Friday, April 16, 2010

First Drafts and Rewrites

“The first draft of anything is shit,” said Ernest Hemingway.

I’m sure most of us would nod in agreement. If our readers/editors/agents were privy to our first drafts, most probably that would be the end of their relationship with us. My first drafts are written in long hand, on ruled sheets, else as my English teacher in college used to comment, they would climb mountains (the writing steadily moves upwards). Every corner of the paper is filled with words.

I read somewhere “I am not a very good writer, but I am an excellent rewriter.” I agree wholeheartedly. First drafts are anything but publishable. Only we (writers can make sense of it). I live for rewrites, several ones at that.

That is the story of all our lives. Only after several rewrites the manuscript gets a semblance of an order. A bit of a sparkle. The first draft is just a large number of words vomited on paper. Now it’s time to wade through the literary mess, sift and sort, and make sense of it. Rewrites, rewrites and more rewrites. It takes several drafts for writers to actually come close to querying.

Actually rewriting is fun. As the basic model or skeleton is ready, its now time to give it shape, to refine and remodel. To nip, tuck, chip and chisel.

Something that has personally worked for me, is that after the first draft, I take a break of few days. I let the manuscript marinate in its own juices. During this enforced break, I catch up with reading, writing my articles for the newspapers and several other things. Though my mind is constantly hovering over the manuscript, I don’t actually sit down to rewrite.

This process is a lot like meditation, when thoughts enter a mind during a state of meditative contemplation, we are advised to neither ignore, nor encourage them.

When I return, I feel I get a fresh and better perspective over the first draft. Actually after each rewrite a little break is a must for me. Just a couple of days. It’s like giving each other a little breathing space. And when I return to the Work In Progress, I am eager to tackle another draft. Though the mental connection with my WIP is constant, the physical distance is very therapeutic. I am then able to see the manuscript with its ugly warts. The glaring loopholes stare at me. With each rewrite I hope to plug the gaps created in ignorance.

I have decided to ask myself few questions after each draft.

1. Is my main character believable? If not, then, am I working towards it with each draft ?

2. Is my writing improving with each draft ?

3. Is my conflict convincing enough to involve the readers ?

4. Have I resolved all the conflicts satisfactorily ?

5. Have I been able to convey the spirit/essence of the story/book effectively ?

It’s difficult to be honest when I am faced with my own work. Either I am too critical, or, too lenient. But I have to be honest. That is the only way I can improve.

Do you have any tips that have helped you through several drafts ? Any tips that have made the manuscripts sparkle ?


  1. Wonderful post, Rachna! I totally need a break before tackling my edits too. I usually read it through the first time for the flow and overall big picture edits. Then I read it again for line edits. After that I have an objective critiquer read it (usually a paid editor). Even then, I'm not always ready to be done editing! Not sure if we ever are!

  2. It's been quite awhile since I started a story in longhand. Your blog made me want to start my next story that way. I always start a poem in longhand. But since I've been writing longer works (novels) I seem to have drifted into the easiness of cut and paste on Word. Still, I remember how differently if feels to start out in longhand: such a different connection to the story trying to rise to the surface. Thanks for the reminder, Rachna!

  3. Hey Jody, I thought I was the only one who needed a break before tackling my edits. But its nice to know that someone else feels the same.

  4. Elizabeth, the smaller books are straight away typed on the computer, but for novels I prefer long hand first drafts, but they are time consuming. Nowadays I prefer to key in some chapters, rather than write them in long hand.

  5. I'm just finishing up the first draft of my new WIP and yes Hemingway is right. I'm afraid it's going to be a long rewriting summer...

  6. Hi Anne, its the same with me....the rewrites will take me ages. Hope both of us do a great job of our WIP's.....