Rewriting – How Many Times?

Rewriting – How Many Times?
Everyone says that “writing is rewriting,” but where does it end? How many times do you need to rewrite a story?

Most often, a story is made worse after a rewrite. In fact, a story can become more defective with every successive draft. How do you avoid destroying your story when you rewrite it?

Build It Right The First Time
There is a simple way to avoid these kinds of problems. First of all, forget the saying that “writing is rewriting.” Imagine what an architect would say if you said to him, “Building a house is all about re-building.”

To avoid most of the problems that occur with a rewrite, you should build your story correctly the first time. Too many writers say to themselves, “I’ll fix it in the rewrite.”

Writers avoid doing extensive outlines because they’re afraid of “analysis paralysis.” Even more writers scoff at getting the story structure right before they set out to compose their stories because they’re afraid of an imaginary straight jacket, as if an outline will kill their creativity.

Trying to repair a story with a bad design might prove impossible after its finished. This is because the story will cement itself in your mind after your write it.

To build a story correctly, you need to concentrate on getting the story structure right. If you’re using the obsolete Three Act Structure System, there is no way to do this. You should have a more advanced system like the Seven Steps of Classical Story Structure.

This will not bar you from the need to rewrite a story of course, but when you get things set up correctly, you won’t need to fix as many things later on. Also, when you structure a story correctly, it will be hard to break it with consecutive rewrites because the structure will serve as a safety net, keeping you out of trouble.

Make Story Structure Part Of Your Subconscious
To avoid freezing the life out of your story with too many left-brained activities like structure and outlines, you need to make these tools part of your subconscious, so that you won’t restrain or distort your muse. This could take years, but its well worth it.

How do you use these tools now? Go ahead and structure your stories, but remember that these outlines are only a dim framework, a safety net. If your mind wants to wander off, let it go. A good structure system won’t restrain your creativity at all. It will enhance it.

Develop A Rewriting System
Ray Bradbury has a system that works like this: On Monday, he works on his first draft. On tuesday, he does his first rewrite. Wednesday is for the second draft. Thursday is the third draft and Friday is the polish. On Saturday he takes a break and on Sunday he looks for a new idea.

Action Steps
Set up a system for rewriting your stories. Here’s how mine works:

1. General Pass: After I finish a story, I read over it once or twice to fix general errors and to clean it up.

2. Structure Pass: I will then analyze the structure since these changes will have the greatest effect on the story.

3. Theme & Self-Revelation: The theme is the ultimate purpose of the story. To clarify the theme, look at the Self-Revelation sequence. How is the self-revelation new information? How is it meaningful information? Make sure its valuable to the audience.

4. The Deep Sequence Of The Story: A story works on two levels: The personal level, expressed through the main character, and the level of the world itself. Try to describe in a single line, how the hero’s struggle in this story has led her to this end? Then describe what the world has come to because of or in spite of the hero’s actions.

5. The Hero, Opponents, & Moral Arguments: Clarify the desire and the need of the hero, and then focus on the opponent. Stories build through the opponent. Add secondary opponents to broaden the conflict and scope of the story. Examine the moral arguments of the hero and opponents.

6. Differentiate The Characters: Charcters are made unique through their different value systems and their values are expressed through their dialogue. I also like to give my characters unique words and phrases, which I drop in at this point.

Dialogue changes are usually one of the first things that a writer likes to change in rewrites. But dialogue shouldn’t be used to drive a story. Structure will drive a story. When you fix the structure, most dialogue problems will go away. Think of it this way: Dialogue is telling. An action, driven by structure, is showing.

7. Symbols: Create symbols which embody the story concepts and drop them in to add greater meaning. You can also add symbolic dialogue in the form of tag lines. For instance, here is a phrase from Star Wars: “I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”

8. Polish: Examine the Self-Revelation again. Tighten the pace of the story. Pop the opening.

What to do now
Develop whatever system works for you. Work at getting the story right through careful development of the structure. Create a clear system for rewriting your story. Then finish your story and send it out!

Get “The Anatomy of Story“in order to understand how advanced story structure works.

Get John Truby’s Story Development course to learn the best ways to develop a story.


– Mark O’Bannon


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