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The Rewrite Process

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

We have three weeks of the semester left, and I’m feeling that end-of-semester paradox of being completely burned out but also stunned at how fast it’s gone.

The last few weeks before break, we focus on the rewrite process. Yesterday, we got into groups and discussed the work of our classmates. Then we gave each other our written feedback. The task now is to go back and rethink our first drafts—and then rewrite them.

I don’t want to!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no prima donna, and I can handle constructive criticism and even, sometimes, flat-out rejection (it’s part of the writer’s life!). But I’m very protective of the manuscript I turned in. I don’t know why: it’s not the best story I’ve ever written, but I still really like it just how it is—I spent the month of August “perfecting” it—and I feel like I’ve exhausted my coffers. Do you ever write something like that, that’s so very you, you don’t want anyone fiddling with it? Even if you recognize that it needs to be fiddled with? That’s how I’m feeling right now.

But my professor said something interesting last night. He told us that you may be in love with a paragraph you’ve written, but you still have to ask yourself what the story’s needs are—which sometimes are different from your own personal needs. “Sometimes,” Randy said, “you just have to cut those little darlings.” I liked that phrase: “little darlings,” those lovely sentences that don’t necessarily push the story forward in any way. But I’m still fighting with the idea of it, and don’t know if I’ll actually be able to do it.

Then, my other professor, Patty, gave me another disturbing piece of advice about the re-write I have to do with my creative essay. She suggested that when I go to do it, I should open a completely new document; don’t just edit out the parts I want to change. I’ve never done that before, though I hear that D.H. Lawrence’s revision process worked the same way: he’d write a draft, then try to rewrite by heart without looking at the original. The parts that stayed, I guess, were the parts worth remembering. The parts that changed or dropped were the parts that needed changing or cutting.

I’m going to try both of those things: cutting my darlings and revising from scratch, and although I’m not too crazy about either tactic, I trust my teachers enough to believe they know what they’re talking about.

What is your rewrite process?

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4 Responses to The Rewrite Process

  1. Dana says:

    Found this linked off Scott Francis’ blog, an interview with Sage Cohen:

    "Natalie Goldberg’s instruction about freewriting helped me cultivate a practice of welcoming my writing without judgment. Through regular freewriting, I stopped hearing those unfriendly “editor” voices and started allowing what wanted to come through in words to find its way to the page. (The editing came later, of course.)"

    http://writersdigest.com/article/productive-writer-interview

    I love that. That’s what I was trying to say in my post. And when I take something from the free write and use it in another piece, I consider it a rewrite of the free write, to answer the question ‘What is your rewrite process?’

  2. Dana says:

    I have a notebook for free writing and a notebook for second drafts.

    I free-write a lot of abstract stuff that doesn’t necessarily hold together (exercises I do every time I sit down to write. It’s very loose and almost unconsciously done. Quality really doesn’t matter: found word exercise, poem imitations, paragraph imitations, etc.) A lot.

    Then when I find a kind of story or poem to write (emulate), I look back and borrow liberally from all that free-writing. I pluck out characters, nouns, verbs, relationships, etc, and mix them into a new piece, kind of treating an existing story or poem as a kind of outline.

    So probably less than five percent of that free-writing makes it into the next piece. But I really like that free writing and consider it very important to me.

    Lately I have been writing multiple versions of poems and stories. Kind of like a film actor doing different takes. I’m reading a few of these tonight at a group meeting. One criticism I might receive is people saying I should choose one out of the series, just as a film editor ultimately chooses one take that works the best. But I think the series is neat, kind of like how a painter might do a series of similar paintings.

    When I have a whole bunch of second drafts done, I can start mixing and matching those into some kind of third draft.

    It all can be recycled back to the level of free-writing in the end and process can start over again.

  3. Kristan says:

    I have a professor that likes to work the same way as Patty, but for me, it depends on the story and how much needs to be revise. If it’s truly "editing," then of course I’m going to use the old document (but save a new version!). If it’s a rewrite, well then, blank page here I come! It’s hard, yes, but I think it’s beneficial, because the parts that truly deserve to stay, will; the parts that don’t, are already gone.

    Mostly, "my process" is to revise as I go. It’s a balance, though, because I don’t want to lose momentum, so I can’t revise to perfection, I just have to revise to a point where I feel comfortable and content with moving on. (I also try to have an outline, so that there’s less big-picture stuff to revise.)

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