If you’re a student of mine, or you’ve been on a course I’ve tutored, you’ll be tired of hearing me banging on about rewriting, so below you will find a number of other writers telling you how they go about their craft. They have done this without being paid and not necessarily because they are chums of mine – although some are. They have written to tell you something they feel is important about our work and about being a writer – that impulse, you will find, tends to override all kinds of other considerations, even those of ego, which goodness knows many writers are not entirely without. If you believe there is in any way such a thing as a community of writers, I feel this is where it lies – in a common understanding of what we do, what it’s like, how much it hurts, how magnificent it is, why we care, why we try to keep it all going – for others as well as ourselves.
Among other things, you will find the writers here being honest about one of the most naked times in their work. You will read descriptions of the hours we spend flinging ourselves in the direction of perfection without hope of success, alone and yet in insistent imagined company, sometimes bewildered, sometimes exalted. You will also see the joy in this, the intensity, the desire to grow, to fail better. You will also get a taste of what you will probably already recognise – the sense that we are rarely as alive as when we are fighting to improve our work, to find its name, its purpose, to make it thrive and go forth to the minds of other. There is great joy here, great delight, serendipity, signs, wonders and wild endeavour. There is also a great deal of work.
And, for the record, I rewrite all the time. For stories and novels there will be between 3 and 7 major rewrites, all manner of tinkerings and tweaks as I go forward and then after the work has come to something like a close. I rewrite work that has been previously published in magazines and I rewrite after the editor has said he finds the work acceptable for publication. I rewrite until I am sick of it and then do it some more. I switch from on-screen, to on paper, to out loud (I use work in progress at readings) to out loud in my head.
Being unpublished is no fun at all, but being published with work you now find embarrassing to read aloud or touch without gloves and a long stick is nothing to marvellous, either – trust me on this, I know.
For drama, plays and screenplays I would probably give the same rewrite numbers, but I am occasionally beset by other people who feel they must become involved in the creative process – so more rewrites – or inspired by performers, collaborators, accidents, voices, locations and technical challenges – so more rewrites.
Figures would be the same for creative non-fiction. My journalism gets slightly less attention and is therefore less good.
The caveat here would be that it is possible to rewrite compulsively until the work you have seems okay simply because it looks familiar. And it is all too possible to rewrite blindly, in the manner of a steward rearranging the buffet as the Titanic goes down. Part of the key to effective rewriting is an ability to get enough distance from your work to be able to see it as a whole, to sense its heart, where it really should be going, what it’s deeply about, who its characters truly are. However well you prepare – and you should prepare well – you will know more about all these things at the end of your first large pass. Seeing your work as a critical stranger would, or as an intervening surgeon would – or however you wish to view your rewriting self – is vital. You also need to be able to close right in to comb through the work, syllable by syllable, to get the fabric of it right: the details, the music. This isn’t easy, but it is possible and it is worth it. If you don’t try to find your own version of doing this, it will be almost impossible to discover how far you can go as a writer.
And if you haven’t pulled an all-nighter and written until you can’t remember who you are and produced work you couldn’t possibly have produced and been ambushed by insights and dragged up mountains and over cliffs by ideas that don’t even feel like your own, then you’ve missed a treat. Just my opinion.
Here are the other writers.
Almost all of them asked to see this document when it was finished.
Thanks again for their help.
John Burnside: poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, journalism
The Burnside Method (this does not translate into a number, because it varies so much, but it may be of anecdotal interest, or possibly serve as an indicator if squared then multiplied by a number between 13 and 27)
I think about the thing for a very long time, (two years, minimum) Then write it. Then, given that luxury, I take a break from it, and then rewrite intensively over a short period, (a month or so) sometimes on paper, sometimes in my head. I stay up all night, getting a paragraph right, then stay up the next night rescuing it from the disaster of the night before. I think one should sacrifice everything for the prose, because a book may be good (entertaining, instructive, funny, whatever) for all kinds of reasons, but the true test of its *truth* – le mensonge qui dit la verite – is the quality of the prose. If I could discover the truth of my subject – its deepest rhythms and textures, its soul, as it were – then I believe that this would give rise to perfect prose.
I say: aim for that, no matter what it takes. Fail, try again, fail better etc. In other words, I imagine how many rewrites old Samuel B did, and raise him a couple, (on the theory that, if it took him that many to do it, it’s bound to take some lesser mortal a whole lot more.)
Philip Pullman: children’s and young adult’s fiction
I don’t have a regular or formal way of doing it, except that the first draft is always in longhand and that I make a first revising pass over it when I put it on the computer. But after that it gets as many revisions as it needs. Each time I write a sentence in the first draft, I try to do it as well as I can, hoping that it’s the last time I’ll have to think about it, but knowing it won’t be. I don’t think in terms of first draft, second draft, third draft: simply in terms of what it needs now, what it still needs, what it doesn’t need. And of course there are sometimes passages I hope the editor’s eye won’t notice, because I kind of furtively know that they need more work, but I just can’t see how to improve them; and when his eye does pick them up, I feel a kind of guilty relief that I’ve been caught.
But overall: sometimes one passage, one sentence, one chapter will stand exactly as it is from the first time my pen formed the words on the page, while another will be reworked twenty times before I’m satisfied with it. And sometimes I’m never satisfied; I agree with whoever it was who said that a work of art is never finished, it’s only abandoned.
Ian Rankin: crime fiction
I do one very rough first draft, which is really about making sure the plot and theme work. During this process, I sometimes ditch characters along the way or come to realise that the person I thought was the ‘baddie’ actually isn’t, and another character is instead – so that is a very interesting/terrifying draft. I’m tightroping. Second draft takes on board everything I’ve learned from draft one, and puts meat on the bones of the plot. Plus I give the actual prose some spit and polish. I then probably show that second draft to a few people (partner, agent, editor) and suggestions will be made as to how I can improve what I’ve got. Sometimes there’s a bit of arguing along the way, but the result is the third draft. And that’s usually me done.
Thomas Lynch: poetry, short stories, essays and journalism
As to the number of rewrites: I’d say somewhere between 17 and 17 squared. Revision is for me the daily office and routine. Whatever was written yesterday gets rewritten today as the warm up to writing what will be, tomorrow, yesterday’s writing further scrutinized. Like stretching before a walk, and afterwards. And that’s all after the hush — full of its own ruminations — that comes before the words get on the page at all. This goes on till the piece is spoken for in print. Then there is a temporary peace while the effort takes its place in a journal or newspaper or magazine. In such incarnations, the light always changes and you note some possible corrections. Or possibly some helpful friend suggests alternatives. Depending on the friend, you might take these to heart. If the poem or essay or story ends up in a book of same, each gets buffed and polished some more. Editor, copy-editor, proof-reader — everyone asks you to have another look. On balance we are improved by it. Once in a book on the shelf in the library it is safe for the time being. Every time it gets read again presents the opportunity to correct, edit, subtract, press towards the diamond utterance you had in mind at the moment you first heard inklings of it. This little paragraph, for example, I could tuck away until tomorrow and have another look, (even now I see some warts and carbuncles) but for the notion that John Burnside’s alone on your list of responsive pals. I want so badly to be among those blessed and elect that I’ll chance any error or blathermentia just to be one of those you can count on to deliver. “Done” as the journalists always tell me, is better than “good.” “Why can’t we be both?” I often counter. And so for this accounting: lots and lots is the number I’m getting at.
David Morley: poetry, non-fiction and essays
After the piece is out – published in mag – about 5 rewrites.
After book is out – about 3 rewrites.
For creative non-fiction – about 10 major rewrites; and 300 odd tweaks – different for me for poems because it is prose.
I’d apply a similar rigour to academic work. That CW book I did had – God! – about 800 major rewrites [serious!], and I’d say 30,000 ‘tweaks’, some major, some not (but the minor still feel major.)
Glenn Patterson: novels, journalism
Emails easily a dozen.
Three full revisions I mean: starting at page one and reconsidering every line. Tweaks as many as there are stars in the sky.
Chris Manby: chick lit novels, erotic novellas (as Stephanie Ash), a “bonk-buster” (as Olivia Darling) and one non-fiction
It’s taken me nineteen novels to work out an effective rewrite routine. The biggest mistake is to try to edit on-screen. I used to do that to save paper! Now I print the work out, double-spaced, and take the manuscript with me to a cafe. I make changes by hand with a propelling pencil. Swapping red pen for pencil was another revelation for me. That you can rub pencil marks out definitely encourages you to take more risks. And a manuscript covered in pencil scribble looks so much less daunting than one covered in red when you get back to the coal-face that is the laptop.
Erica Wagner: short stories, fiction, journalism
I didn’t really count as I was going along, but after my novel, Seizure, was published in 2007, I happened to have a go at “organizing” — I use the term loosely — my computer files, and I realized, rather to my amazement, that there were eight or nine drafts of the thing. Obviously many were partial rewrites, but they were all substantial enough to merit me saving it as a new file. With Seizure it was a process of refining and refining the language and images; I was looking for texture, for sensibility as much as anything else, and those qualities can be tough to pin down. I don’t have any rules about how many times I rewrite something: but I am certainly never too bored or tired to look at something yet one more time. You can’t be. Alternatively (see? You can’t win) you also have to know when to stop rewriting: recently Michael Schmidt reminded me of Robert Lowell revising some of his poems right out of existence, as it were. Do it till it feels right; then put it away for a while and look at it again, is a good place to start. See if you still agree with yourself. If you don’t: you might like to rewrite. Again.
Don Paterson: poetry, essays
Depends. Depends on the inspired-bit to made-up-bit-that-has-to-sound-just-like-the-inspired-bit ratio. Never fewer than twenty (that’s if I get lucky), more usually up to about a hundred. But now that I work on the screen it’s hard to quantify in drafts. It comes together over the period of maybe a year or so, almost never less, and I can usually scroll down at least 12 yards, down through the geological strata to the poem’s first fragmentary, stupid & ugly incarnation, that handful of dirt with one wee sparkly thing in it. I think the point is … you cannot suffer from impatience. Ever. It’s done when it’s done. And god knows, with poetry no one’s in a hurry to read it, so you might as well get it right. That’s not to say you can’t occasionally get a result in three drafts, and I know some folk who can – but it’s all melody and no harmony. Which is no bad thing, but it doesn’t interest me. Complexity of meaning has to be carefully & laboriously built in, especially if you’re striving – and I believe you should be – to make it all sound as uncomplicated and song-like as possible.
David Greig: plays, screenplays
I then begin a collaboration with a director. After some discussion I will do a second draft. This is usually a big disappointment as I will
overshoot and lose the messy spark of individuality that made the play interesting in the first place. However, that draft will – buried somewhere
within it – contain a major step forward – a sort of architectural foundation. Finally, I will do a third draft which – if all goes well – becomes the starting
point of rehearsals.
Then during rehearsals, I will work constantly on the play in the light of the actors comments and my own observations.
Finally, I will do a draft in the light of the preview audiences.
At the end of the whole process – once the play has closed – I will put together a final draft which becomes the finished version of the play.
For Films it is different. The process for film is much more ‘collaborative’. I say collaborative but in fact I mean that one is forced to do draft after
draft to satisfy totally different aims.
I have three films for which I have been paid proper money and which are still on a long road to production. One film is a big budget film – a very
dark comedy. It has been going for eight years now with six major drafts (each one a reconceptualisation) and each draft having it’s own ‘polish’ which really means
a second draft. So that’s twelve drafts.
A low budget comedy set in Scotland has been going 2 years and had 3 major drafts and 3 polishes.
An adaptation of a novel has been going just over a year and is on it’s third draft.
When – if – these films get into the process of being made then the rewriting will really begin! On a short I did I got to the eighteenth draft before
shooting began and even then the tweaks continued.
The difficulty – with film in particular – is to suspend ones own disbelief and to truly enter into each draft with the sure belief that it will be
filmed – exactly as you are writing it now. If I can’t do that then writing is almost physically impossible. However, believing and then being
disappointed 12 – 18 times takes quite a toll on ones spirit.
For me, three drafts are the main steps of each project, though. Draft one (vomit) Draft two (overshoot, disappoint, step forward) Draft Three (the basic template for rehearsal)
and the postscript…
Reading through, I realised that when I thought of re-writing I was discounting the rewriting that is part of the regular act of writing.
That is to say that, like many of your contributors, I rewrite as I am going along. I start every day back at the beginning of the piece
and then take a ‘run up’ through it until I reach the blank pages at the end. So – the first draft is already a rewrite.
A metaphor I sometimes use in teaching is that the writing process is like a dance between the playful and the critical part of oneself.
The playful part has the inspiration and creates the new stuff. The critical part brings an analysis to bear, questions, pushes for more
clarity or truth – and rewrites. Dance works as a metaphor for me because it captures the sense that both sides are working together
and that if either side becomes too strong then the work will suffer accordingly. The dance applies to writing a play as an entire endeavour
but it also, I think, applies to writing moment to moment – as a live act.
Gill Dennis: screenplays
It takes me twelve weeks to write a first draft.
By the time they are shot, if that should come to pass, at least seven drafts have been written (actually twenty-one to twenty-eight drafts as two or three drafts towards each “final draft-whatever number” are for my wife’s eyes only. I always say I can tell how bad they are by the way she says, “Good.”) I write draft after draft because of apparently necessary failure.
Writing the first thirty pages or so of any draft, I read the script from the beginning, making changes as I go, and then pick up where I left off the day before.
Once into the second movement of the piece, I read it from the second movement’s beginning every day and then continue. The same occurs for the third movement, if there should be one.
Every fifth day or so, I go back to the very beginning of the script and read everything there is, changing things as I go.
“‘Changing’ to what end?” you ask. Most of it is cutting words and events that get in the way while looking for those that feel right and surprise.
You cut and cut.
You cut dialogue to allow the reader, eventually the viewer, to collaborate with the character, filling in all that is unspoken. You, perhaps, leave much unspoken that a novelist would not.
You cut description because you are trying to let one word do the work of ten and to make the reading time the same as the playing time.
You cut until you are left with only what feels right.
You are in the presence of emotion and experience. You spend a lot of time looking at words on the page, feeling for things that may be very near and small and overlooked.
Part of all this is waiting.
Patience is good.
Time is everything.
It is like looking into water.
There comes a moment when far beneath the surface the dark shadows shift. The whale has turned and you know the hunt has begun.
This is why I write.
I also mentor thesis films at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. These are movies twenty to thirty minutes long made by the Fellows there. The screenwriters on these projects do an average of twenty drafts (that I see) before production begins.
Such is life.
Louise Doughty: Prose fiction
I don’t believe there has ever been a writer who drew breath who wasn’t also a good re-writer. In my case, re-writing is essential for the simple reason that my first drafts are absolute, unmitigated shite. I can’t begin to tell you how shite they are. I could be blackmailed with them, that’s how shite they are. I think this is because my first drafts are always written at great speed. The brain works quicker than the fingers, after all, and the thoughts tumble all over the place and spill onto the page in the most unholy mess. I make enormous use of cliché in my first drafts. Don’t knock cliché. It’s great as shorthand. I use it in the same way that men doing roadworks put up a silhouette of a man with a spade. They do that so that you can glimpse it instantly when you drive past at speed, rather than a sign that says, ‘You might be held up for a wee while here folks as there are three fellas in orange jackets and hard hats using a variety of heavy tools and mechanised objects to repair the road surface.’ Re-writing for me is always a matter of going back through my prose with a fine tooth comb and taking out all the weak summarising phrases I have used because I was in a hurry, making it particular, specific, detailed, evocative. When I first re-read my initial draft of anything, I often come close to despair – well, close to falling on the ground and gnawing at the carpet, at any rate. Time and time again I have had to remind myself, this is what you do, don’t just throw it in the bin. Kick it around the room. Turn it upside down. Give it a good shake to see if any pennies fall out. Eventually, if you are ruthless enough, they do.
Stevie Davies: prose fiction and academic prose
For each novel (and more especially historical novels, which require an enormous act of imaginative assimilation of research material), I would expect to do eight or nine complete rewrites. The first draft is the most fun – sloshing paint on canvas, playing and creating something that is chaos on the page, dreaming awake. The second draft is a more organised chaos – then the labour of working structurally with the large sections starts. This has its own deep and enthralling interest. Whole characters and scenes might still not feel right and need to be addressed. And once you begin to do this, the whole of the rest is affected – the web shakes at all its joins. Somewhere toward the ‘end’ (but ends are pretty random), intricacies of style and phrasing need attention. It’s always provisional – id est, alive. My consciousness brims with whatever book I’m working on, all the time – at bus stops, in the bath – and that also has an effect on rewriting. Working on rewrites with an editor has often in recent years been horrible – a sense of being bullied and harassed. But editing need not, should not, be like this – and I’ve left my publisher now and have a far more sensitive, focused editor.