Rewriting a Manuscript

Rewriting, or saving your manuscript from obscurity.

Writing is rewriting. It is an old adage – almost overused. Unfortunately, this is an inescapable part of the process of finishing a manuscript. No published author ever got away with a first draft. No first draft ever worked. There is no way around it.

Rewriting may seem stiflingly daunting to you. It does to me. I have two manuscripts that never made it through a rewrite and – as a result – are doomed to obscurity (for the time being, at least).

I am currently working on the fourth rewrite of my current manuscript. Yes, that’s right, fourth. I never felt truly satisfied with the previous three versions of my book, yet I didn’t give up on it (as I might have done in the past). Instead, I recognised that the world, plot, and particularly the characters had a life to them. A life I wanted to know more about.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not simply editing my novel. I am rewriting it. This means that entire scenes are being written from scratch. Yes, it is as painful as it sound sometimes. But, only sometimes. Other times – if you do it right – the new scene or chapter just works. Suddenly the plot makes sense. Suddenly you know what that character has been hiding all along.

What is this madness? you ask. Read on and I’ll tell you.

Was I just wasting my time with previous drafts?


Dorothy Parker, in her book The Art of Fiction, said that you write your manuscript once to understand the story, a second time to improve the prose, and a third time “to compel it to say what it still must say.”

How many times you rewrite your manuscript will depend on you and the story. However, the fact remains that previous drafts teach you about the characters and world, and helps you identify plot holes and other things that don’t quite work. Even if you end up throwing away all of your previous work, the old drafts weren’t a waste of time. Don’t let anyone (including your inner critic) tell you that.

Think of it this way: the previous drafts are for you.

Why should I do it all again?

In a way, some of the previous pressure is off. You should know what the story and the theme is (more on that later). Now you have to focus on presenting the characters properly (do this by placing them in plot-relevant situations that show off their personalities and skills) and developing metaphors (again, more on this later).

So, why should you rewrite?

Simple answer: because you want to finish your manuscript and achieve your dream as a published author.

No agent or publisher will accept a first draft of your novel. Especially if you haven’t been published before.

Effective rewriting

You should always rewrite with the goal of finishing your novel. This may seem obvious, but we all are guilty of thinking thoughts like “I’ll fix it later“.

To effectively rewrite you need to have in-depth knowledge of the following:

  1. The Characters
  2. The Theme
  3. The World (and it’s rules)
  4. The Narration
  5. The Plot

(Note the numbering: this is the hierarchy I use – yours may be different. Character and theme are highly important to me. Theme might not be that high up on your list, but the characters should be. I will expand on this later, but remember: characters are the story.)

Once you know as much about these things as you can, you can start your rewrite. Note that it is entirely acceptable to “write-to-discover” the items listed above, but I recommend that you do this in an early draft (preferably the first). Write every scene or chapter with finalisation in mind.

If something occurs to you during this process (e.g. a plot element, or a better motivation), fix it immediately. You’ll find that you’ll jump around in your novel – this is normal and necessary.

Rewriting is long and arduous, but if you pull it off you will find that you can look back at a chapter with a sense of pride. (This would be a great time to send said chapter to some trusted beta-readers).

Should my manuscript be professionally edited?


Everyone needs an editor. I am an editor for a living and I need an editor.

Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Well, have you ever gone back to an old piece of your writing and seen many mistakes? How did I miss that?

The thing is: when you read something you just wrote you tend to remember more than you read. In other words, you read over your mistakes. This is why authors like Stephen King recommend that you let your manuscript “rest” for a while. This will let you “forget” the words in your head and see the words on the page for what they are.

A professional editor can help you in this way too. They can approach it with fresh eyes (the kind of eyes your audience will have – no one can read your mind) and critique what they find there. This may inspire all kinds of insecurities in us writers, but know that every writer has to go through this process.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Enough about me – I want to hear from you. Are you writing or rewriting your manuscript? What are your experiences? What about the process do you find most challenging?

Also, if you need an editor, please let me know.

Top Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

2 Replies to “Rewriting a Manuscript

Your thoughts...