Tips for Rewriting Your Manuscript, Part 1

Via Flickr | Nic McPhee
Via Flickr | Nic McPhee

I often have friends and family asking me a burning question:

Is your book finished yet?

I smile and say, “No, not yet. There’s a lot of work that goes into writing a book, you know.”

In a recent post, I talked about rewriting the first draft of my memoir. I never imagined this rewrite could bring enjoyment to my writing life, but also the simple act of learning new things delights me.

Today I’m sharing a few tips I’ve learned about rewriting. If you already know them, please share them with a first-time writer (like me) or a younger writer (not so much like me) who may find them helpful.

Tip 1: Taken from the Hemingway Archives

Can you even imagine The Old Man and the Sea being rewritten by Hemingway? Likely, as many other manuscripts have, Hemingway’s book saw many revisions and drafts. This assumption may be underscored since Hemingway is attributed with this reference to first drafts:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”(via Goodreads)

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

Even if given the opportunity to shuffle through Hemingway’s work, both unfinished and finished, a full record of every revision he made from one project to the next was kept so would there be time enough to look through it all? But how or why would someone like Hemingway rewrite so often?

Contemplating the quote above, it isn’t too surprising for most great writers, including Hemingway, to experience little, if any, grief in killing their darlings or sacrificing their first-born to the fires of revisions and rewrites in order to support the truth of the story.

I learned this lesson the hard way writing my first draft. I believed so deeply in my story and the words flowed so fast and furiously that nothing could keep this from being the first manuscript to pass muster with the first draft. Was I ever wrong! My story was boring and the truth did not shine through in my first draft. It was, in a word, shitty!

Lesson Learned: Do not be concerned about writing the perfect first draft. Allow the mind to tell the fingers what to type to just get  your thoughts on paper. Refining the telling of your story comes later — with rewriting.

Tip 2: “Never Look Back”

Before beginning the process of rewriting, I did a little research on the dreaded rewrite. A great deal can be found in blog archives on the topic. A plethora of advice rendered by editors, teachers, authors, and publishers. How to know who is right looms as the big question on the horizon.

Not too long ago I read a post by Michelle Gagnon, an author with several successful crime fiction novels as well as a YA dystopian thriller. Michelle also writes with James Scott Bell, award-winning suspense author and bestselling writing coach, on Bell’s blog, Kill Zone. No, I am not taking you on a wild goose chase; these people are good at what they do and in offering solid writing advice.

Reading Michelle’s post pointed out one thing I had done wrong during the first drafting of my manuscript: I looked back. Quoting Michelle is the best way to share her thoughts on this tip:

In my opinion what separates published authors from people who have been working on a book for years without completing it is this: never look back. I don’t start editing–at all–until the entire book is written. A lot of people get fifty pages in, then go back and start editing chapter one. The danger in this is that while you might end up with a perfect first fifty pages, by the time you finish those there’s a good chance you’ve lost the thread of the story.

It’s also discouraging to suddenly realize you’ve spent three months on fifty pages, and another three hundred and fifty remain to be written (of course, that’s discouraging whether you’ve stopped or not–I call it the “interminable middle”). I never even re-read what I’ve written until I’ve finished the first draft. (I also spend most of that draft thinking that what I’m writing is the worst junk ever committed to page. But I forge ahead, because I know the next draft will be better.) And then when I do go back, the bones of the story are in place.

Lesson Learned: Never look back!

Tip 3: Write, Wait, Edit

Via Pixabay
Via Pixabay

During my time writing this blog, I have met many writers, many of whom have published their memoirs. I consider many of them mentors in guiding me down the path of writing my truth and protecting family members and myself while considering publishing options.

One of my memoir writing mentors is Madeline Sharples who blogs at Choices. A little less than a year ago Madeline posted a blog on the topic of “My Memoir Revision Process,” and as soon as I read it, I clipped it into my Evernote files under “revision process.”

It was in Madeline’s post I learned to WAIT before editing. I am inherently an impatient person wanting things to be completed quickly and done now. Waiting is hard for me. But I knew if Madeline could wait, then I should try. Here’s what Madeline says about waiting:

Leave your work alone for as long a time as you can before sitting down to edit it. While I spent over two years querying agents and small presses, my manuscript laid dormant. So when I finally got my book contract, I read it front to back, chapter by chapter, with my revision plan in hand. I marked up a hard copy with a red pen. Also I made no electronic changes to any part of my manuscript until I completed this first round of edits. And surprise, surprise, I found lots of things to edit, including typos, awkward sentences, repetition, and inconsistencies. Unbelievable! After all the times I had gone over it! During this first edit pass, I also looked for places to insert the new material necessary to my story and where I needed to update material that was clearly out of date.

I did not wait two years while querying agents and small presses, primarily because my mind has not reached a decision about the publishing process or even if I publish. Whether I publish or not, I want to complete this process just as I would if publishing.

Also, I initially chose not to print out the manuscript and instead to edit on-screen. Don’t do that! So much can be missed as the edited manuscript on-screen quickly becomes confusing, especially if you are inclined to using a marking tool. Working with a paper draft, red pen and a highlighter in hand, seems to flow much more smoothly for me. Thanks to Madeline for posting her revision process.

Lesson Learned: Follow the instructions provided by those you call mentor and friend–and wait.

Today I’ve covered three tips in a rather lengthy post. And I have more to share with you in Part 2 next week.

What about rewriting or revising the first draft would you like to share with other writers? Part of our reason for being online is to support and encourage one another. Your thoughts are welcome in the comment section below.

30 thoughts on “Tips for Rewriting Your Manuscript, Part 1

  1. Sherrey, as usual, you have written an excellent post. I agree with all three of your points. I would also add that if I were starting over, I would NOT use WORD. I had many problems with it in final edits.
    I haven’t purchased Scrivener, but I’ve heard many good things about it.
    I would add to your list the importance of a good developmental editor. I was ignorant of the distinction between that kind of editing (for structure, plot points, coherence) and the technical editing I had plenty of (though several typos slipped through both the first and second printings. Three was the lucky number.)
    You have absorbed so much good mentoring from experts and peers. The final product will be beautiful!

    1. Shirley, how nice to find you waiting for me this morning! And, as always, with a wonderful sprinkling of wisdom, support and encouragement.
      I use Scrivener and love it! This afternoon Nina Amir and Joseph Michaels are hosting a free webinar on the very topic of Scrivener. Although I feel comfortable with the software, I know I can always learn something new. So I’ll be listening away. Perhaps soon I’ll do a post on Scrivener and its many benefits.
      Your comments on editing are well taken. I have been confused for some time about the differences in editors and recently discovered what you have stated. I shall indeed be using both a developmental editor as well as a copy editor before the book goes out into the world.
      Looking forward to seeing you soon!

  2. Great tips, Sherrey! It’s very important not to worry about getting that first draft perfect. Author Terri Blackstock says, “Don’t get it right, first get it written.” And after the initial draft, editing can be fun.

  3. This is great advice, Sherrey. Rewriting, revision, and editing will always help make our books better and better. And thanks for quoting from my revision process post. I’m glad it resonated with you. I’m now at the beta reader stage with my novel – it’s already gone through three revisions. After I get my readers’ comments I’ll work on revision four. Then another round of beta readers, culminating in revision five and a final professional edit. It’s a long, long process that I think will be well worth it in the end. Best success with your memoir.

    1. Madeline, your posts and you have been one of my finest writing teachers since I first appeared on the Internet scene of memoir writing. Yes, many things from your blog have resonated with me. And now I am so excited for you with respect to your novel and where you are on that journey. Wishes for your success with the balance of that journey.

  4. These are great tips. I am still writing my shitty first draft, and not wanting to look back to see exactly what is stinking–but you’ve convinced me to press on! I edit other people’s work as well, and will be printing out many pages in the coming days for that project. My only difference, I think, would be waiting for an agent or something else before I do the final edit. I want it as polished as possible and ready to be sent out to anybody who asks for it. I look forward to part two!

    1. Tina, welcome to my blog. So glad you stopped by and joined the discussion. Press on, indeed! You sound like a busy writer/editor, and I’m impressed. I agree totally with your comment regarding having the manuscript polished and ready for that agent or publisher before doing that final edit. Good advice!

  5. Great advice, Sherrey … We all know that #1 is true. #3 — let your work sit before you start wordsmithingt— is great advice and I followed it. I had a harder time with #2, as I often found that my characters had evolved, I was writing new scenes that contradicted or were inconsistent with earlier ones. Somehow, I couldn’t go forward until I had fixed those.
    I’m looking forward to your next two tips

    1. Mary, so good to see you here! I always appreciate your input. I can certainly see where #2 could become problematic under the circumstances you share. See you next week for Part 2!

  6. Sherrey, your three points are excellent and resonate with what my experience has been over the past five years of writing my memoir– get it all down before editing, print it out to see your words on paper and be patient, wait. It is a process and a journey where lessons are learned along the way. Wonderful post. I’m looking forward to Part 2. Thank you!

    1. Kathy, thanks for underscoring the points included in my post. As we’ve discussed before, writing is not an easy journey and it is a long one. Now we know why! Glad you’ll be back for Part 2. As always, thanks for your encouragement and support.

  7. Sherrey, I am totally with you about printing it out and using pen and highlighters. I do some revisions on the screen, but at certain points I know I need a physical copy. Have you read what Marion Roach Smith has to say about manuscript murder in The Memoir Project? Well worth reading or reviewing at the stage you’re at.

    1. Sue, sometimes I think we came from the same gene pool our thoughts and processes are so similar! I have read The Memoir Project but it has been some time ago. I’ll go back and reread about manuscript murder. I remember it vaguely so thanks for the reminder and for stopping by today to visit and comment.

  8. Those are great tips! Looking back at your work while you’re still writing it never helps… It just makes you halt and start self-doubting, which is the last thing you want when trying to finish that manuscript. Self-doubt is a real persistence killer.

    1. Ah, self-doubt! The killer of dreams, words, creativity and more. Yes, looking back can certainly call self-doubt to center stage, and we don’t need to entertain that killer. So glad you stopped by. Please come back again!

  9. Dear Sherrey,
    For once, I read a book and did not rush to leave a review on the amazon. I am talking of your memoir: Please don’t call me mother. I don’t have any right words to use but l am glad how it all turned out and ended up or do l rather say how it’s progressing?
    You have great content in here and it was through reading Madeleine Sharples’ memoir that I got to come across you and your works and all.
    The tips you share here will be very useful for me when l write my second memoir. Mine are unconventional ones to put it simply The first one title My Unconventional Loves: My Hurts, My Adulteries, My Redemption, is still causing ‘havoc and waves’ in my native Cameroon from whence I fled.
    Two tips l can admit to using properly, was editing and leaving out names of people, and also waiting. I wrote in 2012 but published only last March. Memoir writing and digging, healing and digging ain’t easy but to me, it’s a beast to be affronted.
    I sincerely look forward to become a guest author on your blog someday All the best, Marie Author of My Unconventional Loves

    1. Oh no, I confused you with Linda Joy Myers, well to an extent when l attributed her book to you. Please disregard that over sight. You see you are Meyer and she is Myers and to a stray African like me, they are the same 🙂

      1. I thought you had confused us! Not a problem. I could only wish that my memoir was finished and published! 🙂 You are not a “stray African;” you are an African writing sister and I claim you as such. 🙂

      2. Dear Sherrey,
        Thank you so much. It is so warm to find such a community where l never thought l could 🙂
        l am sticking in now more out of conviction than curiosity 🙂

    2. Marie, so nice to meet you and I’m glad you stopped by. Madeline is a source of great information and wise counsel. I’m so glad you read her book and then found your way here.
      I was interested to read about your book and will be getting a copy and reading it soon. I am sorry you had to flee your homeland but sometimes God leads us in a direction we had not planned to go, doesn’t he? Indeed, memoir writing is a “beast to be affronted.
      I would love to have you as a guest on my blog. I’ll email you privately to arrange a date and topic soon.

  10. Such great advice, Sherrey. I’m working on a second draft of my book at the moment and enjoying the process and need to keep these tips in mind. I look forward to Part 2 next time!

    1. Joan, so delightful and comforting to know that as I rewrite so do you and many others. I’m glad you enjoyed this post enough to look forward to Part 2!

  11. I’m no where near the revision process yet, so your tips and links are what I’m focusing on. Thank you!
    I like Hemingway’s straight-forward approach to writing too. From The Moveable Feast: “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.” Apparently a sense of humor helps too. Writers would do well to mimic his writing habits — but maybe not with so much alcohol!

    1. Marian, I could not help but chuckle at the Hemingway quote you shared and your comment that a sense of humor is apparently needed and mimicking his writing habits with a little less alcohol would be beneficial. I think you’re right on! Hope that you’ve found something here that will help you as you write and rewrite! Always glad to read your comments.

  12. All excellent tips, Sherrey. I went through about ten drafts while I was writing Two Hearts. In retrospect I could have done things more efficiently but I was learning so much about the memoir genre and the writing process in general while I was writing. All, time well spent. My very best wishes as you continue to move forward on your journey.

    1. Linda, what you describe is exactly where I am — trying to write, learn about memoir and the writing process in general. All of those things are important to our finished book, but they drastically cut into our efficiency. I’m hoping during rewriting I develop more efficient processes for future writing. Thanks for stopping in from Canada!

Comments are closed.