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Should You Rewrite or Should You Edit?

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” And lots of great stories can be built on top of a less shiny but strong first draft.


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Nihan Kucukural

5 months ago | 4 min read
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Your story doesn’t finish until you say it is finished

My screenwriting group had a new project. We submitted the 120-page screenplay and crossed our fingers. The next day our new producer called and said: “We’ll need three more rewrites.” I almost got a heart attack!

I thought she meant we were going to write the whole thing three more times. But she was only guessing that there would be three more drafts — which was extremely optimistic.

We ended up with twenty or more drafts but didn’t “rewrite” it. As we worked with the producers, directors, actors, we adjusted, trimmed, changed it in little ways at each stage. In the end, it was unrecognizable, but it had the same bones.

I sometimes read blog posts, such as this one, that suggest writers rewrite a whole screenplay or novel manuscript from scratch after finishing the first draft. There are good reasons to do it, some writers might prefer it, and it might be essential in some cases, but it is not always realistic.

Pros of re-writing from scratch

James Clear says:

“Starting from zero can be a gift. If you don’t have much to begin with, you don’t have much to lose. You can be bold when you aren’t trying to protect something.”

The advantages are obvious. You can begin your project with new energy and a fresh mind. You can go beyond the previous limits. Since you are not trying to work around blocks, you can be more free, flexible, and smooth.

When you turn off your editing mode and go back to writing mode, you can begin using your right brain again, re-connecting with your subconscious creative source.

These are all great. But can you afford such luxury every time?

Cons of starting over

Re-writing can easily turn into a trap. If you keep re-starting a story over and over, you might never finish it. Several versions occupy space in your head and hard drive.

Each of these versions will have its own merits, and if you can’t find a way to use each brilliant idea in one draft, all that time and energy get wasted.

The whole process gets further confusing and makes it harder for you to make decisions.

Moreover, even when you complete a rewrite, it still won’t be perfect. You will still need to edit it. Or would you rather write a third draft to fix the mistakes?

A draft from scratch is the last resort

Re-writing can complicate things further when it is a sizable work (novel or screenplay), and there are other parties involved (co-writers, publishers, producers, etc.). If there is a text largely agreed on, re-writing the whole thing might cause bigger problems.

So how do we do it? We first give time to everybody to read and take their notes. If all the notes are about little typos or word suggestions, and we feel good about it in general, we make changes to the script as we read it over.

If structural issues affect the entire story or scenes, we first understand what those problems are. Sometimes the readers correctly sense a problem with the story, but they don’t know exactly where it is coming from.

When they suggest edits such as “The character shouldn’t do this” or “She should say such and such,” they think the problem is the words they see on the page. But as writers, we know what’s under those words and the problems.

We might realize that a character's motivations aren’t clear, or a conflict isn’t convincing. Then we might consider partial rewrites of the areas in question.

Sometimes rewriting is unavoidable

If I am working on a solo project and there is no one to discuss and make decisions with, my story gets fluid in my mind. Sometimes I lose track. When I am finished, my story seems like a bowl of spaghetti. Re-writing seems like the only option.

In that case, I put the draft aside for a while. This is for allowing my brain to gain some distance to take an objective look at my writing. After a few days (or weeks, depending on the size), I would read it and see how I feel about it.

Does it really have those inconsistencies, plot holes, confusing, unclear, or sagging parts? Have I changed my mind mid-way about point of view or another significant thing?

For example, if I started to write a summer story and later decided that winter would suit better, characters’ actions, clothing, moods, the whole atmosphere would change, and I would have to rewrite the whole thing even if the events are more or less the same.

I have a story I’ve been working on and off over the years. During this time, I adopted different styles and voices. I changed my mind about many things along the way, and I learned a lot. I am aware that a lot of what I have written is rubbish now, and I will have to rewrite that story once I get to the end.

Final thoughts

Hemingway said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” And lots of great stories can be built on top of a less shiny but strong first draft.

In the end, it is up to you to decide if you need to draft a new version from scratch. Maybe a nice trimming, enriching, and polishing of your existing draft will be good enough.

It might never feel good enough. Perfectionism might get in the way and force you to start over again. But if you spend all your time and energy on one story, who will write your next story?

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Nihan Kucukural

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Turkish copywriter and screenwriter, lover of stories, living in New Zealand


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