Making it Suck Less: Rewriting is the Key to Success

So we’ve explored ways to get your story out of your head and onto the computer screen. We’ve agreed to quit worrying and let it suck (for now) and we’ve got ourselves a draft.

Now what?

Well, some of us will start freaking out, cursing our own birth, and ranting about how what we wrote is the worst piece of garbage ever produced in the entire known universe. 

Good. Go with it. Go get all that Evil Editor nonsense out of your system. Then beat up a punching bag, go for a run, scrub something within an inch of its life — and once you are calm again, the rewarding adventure of rewrite can begin.

Let me clarify some potential misconceptions here: rewriting is NOT an admission of failure, it is NOT correcting mistakes, it is NOT punishment or detention or painful or bad. Rewriting is the art of our process, where we metaphorically utilize out best two horsehair brush, our most precise chisel, our finest sandpaper, and fine tune our work as the artists we are.

Painters do it. So do sculptors, illustrators, animators, CGI artists, graphic designers filmmakers, actors, singers, songwriters, comedians, cooks, speech writers, all creative people. As a matter of fact carpenters, plumbers, house builders, road workers, etc, they do it too. So do athletes, doctors, politicians, lawyers, businessmen, police officers, and teachers.

We all rewrite, refine, polish what we do to make what we present to the world better.

Why would writers possibly be different?

So, the rewriting process.

Here’s what I do:

First draft – Let it suck (awkward phrasing, repetitive word choice, etc. – just get the draft done).

Second draft – make is suck less (yes, a simple achievable goal will minimize freak out and let the work co to use- trust the process) – go for coherent. This is more about big picture stuff at this point. I get story beats to make sense (does someone die and then show up three chapters later?simply fix this.). I make sure the overall pacing works well (things might slow down for a few beats but never let them drag, etc). I confirm characters remain consistent, and that they aren’t too similar (this happened in a recent novel -two villains were basically interchangeable -I reconstructed one character throughout the book, which necessitated many changes that wound up being a lot of fun and caused a few surprises as I prorgressed through that draft).. So this draft addresses on big changes and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. However, if I also find a word repeating I change it whenever it sticks out.

Draft 3 – make it kind of good – all of step 2 gets polished. Here I got through the draft again (after a very necessary break – we have to walk away from the writing, go climb a mountain [of laundry maybe], paint a room, take kids somewhere nice [preferably your own kids, not condoning kidnapping here], just get out of your head and out of the book’s world for awhile. Some experts suggest a minimum of three weeks, but I can’t stay away that long. Just get physically, mentally, and emotionally away for a day to a week, so you can look at it with sort of new eyes). In this draft, I am harder on phrasing, word choice, spelling, grammar, etc, always serving the story (would that character speak this way, would she really do this, is that machine available in this time period, etc.) I crack down on repetition here. I also lock in characters, beats, pacing, and voice. It has to sound right, move forward at a strong pace, and work on most cylinders. The fun part? Mistakes in this draft stick out as we are closely reading the text. “Hey, Marv is the heroic leg breaker, how did he become Mary for this entire chapter?” Easy fix. “Since when did George Washington’s troops have Ak-47s?” Easy fix. “Joan is the lead surgeon. Why is Jessica working with Jack on this surgery?” Easy fix. And any of these situations can go toward reality, sci-fi, or melodrama and still get fixed, depending on what your story needs. The power of the story is intoxicating!

The bottom line here is, you have got this, you are the world creator and can solve any and all problems. Remember, Edison never saw a method that didn’t work as failure  but as taking him a step closer to the solution, and that bad boy and his team lit up the world. Here is where you take great steps toward lighting yours.

Draft 4 – Before I do this draft I send it off to beta readers, reliable judges who are kind enough to read your work and give feedback. And kindness comes in a variety of forms:my wife is my greatest supporter and really loves what I do, a librarian friend is amazing at catching typos and gently pointing out plot holes, another reader caused me to drop four chapters and significantly improve my YA debut GENIUS HIGH by not giving away the villain at the opening a la Columbo, and then I have a friend who is a retired NYPD sergeant, and rips the work I send if it strays from proper police procedure. In my upcoming suspense thriller police procedural CITY OF PAIN, he also pointed out that two villains were essentially the same, inspiring a rebuild that turned a problem into a wonderfully out-of-his-depth character. 

So that is what draft 4 is about, respectfully addressing beta reader feedback. Notice I said respectfully addressing, not blindly following. A writer must consider beta reader feedback in terms of goals of the story. One beta reader recently circled every time a character said the word “Moms” thinking it a typo until I pointed out that was part of his colloquial speaking pattern. My cop friend always wants me to drop the domestic scenes and just focus on the police work, but the story requires us to see the impact of the job on the rest of my character’s world, so the domestic scenes remain. Here I do the fixes pointed out by others if their notes are legit, but we authors have to be strong and honest with ourselves, and not defensive. Beta reader feedback cannot be seen as personal attacks, cannot be blocked by ego, we must always, always, always serve the story. Doing so leads us to great discoveries and a much stronger draft.

Draft 5 – This is both the final polish of the manuscript and where I tend to fall into the “I suck” insanity. Here I often lose all rational balance and freak out if the same word is used twice on the same page! Clearly, I cannot write worth a damn if I find one of those repetitions! I am the worst! Usually, a cup of tea and admonishing myself out loud will get me beyond this — nothing sounds funnier out loud than self-loathing. If that doesn’t work, I confess to Tina that I am a hack loser, and she talks me off the edge to the point where I can continue.

Once I am functional again, I read the manuscript thoroughly, out loud, and polish what sounds a bit off. At this point the work has gelled and this is sort of the dress rehearsal. Do things sometimes need to change at the last moment? Sometimes, but mostly it is polish.

In any event, if you more or less follow this guide, you will have gone from “I cannot write” to I have written a pretty damn good draft!” And you did it by simply letting it suck and then making it suck less. Pretty cool, right?

I hope this helps. If not, ask questions and I will do what I can to help.

Go have fun.

If all else fails, wear a goofy hat while you write. 

Christopher Ryan is author of City of Woe, available on Kindle and Nook, and in print. For more info, click here.

About chrisryanwrites

I do my best to tell fast-paced stories with humor and heart. My fiction work is available on Here, I’ll write about the sources for those stories from what I read, watch, listen to, and observe to my experiences as a former award-winning journalist, high school teacher, actor, and producer.
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4 Responses to Making it Suck Less: Rewriting is the Key to Success

  1. Suck less! I like it. Not sucking at all is too unattainable. Everyone sucks in some way. The best we can hope for is to suck less.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love everything about this post. You’ve pretty much nailed what we all go through. What is the writing equivalent of body image issues, because I think we seriously take the cake. Pun intended. I love cake.

    Anyway, great read, thank you for sharing the insight! 🙂


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