Chapter Three. Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting

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!


The Myth, simply put: You MUST rewrite to make something good.

That’s one of the great myths of publishing. And one of the worst and most destructive to fiction writers.

First off, I want to repeat clearly what I said in the previous two chapters in different ways:

No writer is the same.

Let me repeat that with a few more words.

No writer works or thinks the same way, and there is no right way to work.  Just your way.

That includes speed of writing, style of writing, and most importantly, how you handle rewrites of what you have written.

So, to make sure we are all speaking the same language, let me define a few terms that Kristine Kathryn Rusch and I have used for a long time now, and I will try to use in this discussion.

REDRAFT: That’s when you take the typing you have done and toss it away, then write the story again from your memory of the idea. When you are redrafting, you are working from the creative side of your brain.

REWRITE: That’s when you go into a manuscript after it is finished in critical voice and start changing things, usually major things like plot points, character actions, style of sentences, and so on. When you rewrite like this, you are working from the critical side of your mind.

TOUCH-UP DRAFT: When you run through a manuscript fixing small things, things you wrote in notes while writing, things your trusted first reader found. Often very small things or typos. This draft takes almost no time, often less than a day for a full novel, sometimes only a few hours.

SPELL-CHECKING DRAFT: Since so many of us work with our grammar-checkers and spell-checkers off, we need a spell-check draft, often done before the manuscript is given to a first reader. This often takes a an hour or so for a full novel.

Now, let me say right up front here that I am a three-draft writer. Most long-term pros are “three draft” writers that I have talked to in private. Not all, since we all work differently, but a vast majority of the ones I have talked to use a process very near mine.

My process:

First draft I do as quickly as I can, staying solidly as much as possible in my creative side, adding in things I think about as I go along, until I get to the end of the draft. Again, I try to write as fast as the project will allow since I have discovered a long time ago that if I just keep typing, the less chance I have to get in my own way and screw things up.

Second draft I spellcheck and then give to my trusted first reader.

Third draft I touch up all the things my first reader has found and then I mail the novel or story.

If my first reader hates the story, I toss the draft away and redraft completely.

That’s my process. I am a three-draft writer. (Unless I need to redraft, then I am a six-draft writer.)

More Basic Information About Writers

There is a way of describing and dividing writers into two major camps. Taker-outers and putter-inners.

In other words, a taker-outer is a writer who over-writes the first time through, then goes back and takes things out.

As a putter-inner, I write thin (my poetry background still not leaving me alone) and then as I go along, I cycle back and add in more and then cycle again and add in more, staying in creative voice, just floating around in the manuscript as I go along. Some people of this type make notes as they go along and then go back in a touch-up draft and put stuff in.

Okay, so terms down, on to the major topic.

So, what’s the great myth about rewriting?

First, our colleges and our training and New York editors and agents all think that rewriting can make something better.

Most of the time this is just wrong, flat wrong when it comes to fiction. It might be right with poetry, or non-fiction or essays, but with fiction, it can hurt you if you believe this completely and let it govern your process.

Secondly, it makes writers think there is only one “right” way of writing. And that if you don’t fit into that way and rewrite everything, you are doing something wrong. That kind of thinking kills more good writers than I can imagine, and I can imagine a great deal. And have watched first hand it kill more than I want to remember.

All writers are different, so sometimes a writer works with a ton of rewrites. Sometimes a writer just does one draft.

A Wonderful Conversation with a Master

One fine evening I was having a conversation with Algis Budrys about rewriting and why so many new writers believed the myth. He shrugged and said, “They don’t know any better and no one has the courage to tell them.”  So I asked him if he ever thought rewriting could fix a flawed story. His answer was clear and I remember it word-for-word to this day: “No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.”

If you ever worry about not fixing a story because you didn’t rewrite it, just put that quote on your wall.

So, as an example, let’s take some new writer hoping to write a book that will sell at some point. This new writer does the near-impossible for most new writers and actually finishes the book. That’s a huge success, but instead of just sending the book off and starting on a second book, this poor new writer has bought into the myth that everything must be rewritten before it can be good. (It makes the new writer feel like a “real writer” if they rewrite because all “real writers” rewrite.)

All beginning fiction writers believe this myth, and you hear it in comments about their novel like “Oh, it’s not very good yet. Oh, it needs to be polished. Oh, it was JUST a first draft and can’t be any good.”

I even hear that come out of some newer professional writer’s mouths. I never hear it from long-term pros (over 20 plus years making a living).

Of course, for the beginning writer, the first book just isn’t very good most of the time. Duh, it’s a first novel. It might be great, but it also might be crap. (Let me refer you back to Algis Budrys’ comment.) More than likely the first book is flawed beyond rescue, but the writer won’t know that, and the first reader won’t be able to help “fix” anything besides typos and grammar.

So, what is the new writer to do at this point with a finished novel????

Simple. Mail it to editors who could buy it. Or indie publish it yourself.

That’s right, I said, “Mail it or publish it. To a New York EDITOR or up on Kindle.”

Awkkk!!!   Has Dean lost it?

I can just hear the voices in your heads screaming now…

“But, it’s no good! It needs a rewrite! It might be a steaming pile of crap. I can’t mail something that’s flawed to an editor!!!”

Or you indie published writers are thinking…

“I can’t publish a book that’s flawed or readers will hate me!!!!”

And thus the myth has a stranglehold on you.

The great thing about editors is that we can’t remember bad stories. We just reject them and move on.

Most of us, over the years and decades, have bought so much, we have a hard time remembering everything and everyone we bought. So you have nothing to lose by mailing it and everything to gain, just in case it happens to be good enough to sell. And if it isn’t, WE WON’T REMEMBER.

And readers on Kindle have a wonderful thing called “sampling.” If the book sucks, oh, trust me, no reader but your family will buy it. And at that point you don’t have a “career” to kill anyway. (Future chapter on that myth.)

Just because the book is bad doesn’t mean someone will come to your house and arrest you if you mail it or publish it. Editors do not talk about manuscripts that don’t work and readers never buy or read them. And honestly, no one can shoot you for publishing it.

So get past the fear and just mail it. Or publish it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. (What happens if it is wonderful and will make you a million?)

One true thing about writing that is a firm rule: There is no perfect book. (No matter what some reviewer wants to think.)

(Also, there is a very true saying about writers that I will deal with in another chapter. Writers are the worst judges of their own work. Why is that? Because, simply, we wrote it and we know what was supposed to be on the page. It might not be, but we think it is. We just can’t tell. A future myth chapter.)

If You Don’t Rewrite, How Can You Learn?

You have to write new material to learn. No one ever learned how to be a creative writer by rewriting. Only by writing.

So, after the book is in the mail to a number of editors or published on Kindle, start writing the next book, go to workshops and writer’s conferences to learn storytelling skills, learn business, and meet people.

Study how other writers do things.

But keep writing that second book.

Trust me, it will be a lot better than the first one, especially if you just trust yourself and write it and don’t fall into the myth of rewriting.

When it is done, go celebrate again, then fix the typos and such and mail it to an editor who might buy it or get it on Kindle, and then start writing again.

A writer is a person who writes.

Rewriting is not writing.

Yeah, I know what your English Professor tried to tell you. But if your English Professor could make a living writing fiction, they would have been doing it.

Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less. Research is not writing. Rewriting is not writing. Talking to other writers is not writing.

And what you will discover is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become. With each story, each novel, you are telling better and better stories.

It’s called “practice” but again, no writer likes to think about that evil word.

Well, if you want to be a professional fiction writer, it’s time to bring the word “practice” into your speaking. On your next novel, make it a practice session for cliffhangers. Mail the novel and then work on practicing something different on the next story or novel. And so on.

Follow Heinlein’s Business Rules

I believe that a writer is a person who writes. An author is a person who has written.

I want to always be a writer, so I have, since 1982, followed Robert Heinlein’s business rules. And those rules have worked for many, many of us for decades and decades.

His rules go simply:

1) You must write.
2) You must finish what you write.
3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.
4) You must mail your work to someone who can buy it.
5) You must keep the work in the mail until someone buys it.

Those rules do seem so simple, and yet are so hard to follow at times. They set out a simple practice schedule and a clear process of what to do with your practice sessions when finished. But for this chapter, note rule #3. Harlan Ellison added to rule #3. “You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.” Harlan addition: And then only if you agree.

And, of course, if you indie publish, substitute “publish” in #4  for “mail” and let reader’s buy it. And then for #5 just keep it for sale.

Speaking of Harlan, many of you know that over the decades he has tried to prove this point (and many others) to people. He would go into a bookstore, have someone give him a title or idea, then on a manual typewriter, he would sit in the bookstore window and write a short story, taping the finished pages on the window for everyone to read.

He never rewrote any of those stories. He fixed a typo or two, but that’s it. And many of those stories won major awards in both science fiction and mystery and many are now in college text books being studied by professors who tell their students they must rewrite. But Harlan wrote all first draft, written fast, sometimes in a window while people watched him type every word.

I know, I was going to publish a three-volume set of these award-winning stories written in public back when I was doing Pulphouse Publishing. But alas, he was still writing them, a new one almost every other week at that point, and the book never got out before we shut down. He’s done enough since then to fill two more books at least.

Every writer is different.

I would have a tough time doing what Harlan does, but alas, it does prove the point that rewriting does not necessarily make a story better.

So how come rewriting makes stories worse instead of better?

Back to understanding how the brain works. The creative side, the deep part of our brain, has been taking in story, story structure, sentence structure, character voice, and everything else for a very long time, since each of us read our first book or had a book read to us. It’s that place where our author voice comes from, where the really unique ideas come from.

The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into like a fish biting on a yummy worm. Your critical voice is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.

In pure skill level, the critical side is far, far behind the creative side of your brain. And always will be.

So, on a scale of one-to-ten, with ten being the top, the creative skills of a new writer with very few stories under his belt, if left alone, will produce a story about six or seven. However, at that point the writer’s critical skills are lagging far behind, so if written critically, a new writer would create a story about four on the scale. So take a well-written story that first draft was a seven on the scale, then let a new writer rewrite it and down the level comes to five or so.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a great story ruined by a number of things associated with this myth.

For example, take a great story, run it through a workshop, then try to rewrite it to group think. Yow, does it become dull, just as anything done by committee is dull. (Workshop myth coming in a future chapter.)

I helped start and run a beginners workshop when I was first starting out. None of us had a clue, but we were all learning fast. I would write a story a week (all I could manage with three jobs at the time) and mail it, then turn it into my workshop for audience reaction.

That’s right, I mailed it before I gave it to my workshop. Why? Because I had no intention of ever rewriting it. I followed Heinlein’s Rules.

And I sold a few stories that the workshop said failed completely, which taught me a lot, actually. If I had listened to them, I never would have made some of those early sales.

If you would like to see a first draft of one of my early stories, pick up Volume #1 of Writers of the Future. I was in the middle of moving from Portland to the Oregon Coast , actually packing the truck, when my then-wife, Denie, asked me if I had the story done for Writers of the Future that Algis Budrys had told me was starting up. I said no, the mailing deadline was the next day and I didn’t have time.

Thankfully, Denie insisted I go finish it while she packed. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t even started it yet and had no idea what to write. I put the typewriter (electric) on a partially dismantled desk in a large box, sat on the edge of the bed, and wrote the story from start to finish having no idea what I was writing or where the story was going. Three hours later I finished the story called “One Last Dance” and mailed it on a dinner break.

That’s right, it was a first draft on a typewriter. No spell-checker, no first reader, nothing. Algis Budrys and Jack Williamson loved it and put it into the first volume, and because of that story, I ended up meeting Kris a couple of years later after Denie and I had broken up. I also got lots of wonderful trips and money and a great workshop from that three hour draft. And now, twenty-seven years later the story is still in print and I’m still proud of it.

All because I had the courage to write and mail first draft.

I trusted my creative skills, I trusted my voice, and I was lucky enough to have someone who gave me support at that point in the writing.

Another Example: Every year, editor Denise Little and I prove the same point again to early career writers. We force them to write a short story overnight to an anthology idea and deadline, and those quickly-written stories are always better than the ones the same writers wrote over weeks before the workshop. And many of those stories, first drafts, have been in published anthologies out of New York.

Even though I believed this with my own writing, I was shocked when this happened at the first Denise Little workshop. All the quick, overnight stories were better than the ones the writers had rewritten. It has happened every year since. Only one writer, who loves rewriting, was better rewriting than not. Only one out of almost 60 writers now. Again, all writers are different, but for the most part, the human brain works the same for most of us.

The creative side is just a better writer than the critical side, no matter what the critical side tries to tell you.

Remember, the critical side has a voice of restraint and worry. But the creative side, as Kris likes to say, is your two-year-old child. It has no voice of reason and no way to fight. But if you let the child just play and get out of its way and stop trying to put your mother’s or father’s or teacher’s voice on everything it does, you will be amazed at what you create.

One more point.

Every writer is different, granted, but I have only met a few writers who really, really love to rewrite. Most find it horrid and a ton of work, but we all, with almost no exception, love to write original stuff.

If you can get past the myth of rewriting, writing becomes a lot more fun.

Following Heinlein’s Rules is a ton of fun, actually. And you end up writing and selling a lot of stuff as well.

However, this myth is so deep, I imagine many of you are angry at me at this moment, and trust me, even if you get past this myth in private, out in public you will need to lie.

That’s right, I just told a bunch of fiction writers to lie. Go figure.

Maybe you don’t need to go as far as Hemingway and tell people that you must write standing up because writing comes from the groin or some such nonsense. But you do need to hide your process.

I know one writer who at writer’s conferences tells people with a straight face he does upwards of ten drafts. I knew better and one day, in private, I asked him why he said that.

He just shrugged. “I like making my audience happy, so I tell them what they want to believe about me. It makes them believe my books and stories are worth more if I tell them I rewrote them ten times.”

In other words, even though the reality of professional fiction writing is often few drafts, readers still believe we must rewrite because they went to the same English classes we did.

So, out in public, you will hear me say simply that I am a three-draft writer. It’s the truth. I write a first draft, I spell-check the manuscript as a second draft, and I fix the typos and small details my first reader finds as a third draft.

And after 100 plus novel sales and hundreds of short story sales, it seems to be working just fine.

For me, anyway.

Every writer is different.

If you are rewriting and not selling, try to stop rewriting and just mail your work. You might be stunned at what happens.

Just remember, the writing process has nothing to do with the finished work. Never tell anyone you “cranked that off” or that it’s a “first draft.” Let them believe you worked like a ditch digger on the story, rewrote it 50 times, workshopped it a dozen times, and struggled over every word for seven years. Won’t hurt your readers.

But getting rid of this myth for yourself sure might help your writing.

And make writing a ton more fun.


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

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106 Responses to Chapter Three. Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting

  1. Tori Minard says:

    So what you’re saying, I think, is the “darlings” refers to precious writing? I don’t really think I do that, but I have this lurking fear that maybe I am and don’t realize it. Lol. Sometimes some poetic stuff comes out of me when I’m writing super fast and not criticizing myself.

    • dwsmith says:

      If you are writing superfast and not criticizing yourself, you are writing in creative voice and no need to worry. Just leave it alone and mail it or publish it. Yup, “darlings” in the old cliche refers to a pretty sentence a writer loves but won’t take out. If a person thinks like that, at the sentence-by-sentence level, they are lightyears from being a storyteller. (This stuff comes out a lot in creative writing classes at university level.)

  2. Mark says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog and is a great help.

    I’ve been told by fairly successful authors to rewrite. I’m not an idiot and take all advice with a pinch of salt because as you say, ‘everyone is different.’

    I’m currently rattling through the first draft on the train home from work. I’m getting the story down as lean as possible making a note of any ideas that occur to me. The intention is to make sure the plot works and I have the timeline correct so story elements intersect at the right point.

    The second draft will include my ideas from the first and more description to set the scene. The third draft will be a dialogue check to make sure it’s consistent for each character. I’ll also look at sentence structure and make sure I’m getting the most I can out of sentence at critical points in the book.

    I’ll run a spell check before it goes to my proof readers then I’ll pay for a professional edit after taking into account anything my focus group has thrown up. Final draft and then I should have something that I can self publish.

    It looks like I have a lot of rewrites but they should be relatively quick to complete rather than try to take everything into account in one run through. I always tend to work in an iterative manner.

  3. Alex J. Kane says:

    Dean, these posts ring more true each time I read them. Every story I write, I come to realize more fully just how deep the myths run in all our minds, and just how empowering it is when we let our imaginations loose and have faith in ourselves, rather than in superstitious notions about the industry, luck, “talent,” agents, et cetera.

    I thought I’d share my most recent blog post, in which I credit your Killing the Sacred Cows chapters for much of my progress, and explain how my latest fiction sale is absolute proof that you’re not just pulling this stuff out of your ass. Here’s the link, if you care to take a look:

    I think your theory of workshopping, especially, has been a huge part of my growth as a writer who manages to improve somewhat with each new story, rather than laboring one deep into the ground with needless “fixing.”

    • dwsmith says:

      Wow, thanks, Alex. And I’m looking forward to buying the anthology when it comes out. And great and clear discussion about the process of writing a story. Worth reading, folks. Again, thanks, Alex for the nice comments.

  4. Jim Zoetewey says:

    It’s funny, previous to actually doing a fair amount of writing, I thought of writing as a different process than running a role-playing game.

    Once I started, I realized my process was almost exactly the same.
    1. Have a general idea of the characters, plot, and a few key scenes.
    2. Move the story in the direction of those key scenes.

    (and here’s the one I least expected to be similar)

    3. Don’t look back and wish you could change previous scenes in a major way. They’re done now.

    I think I would if I found a major plot hole, but so far I haven’t.

  5. Jinxtigr says:

    Loved your article! I gave up fretting about rewriting five books ago.

    The first one I finished was the first one where I had a clear idea of what I was doing, how I wanted it to be done, and who was in it. When I had that, all I needed to do was catch up by reading the work of previous days, occasionally revise stuff that didn’t sit right, and get moving right away on new stuff. My subconscious can take care of stuff like tone, subplots, etc. and my years of reading take care of grammar and spelling pretty well, so when I write I’m telling what happens next in the story, like Stephen King says.

    I think the ‘murder your darlings’ refers to what in guitar you’d call weedly weedly wee playing- a bunch of really pretty attention getting notes, which have no purpose in the actual song at all. Seems like it’s important to understand that if you get good at this, you get bored of technique and you don’t have ‘darlings’ anywhere near as often and consequently don’t have to murder them… the thing about ‘darlings’ is that they deserve to be murdered, or the phrase would just be stupid and perverse :)

    It’s much like how, in recording music in the studio, you get far more mileage out of choosing boring parts and playing them unimaginatively. The whole is made up of the combined parts, and if they have striking character of their own, they’re far less likely to combine, and you can’t register the nifty details and expressive gestures of a dozen parts at once. All the frills just blur into uselessness, worse than nothing. When you sit down and play very directly and singlemindedly without seeking attention for that part, you get something that builds a much more impressive final result.

    In writing, you just leave out all the darlings and stylistic frills meant to draw attention to your writerly skill, and tell the damn story, and keep telling it. Turns out it’s the story that people really want. And if you’ve done this, and you can spell- there isn’t much to rewrite, so go tell another story instead :)

  6. You wrote:
    “However, this myth is so deep, I imagine many of you are angry at me at this moment, and trust me, even if you get past this myth in private, out in public you will need to lie.”

    Oh my God, not only am I not angry, I’m relieved and happy. I found your wife’s blog through a link on Twitter to her recent article about the publishing field, and she recommended I check out your article on rewriting. I’m now a complete fan of both of your blogs.

    I’m not going to lie – I don’t normally rewrite, and it’s worked out for me so far, published by indie press, with good reviews and awards. I’m also trying out the self-publishing route for a few of my novels and short stories on Amazon Kindle. Right now, I’m on the third rewrite of a science fiction novel after sending it to Editor Alan Rinzler for review and receiving suggestions from a literary agent who had requested the full manuscript. This will probably be the last book I ever rewrite. It’s soooooo painful. I’m intent on rewriting this particular novel because I really like the changes I’m making, but in order to get myself the least bit enthused about the process, I have to tell myself, every single time I sit down to work on the manuscript, to just write the next section as though it’s a brand new book, in order to tap into the creative process.

  7. PolyWogg says:

    Yo’ Dean…thought you would enjoy a blog post I saw today about trusting yourself, and when not to listen to others. A different spin on your critiquing-groups = write-by-committee view…

  8. John Barnes says:

    Yow, yep, we’re all different. I loathe rough drafts and therefore I get them over with as quickly as possible. The rough drafts of my action scenes all read alike: “Then they fight for a while and he leaves behind incriminating evidence and kills her.” “He sneaks into the building and blows it up, and discovers too late that Fred was tied up in the basement.” Sporadically I get caught up in hte action and write scenes or dialogue, most of which are either scenes I’ve seen a thousand times in other people’s work (and must be replaced) or characters explaining things to me (and must be tossed).

    I don’t so much write as build. She starts here, she ends there, what are interesting things between here and there (many of my rough drafts contain bulleted lists), what’s the physical order of encounter, what’s the sentence that does the job, etc. Rewriting is 95% of my time.

    Oddly enough, though, this makes me even more workshop allergic than yourself (if that’s possible). I need to find the right sized piece to fit into the wall, and it becomes much harder if a pack of meddlers have left piles of material for some other story lying around.

    I’d suggest the more general rule might be “get to the part you like fast and then put as much of the work’s time allotment into that.” For some people that’s the rough draft. For some of us it’s the build-and-bolt. Either way a story tends to be done at about the point where you’ve put enough love-time into it.

  9. Eric says:

    I was wondering: What about outlines?

    I am writing a mod for a computer game right now (comparable perhaps to a thriller novel, only that the setting is already given).

    Outlining it, I set up plot lines and encounter logical inconsistencies that force me to change large parts of the story. I ask myself questions like “Would it be cooler if that guy’s secret identity was revealed a little bit later?”, “Would a large caper like this undermine suspension of disbelief?” “Should that particular character be more or less powerful in the context of the setting?”

    I have spent a total of eleven working hours distributed over a week just brainstorming ideas, working out the problems and bringing it into a coherent form.

    My question is:

    Is that the normal process? Or am I wasting my time? How much time does it usually take to write an outline for a logically sound, believable thriller?

    To clarify: I have not fallen into a research trap. When I say ‘logically sound’ I mostly mean the actions of the character based on their respective knowledge and gaps I have left in the plot.

    • dwsmith says:

      Eric, every writer is different and there are no absolutes. If the process works for you and you are selling, don’t stop. If you haven’t tried the process yet, give it a shot. No right way, just what works for you is the key. I’m just trying to help writers here realize when they are only working out of what someone in their past told them they had to do instead and not trying different things that might work for them. Every writer is different. Just find your way, not your English teachers way. Or my way for that matter.

      Well, that’s a solid non-help answer. (grin)

  10. Eric says:

    Thank you. Your “non-help answer” actually helped me significantly.

    What I take away from this is that what we are doing is art. There are many different ways to create a painting, many different methods and materials one can use.

    At the end it is for the readers to decide whether van Gogh was ‘better’ than Andy Warhol or that guy in the park who does amazing things with chalk on the sidewalk.

    [Not the critics and literature professors, I have heard. Makes sense. Richard Feynman said “Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”. I expect that to be analogously true for writers and literature studies.]

    The own unique methods create the own unique books. And a unique voice is what sells (or so I am told).

    Once again thank you. I do not know how you find the time to help all those people, but I will put your work at the top of my shopping list for my next reading bender. Wouldn’t know how else to pay you back.

  11. Victoria says:

    I generally agree with a lot of your opinions but this one? Nope.

    • dwsmith says:

      Victoria, if you have tried it a number of times, not rewriting and it doesn’t work for you, no issue by me. Every writer is different. But if you haven’t tried it yet from sheer fear and your work is not selling, you might want to do an experiment or two. (grin)

  12. Here’s the link to a french translation of chapter 3 : Rewriting :

  13. Thomas Pluck says:

    I’ve noticed that my best work comes out pretty clean in first draft, and the stuff that ain’t working is what I rewrite. Thanks for helping me realize that was going on.

  14. BD says:

    This is an amazing post. Before I read this post, I was thinking of why I hate writing and why I choose not to write fiction – even though I secretly would like to do so – and it’s because I dread rewriting everything like I do now with nonfiction. How boring nonfiction writing is! I despise it. But researching, and making sense of what I research, enough to put together a piece, is what I can do well.

    So I am going to declare war on rewriting now and write a novel, quickly and with malice aforethought. Then I’m going to do spell check and shit check, and then publish it on Amazon…all for the fun of it!

    Great advice. Thank you.

  15. Raven says:

    Thank you. I finally get this.

    It took me longer than most because I don’t have a fear of rejections. I actually like them (which is part of the problem). My issue is that I have a huge fear of success (maybe a post on that?). I’ve been a perfectionist for most of my life, and while it’s less restraining than it has been in the past, I haven’t killed it yet. Therefore, my biggest worry was this: what if I write a story and I am unsatisfied with it. But, following your advice, I decide to have it published. What if it is amazingly successful (doubtful, but bear with me), but creates the same kind of pure animosity and hatred I see spewed about the Twilight series*. I could handle that if I was in love with my story and if I felt it was great, because I’m very good at standing behind my intentions and my passions. But if *I* know that I sent it out that way, thinking it wasn’t great . . . could I deal with the backlash?

    To be honest, I’m still not sure.

    *puts on reader hat*

    Part of this, too, stems from the fact that I’m a weird reader, at least for someone who hangs out at storytelling forums. I personally do like novels or stories that have beautiful prose, even if that prose takes me out of the story. Supposedly, I’m not “supposed” to like that kind of writing, but I do. Sometimes, I want the prose to be invisible so I can just experience the story first hand, but other times, I want both story and beautiful prose, and I tend to value those books higher in my mind. I particularly like beautiful prose at the very beginning, where the way the words sound draw me into a kind of trance. It’s a different kind of hook for me than the traditional in media res, but I still love those books and seek them out.

    That to me, following Descartes, tells me that there are other readers who must take joy in words, too. I can’t believe I’m really the only one. Yeah, we’re a small group, but we exist.

    *back to writer hat*

    So, my problem was that if I stopped wanting to improve my prose, I’d potentially end up in a Stephenie Meyer situation**, and since I do love prose, it would make me ashamed that I’d let it go public that way. It wouldn’t matter if I changed names — that would help me sell more, but it wouldn’t help me feel better about *that* book. I don’t think even the money would or the fans who did love the books. Because I would feel like a fraud.

    But then, FINALLY, I had my AHA moment on this. I was thinking that while I would never want a review that said “She writes beautiful prose, but has no story and all the characters are flat and boring,” I also would never want a review that said, “Her story was fascinating and compelling, but the prose made me want to gouge out my eyeballs!”

    The AHA moment came when I realized that (duh!) I’ll probably get BOTH types of comments on the SAME story, because every reader is different and the ideas of “compelling story” and “beautiful prose” are incredibly subjective.

    The other AHA moment is that I finally get what you’re saying about voice. If I’m getting you right, I wouldn’t really be able to tell “beautiful prose” in my own writing because it would sound dull and boring to me, since it’s my own voice and I’m used to it. It’s when I *try* to create “beautiful prose” that I lose what’s unique about me.

    So, I’ve decided to stop rewriting. Redrafting, yes, but no more rewriting. If I can’t stand behind my book, it’s time for a redraft. And prose is not something I need to have in order to stand behind my book. My book has to represent my vision and my passions, and if I’m writing naturally, the prose will be there.

    I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read the original version of this post, some time back. I pride myself on trying new things, and wanted to try this, but I was afraid. Not angry, but afraid. I had to find a way to deal with that fear of success. Now that I have, I feel really free!

    Incidentally, I care less about the reputation of my short stories, so I’ve already been sending them out as cleaned up rough drafts. No takers yet, but they’re still out there (except one that was written for an anthology where I *do* need to take out some items that were written the way they were because of the nature of the anthology).

    *There are things I don’t like about those books, but I don’t think they deserve the extreme hatred and disrespect aimed at them. And the things I don’t like are mostly ideological and taste issues (I find very few romances that I like, but I don’t think romances are “bad books”), which actually proves to me that the books were good enough to make me dislike them on those grounds. She also did an amazing job of making me feel like I was a teenager again.

    **Stephenie Meyer situation being a situation where huge segments of the population lambast a book/author. It’s happened to several writers, but she’s the one that caused the fear of success in me.

  16. Jen Greyson says:

    I’ve been lurking about on your site since some amazing writer friends at one of Dave Farland’s writing workshops told me about you and Kristine. I’ve learned a ton from you both about the industry, and have used your opinions to help guide my 2012 goals (and dreams) … but this post was profound for me — profound.

    I just finished (!) a novel that I’ve already rewritten once, and now that comments from readers and a freelance editor have come back, I was tempted to shove it in a drawer and never allow it to see the light of day. NOW, after reading this post, I’m printing that BEE-YACH and sending it out to editors and putting it up for sale. I’ve always been very protective of my writing time, now it’s time to be protective of my finished products.


  17. Alan Spade says:

    Hello Dean,

    I think this chapter on rewriting is liberating for most writers, and for them, thank you. I have some points that confirm what you say, and others that tell me I’m one of 60 writers who love rewriting.

    Confirm :
    – I have written my first novel in two years (2001-2003) and did a lot of rewriting. It improved my written style, but the story still sucked. I could have edited it for ten years and the story still would have sucked.
    – after that, I have written short stories, and then novels again, and I got the impression I became a better storyteller and my stories needed less rewriting with each new project.
    – I love words but every time I spend too much time on rewriting and the book has not been read by my first reader, I fear I may have wasted time rewriting, if the plot wasn’t right and needed important changes

    I love rewriting :
    – I think the two years I spent at first writing and rewriting have not been wasted, because they made be able to see my writing weaknesses, to have a better knowledge of the way I write and to gain time for the future. I don’t think I would have gained such a knowledge of my weaknesses simply by writing other things
    – when I create something entirely new, I work magic. But when I rewrite, I have also the sensation to work magic. Sometimes, it feels entirely akin to transform the lead to gold
    – for me, rewriting doesn’t mean to write slowly. I can have writing trances and write quickly, and what I have written then doesn’t always need rewriting. On the contrary, what comes to me slowly and painfully often need rewriting
    – when I begin to write, I always read back what I have done. It’s like putting me in the bath. By going back in the past and improving it, I feel more able to write future. It allows me to articulate the past and the future in a better way
    – for me, when I rewrite, it’s to improve my story by “dreaming it again” . Although I love words, I don’t rewrite to make pretty sentences but because the words have to fit with the story
    – Storytellers like Robert Howard used to speak aloud the words when writing. For me, that is akin to rewriting, because when a word would not fit or sound good, they would change it
    – I have tried not to rewrite, but the quality of the work was not so good
    – I don’t like to have too much rewriting to do when the book is written, that’s why I read what I have done the day before

    So, who I am to judge the quality of my work ? I agree with you when you say the writer is a bad judge of his own writing.
    It’s subjective, and I couldn’t debate it, but with time and experience, I think I can detect the wrong notes. I also think it’s why, like you said, it is very important to write more and more stories, because it’s what help you to have a better sense of the story, and what it should be. I couldn’t detect the failures of the story of my first book by myself. But with time, it is possible to gain a better notion of the story and to do good rewriting. I hope.

  18. katina says:

    “On your next novel, make it a practice session for cliffhangers. Mail the novel and then work on practicing something different on the next story or novel. And so on.”

    OMG couldn’t be more true. I’ve written 2 novellas, working on the third now (I’m taking baby steps here) and they were, for me, character studies and exercises at descriptions — could I describe places I see every day and make people feel like they were there, or could I bring the reader into a character’s head and make them relate to the character’s feelings. I did this because the first novel I tried to write bombed (a Nanowrimo project); characters fell flat, locations were barely “visible” etc. Now that I’ve done these novellas and practice on improving my weak points, I’m ready to move on to my first novel, but even in writing these very short e-books, my writing got exponentially better from one novella to the next because I kept moving forward, and I learned a ton from my editor’s notes. Real talk, I think having the book edited will teach a person more about writing than rewrites ever will. And if a writer is busy rewriting, it will never get to the hands of an editor.

  19. Esther says:

    Hello Dean. Such a valuable and helpful post, thank you!

    I’m one of those who hates to rewrite. However everyone says my manuscript, at 215,000 words, is too long for a first novel and that I MUST rewrite it to get it down to an acceptable length, or I will never find an agent or a publisher. What is your personal opinion about rewriting for that reason?

    Thank you!

    • dwsmith says:

      Esther, you need to find new readers. They are full of it and don’t have a clue. Will the length bother some editors? Maybe. If the book “feels” too long in the writing. But cutting just for length is a wrong reason to destroy a novel.

      Mail it to editors and start the next novel. And good luck.


  20. Esther says:

    Thank you so much, Dean. You’re my kinda guy hehe!

    Yes, there are a FEW places that feel too wordy and verbose, and I will cut them down. And there are a few passages that even I am bored with, and I will also edit them or cut them out. And I tend to overwrite, as in, if I can’t decide for example between 4 adjectives then I will write all 4 adjectives and leave it to decide at the last minute which of the 4 to use in the end, and make that decision only in the final draft.

    But other than that, well, I really can’t find a lot of things to cut out. It’s a saga spanning 3 generations and 100 years.

    I don’t have an editor, am going in search of an agent. Thanks for wishing me luck!

    • dwsmith says:

      Esther, read the posts here about agents. You don’t need one to sell a book and these days they are pretty worthless. It’s a myth that you need one. Just go to editors directly.


      • Esther says:

        Dean, thank you! You’ve encouraged me a great deal.

        When I feel like the book is finished I will send it out everywhere and start a new one. I’ve read that editors don’t care how long a book is (within reason of course, no Lord of the Rings please) as long as it is good.

        • dwsmith says:

          Yup, got that right, Esther. You write a good story that fits in their market list and length makes little difference.

          Have fun.


  21. TheWarriorQueen says:

    I like this. A lot. I haven’t had the chance to publish yet, because my father is a bit anti-writing (to say the least). He wants to see his eldest daughter in a stable career, and I get that, fine. So I had to wait until I was legally allowed to handle my own money. In between then and now, my computer has crashed so many times that I’ve lost most of my completed novels/novellas (at one stage I had twenty 60k+ novels on my harddrive. I freely admit most of them were total rubbish though, so no big loss). However, what I have printed on simple A4 pages and shown to people (never those close to me, because they’re either anti-author-as-a-career or my mum, who thinks anything I write is great, the same way that she told me I was beautiful whilst I had chicken-pox) people have liked.

    However, I’ve always been nervous because I don’t “write” per se, and never rewrite. I just can’t get my head to co-operate with rewrites. I type the story the way I’d tell it aloud, then I go over and retell it as I would on a second telling, the one where I no longer pause, searching for the right word. Then I do a quick run through for my all-too-frequent use of “you see” and “of course”, and call it finished.

    Seeing the rewriting myth debunked is absolutely wonderful. I no longer have anyone-who-ever-got-into-a-magazine’s advice rattling around in my head, disturbing the muses who are trying to think.

    And your statement about the “darlings”, those sentences of writing “brilliance”, well, I have my fair share of those, but they generally land up being cut and dumped in another document, to inspire a poem at a later stage. I’m glad that I don’t have to keep them in the actual story, I always felt so guilty chopping those out, although they actually killed the flow when I read them aloud.

    Anyway, I have the feeling that, as with all my first tellings, this rambled somewhat, probably was more than a little pompous, and quite possibly wasted your time; for this I apologize.

    Superb blog, and I’m going to keep reading it.

  22. djh says:

    Write on! Right on or not, this surely is the most encouraging advice I have read in my search as to how to go about becoming a published writer. It matches up well with my own belief that it is ourselves and our own insecurities that get in our way when trying to accomplish anything worthwhile. I resonate with your advice….write it, share it, take the risk, take your hits, and keep on moving. Encouraging…thanks!

  23. JDDempsey says:

    Dean – I’ve found you’re site to be an astounding resource of information, spending the past few days parsing through it and overloading my brain.

    It does seem that the majority of your advice is aimed more at professional, or experienced, writers more so than the novice/beginner. Would you still advise following Heinlein’s rules for the beginner, or should they (which is obviously me) focus more on craft, keep writing new stories, and applying focused practice with each new story?

    Thanks again for the informative site,

    • dwsmith says:


      Oh, heavens, no. I do treat all writers as professionals, granted, no matter where on the road they are. But Heinlein’s Rules got me started and are meant for all writers at all levels and place on the road. I started using them like they were gold when I was just starting out and they were the reason I made it to being a professional. Period. I still try to follow them completely.

      So they are for everyone. As is this site, I hope. (grin)

      • JDDempsey says:


        Thank you for such a prompt response. Your dedication toward your own craft and the assistance of others is awesome, as well as inspirational.

        I guess this means that I am out of excuses and it is time to focus on Heinlein’s Rules. Especially #2.

        Thank you again and I look forward to the day I can cite you as an inspirational reference . . . . in the distant future when people want to know how I began my career. (grin)

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