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  • Nikky Lee

My 4-step approach to rewriting

For those who have missed me moaning about my WIP (in person or on social media), I am currently in the throes of revising and rewriting. I am pantser and I pantsed my little heart out with this project, so rewriting is par for the course. There are plot holes to fill, characters to flesh out and a whole lot of exposition that needs sprinkling rather than dumping.

Several people in my local writing group have asked how I’ve approached the task. How did I decide what scenes needed rewriting and what needed a structural edit? How did I take the original scene and transform it into the rewritten one? What steps did I take?

Unfortunately, I’m not great at on-the-spot questions like this. Until then, I hadn’t given much thought to my rewrite process, so my answer was probably neither eloquent nor informative.

Sarah Anderson webcoming comparing the differences between her excellent written communication and poor verbal communication.
In fact, my answer probably came out something a little like this.

However, now I’ve had time to think about it more fully. And here’s my response.

Note: this is the process I use (and I’m still refining it). Your mileage may vary.


1. Identify the weaknesses in the original scene/chapter

Beta readers were essential for this. It’s a case of not seeing the woods through the trees. I was far too close to the story to have an objective view of what worked and what didn’t. Scenes that I thought clear in their delivery came back with beta reader notes saying (these are real feedback quotes by the way):

“I feel that something is missing... by choosing to write a non-human character, you've got a golden opportunity to present an alternative way of doing things, of thinking, of being – something that feels non-human… I don't think you’re quite taking the opportunity.”

“The end of Act 1, I guess, accepting the adventure. Structurally it's bang on time and feels right. But also feels too easy, like she's not really attached to these people, like the leaving doesn't mean so much.”

“The secondary characters don’t seem very fleshed out, as if they’re just extras at the moment, and a plot device to take Maria from plot A to plot B.”

And so on and so forth. While some scenes needed revisions here and there, some called for a full rewrite, particularly the opening chapters.

2. List what the goals of the scene/chapter are.

This is the most important step for me. In the instances of rewriting, I made a list before starting. It included:

  • What important information the original scene contained that must still be included. E.g. how the magic system works.

  • What must happen? What plot points must occur? e.g. Character A has to decide to set off on her quest in this scene.

  • What must be shown/revealed/expanded upon? e.g. Build on the relationship between Character B and Character A. Character B really cares about Character A and doesn’t want her to go.

Plus, the revision goals I need to address in the rewrite, such as:

  • Add voice for Character A.

  • Flesh out Character B.

  • Make this world building element clearer (but no info dumping!).

  • Foreshadow a later event.

3. Brainstorm different ways to hit all the points on the list

Even for scenes that I had no idea how I’d re-approach, a solution inevitably came along in time—usually when I wasn’t actively thinking about it. I’ve had several eureka moments on the drive in to work.

Often it’s been a case of shifting the scenario, the activity the characters are undertaking, or the setting/time—sometimes all three.

Occasionally, it’s been a logic puzzle. In one short story, betas pointed out that a gun was extremely unlikely to backfire in the way I’d written. So I had to think up another way for a character to get injured.

Beta readers also make great sounding boards for this step—or they have in my experience.

4. Permit yourself to play

For this, I open up a fresh document and simply write. I think of it as an experiment. A testing of the waters to see if my rewrite plan of attack will work. Sometimes they don’t; I recently discovered that one of my projects does not work in first person. At all. I abandoned that experiment within half a page. No harm done. Carry on.

If I want to slot a rewritten scene into a chapter, I may keep the original open beside me (I have two screens). However, I’ve found rewriting works best when I’m not trying to mash old and new together. Instead, I write new and then circle back to make sure I’ve hit all the points on my list.

For those of you who have asked me this question, I’m hoping this post is a better answer than the one I originally gave. Ultimately, I think it’s about finding a process that works for you and sticking the phase through, even if it’s like pulling teeth. Your manuscript will thank you later.


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