #3 is this:

In the early stages you are better off just trusting your natural instincts, your natural voice, write on the creative side, and then just let it go to an editor. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Sure, make it as clean as you can with a first reader catching mistakes. I had Nina Kiriki Hoffman catching my mistakes early on, and then Kris over the last twenty-five years.

But trust your voice. Stage One and Stage Two writers and many in Stage Three don’t know how to rewrite a manuscript and stay in creative voice. To those writers, rewrite means a hard, critical eye on the manuscript to “fix” it. Worst thing you can do.

Some reasons why rewriting in critical voice is so bad.

1) Your voice is dull to your ears and your eye. But it is there when you write from the creative side. It is what makes your story unique. But then in critical voice rewrite, your conscious brain takes out all the dullness to make the story better, and thus takes out your voice. In reality, what you are doing by taking what you think is dull out is making your story same and very dull.

2) When you write creatively, you know story because you have read millions of words of story. So you automatically write in story. But then when you switch to critical brain, you drop down to the word and sentence level. You ignore story and start fixing things that take the story, the pacing, the character out of your story.

3) Fiction is not written in perfect Oxford English. When writing creative side, your brain knows this. But when you switch to critical side, your English teacher pops in and puts fiction into perfect English and thus makes it dull and stilted.

4) When in the early stages of learning how to create story, you don’t understand story or character or setting or anything on a conscious level.

In one workshop last year someone asked a question about how to get setting into an example we were looking at. I turned to the board and wrote “Opinion.”

All setting is opinion. Can’t be anything else, because all story is told through the eyes of a character, therefore all setting must be opinion of that character. Seemed obvious to me, but it floored a large number of the younger professionals in the room.

When you are early in the learning, you don’t know story or setting or character or character voice or how most everything works. You might understand you need it, but you don’t know how to put it in purposefully from the critical side of your brain.

However, your creative side knows how to layer it in. The key is that you have to learn how to trust it.

Of course, no new writer does. The rewriting myth is too strong.

5) A writer is the worst judge of their own work. This is the biggest killer and the biggest argument for not rewriting anything (besides fixing mistakes a first reader finds).

Why can’t a writer see their own work? Because the story is in the writer’s head.

The story is clear to the writer because the writer put those little black code marks on the page to tell a reader the story. But to a reader those little black code marks might mean something very different. However, when the writer picks up the page covered in black marks the writer sees the full blown story in his mind.

It takes a lot of writing and feedback to understand how certain words, certain ways of putting words on a page, certain patterns in the black code marks effect readers. A top writer knows how to code these black marks on a page so that a retired woman in Florida reads the EXACT same story as a dock worker in Chicago or a teenager in LA. If the writer did his job correctly, they all read the same story and have the same reaction to the story.

You can not do that kind of work out of critical voice. It has to come from the subconscious and then after years of practice.

But remember, as a writer, when you look at your own writing, the story just appears back in your head. You have no way of knowing if those marks actually convey the story you want to thousands or millions of people. You are the worst judge of your own work.

6) A writer’s experience in writing a story has nothing at all to do with the quality of the final product.

This kills most first and second stage writers, and hurts third level pros as well. The best way to see this is sit down and as fast as you can write a story, not looking back until you get to the end. Then print it out and have a first reader find the typos and such without giving feedback on the story, fix those mistakes and then get ready to mail it. At that moment your experience of writing the story will overwhelm you. The myths will flood in and you will be convinced that because you wrote the story fast and didn’t rewrite it, didn’t even look back at it, the story will be crap.

On the flip side, you are in a section of a story or book and you struggle like crazy over it and it feels like writing it was like going to the dentist. You found yourself avoiding it and standing in front of the sink doing dishes to avoid writing the scene. When it is done, you are convinced it is crap.

But alas, it might be in both cases, or it might not be in both cases. Your experience writing the words have nothing to do with the final quality of the writing. As Neil Gaiman said, “It should matter, but it doesn’t.” If you start letting the experience of the writing influence you on what you do with your fiction, you are doomed.

No two writers work the same.

Laura Resnick and I are both long-term stage-four professionals. We know how to do this stuff and we know our own methods. Laura knows how to rewrite in a number of drafts holding creativity at the same time. I know how to cycle and finish in one draft. We both produce clean manuscripts. And we both do “fix-mistake” final drafts.

If you talk to a hundred other long term professional fiction writers, you will find there is no one “right way” of doing anything. We are all different.

So, that said, here is my take (my opinion) on what I think new writers should do to advance their craft and find their own way.

1) Do not rewrite at all past a fix draft. If a new writer doesn’t rewrite will they produce a sellable story after a “fix-mistake” draft? Maybe, but not likely.

Will a new writer produce a sellable story with five rewrites? Never.

For the reasons I stated above. They don’t know how to rewrite in creative voice, don’t know story, and will take what little is original out of the story. So I suggest that in the early years new writers follow Heinlein’s rules and not rewrite. It’s why he wrote them down and why they have worked for many writers over the years.

2) I am NOT saying turn in a flawed manuscript. Fix the typos a trusted first reader finds. But let the story you wrote in a creative white heat stand. It will show your real voice, your real talent, and then after you get a bunch of words and experience and learning under your belt, you will find which method works best for you in the long run.

3) This trusting the voice will take extreme courage and very few writers can do it. From 1975 until 1982 I bought into all these myths solidly. I thought writing slow was writing well, I thought rewriting a dozen times had to be done. Of course I was a stage two writer and had no idea what I was doing. Then I started reading how long term professionals did it. Not what they said in public, but how they actually did it. And besides a clean-up fix-typos draft, I stopped rewriting and I started selling within one year. I learned to trust my own creative voice because my critical voice didn’t know crap about writing anything that would sell.

So check in with yourself. If you are not selling and you are rewriting, try sending out your stories or publishing them on Kindle with only the typos fixed. It will take a vast amount of courage. To do that you will have to overcome decades of English teachers and myths.

In the early years of writing trust Heinlein and his five simple rules of writing. He knew what he was talking about.

Besides, you can always start rewriting later if you really want.

When you know what you are doing.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean


This entry was posted in On Writing, publishing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to Chapter Four: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting Part Two

  1. J. Tanner says:

    Another great chapter. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, out of all the myths you’ve covered, this is the myth that’s hardest for most to take on faith.

    I kind of wish it was something you could show in addition to tell. I remember in King’s book where he had a short bit of manuscript that he’d marked up and it made his point about “taking out the bad parts” (interesting, that it’s something you might disagree with telling a neophyte) better than the explanation surrounding it.

    A paragraph or two a novice hurts by rewriting would really hit like a hammer if it were possible to obtain.

  2. Totally agree on writers not being good judges of their own work and the experience writing does not equate or correlate to the quality of the writing being done.

    The only constant I’ve noticed is that I will go through a stage, about 2/3 to 3/4 through any work, where the little voice in my head tries to convince me the work completely sucks. It’s so predictable right now that I call it my “bout of suck-itis”. What I have learned is to ignore it and move right along – not changing course, not rewriting and not scrapping. If I’m really nervous, I send a bit to my first readers for reassurance. It has NEVER sucked and sold to its market every time. It’s got to be some sort of self-defeatism but I just ignore it and move on.

    I have also produced good work when words flowed so fast I could barely keep up and good work when I had to fight for every word. I definitely cannot judge quality of my work by how easy or hard it was to write.

  3. Suzan Harden says:

    Thanks for this, Dean. I’m a rewriter, and for years I had people tell me I was insane for drafting that way. A published author compared my first round to a screenplay–all stage direction and dialogue–before I layer in description and emotion.

  4. Jeff Ambrose says:

    Hi Dean,

    What a great chapter. I remember the first time I read this (or the chapter like it) a few years back. I was just getting started on following your advice without hesitation, and this chapter finally convinced my why rewriting in the early stages is so deadly — because it’s not done in the creative voice.

    That, and I finally realized that the only way to learn how to rewrite is by writing.

    So I stopped. I just wrote by cycling through the draft, fixed the typos when I finished, and sent it out.

    Recently, after taking a workshop with Dave Wolverton, I’m beginning to see that I’m a putter-in. When I get going, I tend to write thin, or I tend to rely on stock gestures. Dave helped me see how to approach the “rewriting” or “cycling” stage while being aware of what my creative voice was supposed to do.

    Or, perhaps, Dave didn’t “teach” me how to do it, but, rather, he helped me put words to what I was doing naturally and taught me some skills on how to do it better.

    I dunno.

    Either way, I’m a full-fledged cycle drafter who, while cycling through his story, fleshes out setting, character, and conflict.

    It was so cool to read this post again. After a good year of solid work of just writing, fixing, and publishing, I realize I’ve come a long way.

    Wow. Thanks so much!

  5. Camille says:

    You know, after Clarion, I had this problem with all the voices in my head (including yours). I felt all this pressure to write something publishable.

    I finally shut the voices up by intentionally choosing a project based on its UN-publishability. Dead genres, dopey premises, anything that the imaginary voices would disapprove of. And I went after that story. And then after another and another.

    I have always thought that’s the best thing I ever could have done… except for now it explains why I have a drawer full of weird stories which editors and agents liked but declared as in a dead or otherwise unpublishable category.

    As for writing style, I think I’m a combination of an adder-inner and a cycler. My stories tend to be very tightly woven, and I pin down the important points as they come to me, and then fill in. By the time it’s done, it’s done.

    • dwsmith says:

      Camille, sounds like you have a great inventory of stories to get up indie published. (grin)

      I hat trouble after Clarion as well and if it hadn’t been for the challenge with Nina to write and mail a story per week, I would have stopped as well. Clarion causes that. I’m sure that when Kris and I went back and taught Clarion in 1992, we caused it in the writers attending as well.

  6. Alex Fayle says:

    When I started writing, I was a Cycler, but I never finished anything. Then I evolved into a Rewriter – I always come up short and then add in layers. I love doing it this way because I get the story out and then I make it more interesting.

    And I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my writing since I killed the critical voice. I also let go of the ego, so that when my first readers suggest something I can look at their words without feeling like they’re attacking me, which was something I used to fight against all the time.

    I wonder what the last two of Heinlein’s rules would be for an indie-publisher? I think they’d merge into one rule:

    4. Publish it and go write something else.


    • dwsmith says:

      Alex, actually, I think the last two rules should remain separate. The reason is that so many indie publishers get discouraged and pull stories down. So I think #4 would be to an indie publisher, Publish it. And #5 would be “Leave it alone and let people buy it.”

  7. @ Maura:
    The “bout of suck-itis” is apparently fairly common for professionals as well. It’s the critical voice trying to dominate the conversation (is my guess, anyway) by tricking you into correcting mistakes that aren’t there.
    About a year ago, I read something about Neil Gaiman where he talked about his own “bout of suck-itis.” Apparently while he was working on ‘Anansi Boys,’ he became utterly convinced that it was crap. Sheer crap – it was terrible, no one would like it, he had to start all over …
    So he called up his editor to let the editor know that the project was doomed. The editor responded with a guffaw.
    Naturally Gaiman was floored. He tells an editor that the latest book project is an utter failure, and the editor laughs? So he demanded an explanation.
    The editor stopped chuckling and said, “You do realize you’ve done this before, right?”
    “Called me up two-thirds of the way through a novel to tell me you were stuck and couldn’t finish it and the work was crap anyway. This is the third time.”
    “I did?”
    “Yeah. And each time I listened and made sympathetic noises and then you went back to writing, finished the project, and it was great. Every time.”
    “Guess I’ll get back to work then.”
    “Sounds good. Can’t wait for the finished manuscript.”

    You’re not alone, Maura. The trick is to ignore the critical voice and keep going. As you’ve discovered, sometimes we write something good and don’t realize it — or actively feel that it is trash, fit only to be tossed or shredded (or rewritten, a similarly gruesome death).

    • dwsmith says:

      Susan, LOL. Actually Kris and I do that to each other every novel. Not kidding. You would think after a hundred plus novels each, we would get past that, but we never do it seems. At some point the “it sucks” just overwhelms everything and we have to talk each other off a ledge. Every damn time.

  8. Just Passing Through says:

    Alright, so this is how I am reading The Cycler (sounds like the B side of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler): You start off writing, then you get bogged down (or something happens and you have to leave), you come back later and read what you have written before ONLY to remember where you were at/coming from/what the story was about, then you start writing again. You keep doing this until you are done. But one thing The Cycler never does is sit back down with the story and start fixin’ it from the start. Does that sound close to it?
    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the tweaking and fixing as you go along, I’m guessing that it means you write a sentence as you are writing and then three sentences down you realize that the first sentence would fit in better if you had the character doing this instead of that?
    (I know realize, after writing this, what my best friend means by saying, “You think too much.”)
    For the record, since everyone else is showin’ theirs: My way of doing it (when I do it and don’t talk myself out of doing it by saying things to myself like: No one is going to read this. No one is going to understand this. Are you seriously thinking that you can make a living as a writer and so on, is that I write until I stop, then I will go back and read from the beginning and start changing it because I think it would be better if I move this around with that. Yeah, sounds like a Rewriter and a Mac Davis 1970′s song.
    Thanks for the column and the space, sir.

    • dwsmith says:

      Just Passing Through.

      Yup, you got it. The key is never go back and take a critical look at the story. You stay in creative voice all the time. And the hard part is just trust it.

  9. Love this chapter, Dean! I’m young and still learning my voice, but I’ve definitely found that my rewriting has different “feels” to it. And the most successful rewrites are the times when my first readers point out problems, and instead of going back and trying to fix it by brute force, I let it sit, and a new version of the scene will pop up in my head after a few days, often when I’m in the shower or walking somewhere. And when it does, I’m usually really excited about the change. I’m hoping that’s creative voice.

  10. Tori Minard says:

    I think I’m mainly a Cycler. I have to say this chapter, plus the other rewriting one and the workshop one, really freed me as a writer. I was so discouraged by the experiences I’d had with crit partners and groups that I almost gave up writing.

    Anyway, I find myself reading through the manuscript or just pondering it while in the shower or whatever, and I think of something that would add to the story, so I go and put it in. Sometimes I get frozen by that stupid critical voice and I have to get away from the manuscript file itself. Then I take a notebook (the old-fashioned kind with paper ) and go off somewhere else to write the stuff I want to put in. Or I redraft a scene. But I just have to get away from the main manuscript because when I look at it, I feel locked in. Do other writers experience this?

    I also get that “it’s crap” feeling, usually about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way in. The closer I get to the end, the slower I get. I think I still worry about making a mistake. Clearly I need to do more work on ignoring that critical voice. And don’t even get me started on feeling inadequate when I compare myself to other, more established writers. I try to ignore that voice when it starts whispering “if only you wrote like so-and-so, you’d be really good.” I imagine I’m getting better at it.

  11. Camille says:

    One thing I do as a Cycler, is exploratory writing. I play with my options and try things out until it feels right.

    In some ways, this can be as seductive as endlessly rewriting afterward. However, if you do it right, you can end up with lots of material for other stories.

    The solution for endlessly cycling OR rewriting, though is to go back to Heinlein’s Rule 2 – you must finish what you start. At some point you just declare it done.

  12. Suz says:

    Yes but what if I already started re-writing scenes of my novel, as I bashed out the first draft? Which is exactly what I did. I’d think up something new to add to a scene that seemed better, but would conflict with a previous scene, so in order to carry on writing the scene I was on, I’d change previous scenes.

    Now I’ve ended up with 50,000 words of messed up scenes and I don’t know what’s going on with my novel.

    It’s because I didn’t stick to the outline. Or is it?

    This is a good example of why not to re-write in the first place. I should have just kept writing. By re-writing previous scenes, I screwed up my pace. What’s worse is, I tried to outline AFTER starting my 1st draft. OMG, my brain is fried. And I’m only writing a $%&*@! teen novel FFS!

    So yeah, my little comment here is proof that re-writing is a bad idea. My question now is, how do I fix the manuscript I’ve got, without re-writing the mess I’ve made of it?

    AHA! And damn. I’m screwed.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yup, Suz, you are in a mess. That’s why most pros just stay in one mindset from start to end, either by a single rush-through draft or by a creative cycling of only a few pages at a time. You just let your critical voice come in there.

      I have no suggestion for you that you would like I’m afraid, because I just don’t see a solution other than move on to the next novel. But that kind of thinking is also something that takes a long time to learn. You see, professional writers (except newer ones) never think of a book as “their novel” because we are writing all the time. We just write, finish, and move on. Or write, toss out, write fresh, and move on. No one book becomes “our novel.” But again, that takes years to get to honestly.

      So my suggestion which you are not going to like is toss out the novel, keep the idea in your head. Write another book or two, then come back to this idea and write it fresh from only what you remember.

      Typing on a page is just typing on a page. The book is in your head, the idea of the book. That’s what is important. Toss out the screwed-up typing, clear your mind by writing another book or two, and come back to it. That’s a professional writer way of dealing with it. But flat impossible early on in a writing career I’m afraid, because in the mindset of words-ar- important, tossing out those words is difficult at best, impossible most of the time.

      I hope some of that made sense…

  13. I like this chapter better – you’ve gotten very specific on rewriting vs. clean writing/good writing. I agree, rewriting unto eternity will not help a bad story, regardless of perfect grammar and punctuation.

  14. Hi Dean,

    I always enjoy these articles and get something from them, thank you.

    The big insight today, for me, was “all setting is opinion” – that just opened a door in my mind.


  15. PolyWogg says:

    Great article, and I think this one is better than the earlier chapter…in fact, with this one, do you even need the other chapter?


  16. John Walters says:

    I’ll add my voice to that “suckitis” syndrome. I’ve learned to get used to it: I start off in white heat, loving the story, but then some distance in it cools and I wonder if it’s any good. But I find if I persevere that invariably it comes out fine.

    About trusting your creative side: I once wrote a story with a very unusual premise, and right at the beginning it occurred to me that it might be tough to sell. So I said to myself, why not just have fun with it? And I did. I alternated viewpoints, one in second person present tense, and one in third person past tense, and I even included some typographical innovation at the end – though I must add that all of this was not just for show but fitted the theme and characters. And lo and behold, it sold swiftly and for good money. Go figure.

  17. Martin Vavpotic says:

    I think the best way for me to stay in my creative voice is to read my text with a fast pace. That way I can’t be distracted by specific words or missing letters but just focus on the story.

    I too find myself forgetting about description of scenery or about the detail a reader needs to understand. I come back to those after I get a flash of how to describe it without actually starting a lecture. Lately, I try to input the detail in a matter-of-fact way. The more important the detail, the more it must be subtle.

  18. Thanks for the follow-up and clarification, Dean. And thanks again for the original article. It inspired me to stop worrying over rewriting my latest novel and just put it out there already. So I published it the other day, and it’s actually selling. Not a lot — just one or two copies a day since it hit Amazon, but that’s more than I expected, so I’m thrilled.

    As for my style, I think I’m a natural cycler–that used to be how I wrote everything. But I think my participation in NaNoWriMo threw me off-track, with its focus on not looking back at anything you’ve already written and then editing after you’re done. That’s when I got bogged down in the critical editing trap. With my current novel I’m trying to re-train myself to go back to being a cycler, which was much more efficient, not to mention more enjoyable.

  19. Camille says:

    Suz — I do that.

    Dean is right that if it’s your first or second novel, you should probably pull yourself out of it and write something else. Maybe a few shorter or simpler stories to get some skills in mentally handling “completeness.”

    It’s also what I meant by getting caught in the same endless trap as a “cycler” as someone who tries to revise too much.

    I still do it sometimes. (I wrote a blog post on how that happened in my W.I.P. just the other day! )

    Sometimes you have to give up and start over, sometimes a little ‘drawer time’ will help. And sometimes you have stop and think “why did I change this?” That can put you back on track.

    One more note: if you pause to mentally review where you went wrong — why you decided to change, why you did what you did, and where it went off the tracks — you can often learn a lesson in storytelling, or at least about yourself and how to prevent such problems in the future. (Very often that lesson will be something you already know — like “Trust your feelings, Luke!”)

    • dwsmith says:

      But caution on what Camille said. That’s coming at a story with critical voice turned on high. Don’t try to create anything new in that mode. Just analytical. When you write, you toss all that out and just write and quit worrying about it and changing things. Trust your own voice and get it finished. Rule #2.

  20. I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only one that doesn’t re-read their finished work until I have to do requested edits, galleys or such. I read the prior day’s work before I write the current days – all in creative voice – so I stay IN the story but I don’t go back and reread the whole thing. I make changes based on what the first readers think but, again, I don’t think I’ve ever re-read the whole thing.

    I don’t read it when it comes out. It’s almost like when the story is written, it’s done. I know it and don’t need to revisit it.

    Am I strange? LOL

    - Maura

    • dwsmith says:

      Maura, I’ve described that as my method a number of times. I never reread my own work and find it dull and always look at a writer who does reread their own work for any reason. Just seems stupid to me. I wrote it, why would I want to read it? So I never read anything I wrote and find doing proofs complete torture. So I don’t think you are strange. I think anyone who reads their own work after writing it for any reason strange, to be honest. (grin)

  21. Megs says:

    I’m half-rewriter and half-one-drafter.

    I naturally write way too short and concise and frequently with half the story still suck in my head. Woe to the poor reader that actually tries to decipher the poor sucker! When I pull one of those, I:

    1. let it sit until it’s settled into fresh creativity (I’m not remembering all the original words—one of the real pains of a fantastic memory is you can write the EXACT same thing if you don’t let it sit)
    2. print it out
    3. write it new from scratch in a fresh document while occasionally gleaning good bits from my printed document like it was scribbled story ideas instead of a draft

    Most of the time though, the writing flows fine or I can see that an entire coherent thought made it on the page. I do a quick check for spelling errors, typos, or blatant continuity issues and send that baby in!

  22. Debora says:

    Hmm. As a new writer, this distinction between critical and creative brain is a useful one. I’m a lifelong reader, and to me, writing feels very “instinctive”. There have been a few writing concepts that have been really useful, but a lot of them seem to get in the way.

    So, question. How much value does “learning the craft” (in some way other than writing more) have for the new writer? Do you run the risk of negatively impacting your brain’s ability to write in creative voice?

    • dwsmith says:

      Debora, you have to constantly keep learning. It’s something that never stops. At the same time, you have to constantly keep writing and practicing. You learn something, then you go write a story. What you learned might not come out of your creative voice the first or second time out, but it will be there when you need it. But if a writer thinks they know it now and don’t have to keep chasing the learning, that will be their end. They may sell a few more things, but it will just drain away and they will be a “what ever happened to” trivia question. Learning in writing is forever.

  23. Dean & Deborah — I think make a distinction between “learning” and “taking classes”. I am constantly learning more about storytelling and writing and I hope I never stop. Learning constantly is the only way to improve.

    What I have to watch out for is that when I take a class or workshop. I have a strong case of “interested in everything” and have to stop myself from dropping everything I’ve been doing in favor of trying whatever I learned at the class. When I was really new to writing I would literally start projects over so I could use whatever I learned right away. NOT a great idea when I wasn’t stuck to begin with.

    Now I ponder over what I learn and try to pick out things that make sense to me to try and figure I can try those on the NEXT project. No starting over for no good reason :)

  24. Camille says:

    Yes, if you meant what I said at the end “what went wrong?” that is for YOU not necessarily for the story. As Dean says, every writer is different — the point of asking such questions is to Know Thyself.

    That’s why “why did I make that change?” is a better question than “what’s wrong with the story?” You’re critiquing yourself, not your story — looking for where it is that you get in your own way.

  25. MarkG says:

    Reading your description of beginning writers is interesting, because coming to novel writing from a movie background (writing and editing) I’ve really never thought much about the actual words used to tell a story; other than that I hate the bastard things, which is one reason why I was writing screenplays to begin with.

    I definitely seem to fit into your ‘adder-inner’ category, starting out with a basic storyline and description not much more complex than the average screenplay, then fixing the story and character problems and finally putting in the rest of the words (description, thoughts, etc).

    I think one of the best pieces of advice here is your comment, “we just write, finish, and move on.” I’ve seen many beginning writers, both novels and screenplays, who spend years trying to get their One True Story to work so they never progress beyond that; similarly aspiring movie directors who keep editing their movie again and again when they should have called it done and moved on to the next one.

    I would also like to say thanks for both these posts about rewriting and your earlier posts about writing fast; I’m now trying to self-publish three novels this year and four the next, and so far I’m about on schedule for the first. For the first time ever I’m probably going to spend less time revising the thing than writing the first draft.

  26. Linda Jordan says:

    Yeah, I’ve spent the last four years or so revising four different novels. They were all workshopped and I changed viewpoints and moved chapters around. Most of them don’t even remotely work now. One of them’s going up (it got messed with the least), but the other three I’m so sick of them that they’ll have to sit for awhile (or forever) until I feel like redrafting them.

    The last two novels, which I’ve written since I read the first version of this chapter, are just getting minor fix-ups and then they’ll be going online. I’ve learned my lesson. “Trust your feelings, Luke.” Ha.

    I’ve always known that the 9/10 of my unconscious brain lurking around back there was smarter than the more vocal 1/10. So why didn’t I believe it?

    Thanks again for sharing your clarity and experience!

  27. Debora says:

    That makes sense, thanks. I’m trying to juggle learning more of the “craft” side without it overwhelming the writing. Letting it leak out when it’s ready and has managed to trickle over to the other side of my brain seems reasonable.

  28. David Barron says:

    I love Creative Voice. Mostly because it feels like Caffeine Voice, just things get done.

    Good chapter.

  29. Setting as opinion. Yeah, you definitely imploded my mind with that one. Sure, I could go back and find the areas in my writing that I did that, but actually knowing to do it and consciously adding it to my stories is something I’ve been focused on since last October.

    Thanks as always!


  30. Christian K says:

    This is a more than little off topic, but it’s my current writing dilemma.

    I have a very difficult time writing new words at the computer. I have tried laptops, iPads, different rooms, being outdoors, coffee shops, different writing applications, dictation software, and every time the little guy in the back of my head that tells me the stories shuts up after about a half hour, if he ever get’s started. Yet, at that moment I can pick up a pen and paper and the writing just flows.

    I have taken to starting at the computer and if the little ((bleep))er stops talking I go to pen and paper for a while, then switch back to computer. I still get the words out but, it’s inconvenient and inefficient.

    Don’t know if anyone has any advice, but I’d love to hear it.

    I am also going to post this on mythbreakers forum.

  31. Camille says:

    I taught myself to compose at a computer when I first got a Mac in 1985 — by starting a journal. I blathered on computer every day for a while, until it felt natural.

    However, I was still composing some of the time on paper as recently as a few months ago. The only reason I stopped is because I have so much to do, that I was accumulating paper, and didn’t have time to enter it all onto disk.

    So I started carrying my ancient little Asus Eee around when I would go write out of the house. (I tend to do a lot of raw writing in fast food restaurants.) Both it and my regular laptop have a little SD card reader built in, so it’s like having an old floppy disk drive again.

  32. I translated and posted a french translation of this chapter on my blog :

    I’m getting a few comments on these chapters, as I expected ; some are actually in english, which is a surprise.

    Here’s Asia Morela’s english-spoken answer to your Chapter 3 : Rewriting :

    And if you’re interested, you might want to read our further discussion in the comments, as it adds significant elements to the article itself.

    Anyway, glad to see you at least elicited a well-spoken reaction.

    • dwsmith says:

      Remi, well spoken, I agree, but wow full of the very myths I was trying to knock down. The myth that writing has to be hard, the myth that writing to be good must be rewritten to death, the myth that writing must be thought about. Of course, the author is talking about writing papers and nonfiction for jobs and school and in those areas I agree with the points. But not with fiction I’m afraid.

      Thanks for pointing the response out. Interesting reading.

  33. Very nice. It’s really cool for me to have started reading this particular section of your blog after coming to a similar realisation. I recently put up some short stories and poetry online (Kindle and Smashwords). Without a doubt, the poetry began to outsell the short stories. Now, I was wondering why this was. The poetry was written off the cuff. The short stories (some of them anyway) were more polished. Readers commented on how the poems resonated – I realised they were written in those ‘white heat’ moments you talk about.

    Wow, big ‘aha’ moment for me there. It really hit me how important listening to your creative side is when writing, letting the words flow creatively as opposed to coldly structuring them by trying to measure perfection somehow. Of course, such perfection doesn’t really exist. Our individual writer’s voice does exist though, and is begging to be heard.

    And – as an example of not giving in to the dull, critical side of my brain – I’m not going to go over this comment ad nauseum like I normally would before posting lol. Cheers. Good stuff that’s good for any writer’s soul:)

  34. mary says:

    Hi! You have some really fascinating ideas here; I came here via Laura’s blog, since my friend Jon Gibbs linked to it. And I had some thoughts about revising.

    I’m pretty new at this, and found it good to hear that basically, what writers write from the creative side of their brain is pretty much okay. That’s been my experience with my first novel. A lot of what I came up with was more than okay; it was amazing to me. I don’t even know where some of it came from!

    I tend to agree with you that rewriting a story or novel in its entirety is a mistake. Too new at this to know what my own process is, but I do tend to check stuff over/rewrite as I go. And I could never understand those authors who insisted they love revising more than writing first drafts, since discovering the story is such fun! But-

    I recently had a great experience – after some thought, I saw that I could remove a secondary villain from my story and give all his lines and actions to the primary villain. So I did. And – suddenly the stakes got higher for my protagonist, and the conflict became clearer – all very good things for the story. But what’s interesting here, as far as your theory goes, is this: When I was first thinking the story out, the primary villain did have those lines and actions. My adding the secondary villain was a mistake I needed to correct. As a young writer, I guess I was scared of the effect the villain would have on my protagonists. I just had to get back to my original impulse and deal with the consequences. That was what the story needed. It’s not always a bad thing to approach conflict in a roundabout way, provided you get there. What I’m saying is that there are times revision truly is useful – if it helps you get back to the story that was in your heart.

    Also – you mentioned redrafting in your first post on rewriting. Cynthia Leitich Smith does this with every one of her books, and – without planning to, or even knowing it was a fairly common process, I’ve done the same thing with both my current WIPs. Redrafting is great! It’s really key, though, I find, to NOT look back at all at your earlier drafts. Whatever you need to retain from them, you will retain.

    Great site – I’m really enjoying these posts and all the discussion following from them.

  35. mary says:

    I blogged about this, btw. Here’s the link:

    I do think that:
    1. Revision is sometimes necessary, and
    2. It’s more possible than you think for an author to reread his/her work and see it whole. That said, I also think that what you have said about revising from the creative, rather than the critical mind, and redrafting is brilliant.

  36. Raven says:

    On the “setting as opinion” thing — that works amazingly well with something I learned from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files Roleplaying Game books — he suggests that for each setting, you put a “Face” to it, or a person that it represents. When you combine the two: setting is an opinion of the main character AND setting as the face of another character == BINGO conflict. It’s a completely natural way for setting (usually considered a static feature) to become active.

    I think I’ve just decided that setting is going to be my focus for practice on my next novel :).


  37. Ric Locke says:

    Coming late to the party, but I’m going to mildly disagree with the thesis, at least partially.

    I see a lot of people coming to the table with truly vile English skills. A generation or two of piss-poor teaching in the schools has given us people who are completely, or near-completely, ignorant of spelling, sentence structure, verb tenses, pronoun agreement, and a host of other issues. Many such people have excellent stories to tell, but can’t communicate them. They’ve been taught what you preach — just get the story down, and ignore the details — but the result is that their work is totally opaque to the reader. Any language is a set of conventions, and if writer and reader don’t share the conventions they are effectively writing and reading in different languages.

    A once-through writer like Ellison has thoroughly internalized the conventions of the written English language, and uses them unconsciously in writing. The result is that readers get the story without effort.

    So for people who have been subject to the delicate ministrations of primary-school English teachers who don’t actually teach English, the constant rewrite-polish cycle becomes a way for them to learn what they should have absorbed in fourth grade but never saw. It’s one of the reasons cynics advise that your first million words or so ought to go in the trash.


  38. Cyn Bagley says:

    Thank you Dean,

    I absolutely loath rewrites. I have gone back and layered in things that I forgot (to pickup lost threads of the story), but not often. I do a fix-draft now and check all my typos.

    What I found in my last writings is that when I thought I lost a thread, it was right there in the next paragraph so the story was tighter than I thought at first.

    Thank you. Thank you.

    I will write hotter and faster now.



  39. Suz says:

    I’m struggling with your theory on not re-writing today. I just got feedback from an editor on a story I wrote and I’m thinking about scrapping the whole thing. That’s why you say I should do, right? If my reader says my story doesn’t work I’m supposed to get rid of it, yeah?

    Well, I’m also thinking I should have gotten rid of my 1st published novel too.

    Here’s why I’m confused. If I’m not supposed to re-write, then how will my writing ever get better? Won’t I just keep writing the same crap over and over again if I don’t re-write? Am I supposed to write novel after novel and if my reader says it sucks I just have to trash it?

    I wrote my official 1st novel in 2009. Then I joined a writers group online and everyone there tore it to shreds with each of their differing opinion. I ended up trying to re-write this novel for 2 years and it’s now at 250,000 words. And it’s only a romantic comedy novel for christ sake!

    I was ecstatic when I first found your blog post about not re-writing last year. At this point I’d drafted my 2nd novel and started down the re-writing path. After I’d read your blog posts I built up some courage, spell-checked my manuscript and sent it to my proofreader. She sent it back to me with positive feeback about the story and a few changes that needed to be made to the text. After it was ready I published it. I’ve had pretty good review on it too.

    Today though, I’ve had feedback from a 3rd reader on my short story and she wants me to re-write the whole thing. Her suggestions are actually detailed and I just don’t think that my writing is going to improve unless I re-write my story. I’m also thinking about pulling my published novel so that I can re-write it and make it better.

    I’m fully depressed.

    • dwsmith says:

      Suz, I’m going to copy this directly to you as well, since I’m not sure you’ll be back here this deep in the old files.

      The one place you are missing is that you don’t learn how to write by rewriting. You learn how to rewrite by rewriting. They are two very different skills. Very different. You learn how to write by powering out a new story, sending it out or publishing it, and getting feedback while you are working on the next story and next story. The feedback from other people is NEVER to help you “fix” anything but typos. The feedback is to help your NEXT story be better. That’s how you learn how to become a better writer.

      Second point, you need to start believing in your own skills and just ignore others, especially people who think they want you to rewrite something. Just thank them and write the next story and get the old story out. That “reader” or “editor” as you called one, can be wrong. Heck, I even told a New York editor on a book I had under contract he was wrong and why and he ended up agreeing. On another, a real idiot who wanted me to rewrite, I sat on the manuscript for about three weeks, sent it back unchanged except for a few typos fixed, and told him I LOVED his comments and they really helped. He never looked and the book went through the way I wanted it.

      So keep learning and start believing in your own talent, your own skills. Don’t look to others for feedback. The feedback comes from finishing a project and feeling good about it and getting it out to readers in one way or another. That’s all that’s important. Keep having fun and trust me, getting beat up by so-called “friends” is not fun. Stop putting yourself in that position, just fix typos and get it out and focus on the next story.

      And get back to having fun. Otherwise there is no point.

  40. conradg says:

    I have a question not about rewriting, but what might be called “pre-writing”. This means making notes, doing outlines, writing a synopsis, etc. What’s your recommendation to beginning novelists about how much time to spend on such things? It seems like it would be more than zero, but there could also be a point where it’s way too much and just gets in the way of actual writing.

    It may be different for someone with your experience, maybe you don’t need much in the way of preparation and outlining, or maybe you actually use more of it and wisely. Have you ever written about this topic before, and if so, where I can find it? Don’t expect some major response here, just a few pointers or links. And are there any myths about this that need to be exploded?

    • dwsmith says:

      conraq, every writer is different and there is no right answer. How I suggest is that you do enough to make you feel comfortable, but not enough to drain out the creative aspects of writing. Some writers do outlines, then never look at them. Other writers just start and keep writing until they find an ending. I have done both, but tend to do the second far more often these days. It’s a ton more fun not knowing where I am going. Like the reading experience.

      But no right answer at any stage of a writer’s career. Just what works for you and creates stories that sell.

      Keep writing.

  41. In order to succeed in a competitive marketplace, the new writer has to be better than the established writers.Otherwise no one cares. I rewrite, to fill gaps in logic, to clarify facts, flesh out details and description, and a hundred other reasons.

  42. Nycorson says:

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been reading this series (and purchased the Publisher e-book) and I have a question about the fundamental difference between a draft and a re-write. I have a novel I’m working on. I finished what I considered the first draft (about 85k), then sent it to my beta. Who shredded it into many pieces. I know I have plot holes and inconsistencies that I need to fix. (Though it is currently sitting in a drawer until I quit wincing when I look at her comments). Is my going through and fixing all that a re-write or just draft 2?

    Thanks for your wonderful series, I have learned so much reading both yours and Kristine’s blogs. If I was still living in Portland I would be begging at your door to attend your workshops.

    • dwsmith says:


      First off, remember, your first reader is only one person and you need to stay true to your own vision. So huge caution there. Get out of the insecurities and look at what you wrote with a clear eye for what you wanted, not what one reader said. I often ignore over half of what my first readers say.

      I call fixing mistakes a draft. As long as you are not changing characters, taking out too much, and changing the entire structure of the book too much. Just fixing mistakes. Which every story and novel has. Fixing those I call my second draft.

      My first draft is the first typing of the book, my second draft is spell-checking and that takes about an hour with a novel, my third draft is fixing the mistakes my first reader found that I agree with, which often takes only another couple of hours.

  43. Nycorson says:

    Thank you! I think I am then okay with this being my second draft. I’m nowhere near as professional as you are – yet. And I made some mistakes in my world building I need to fix. But reading all of this has made me feel a lot better about it is okay if people want me to re-write (writing group etc) I can listen, learn and already be working on my new story. Thanks so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>