Writing is Re-writing

By Rosemary Bird-Hawkins

Why re-write?

I often tell my creative writing students that the secret to writing is re-writing. It’s a phrase that I’m sure you’re all familiar with; that writing groups, courses, agents and publishers would agree is important.

Group workshopping is probably the way that most writers receive feedback on their work. You share your work with others and then discuss what is and isn’t working; it’s a good exercise for spotting superfluous description, smoothing out inconsistencies and honing your writing techniques and skills, but it tends to encourage in-depth analysis of pieces of writing – a lone scene, or stand-alone chapter perhaps – which can lead to a disconnect between writing and writing to tell a story. To structure and sustain narrative it’s important to step back and consider what the piece is trying to do, and whether it’s doing it.

Consider what your piece is trying to do, and whether it is doing it.

For me, re-writing is when you look at your first draft as a whole, follow the story arc and assess if the story is coherent, well-paced and focused. Stephen King explains that ‘when you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story... when you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.’

When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. ~ Stephen King

Everyone’s doing it…

The best writers re-write. Roald Dahl’s stories zip along breathlessly, each character vibrant and full of life, each sentence moving us forward. It seems effortless, but of course it wasn’t. Dahl had to rewrite too. Re-write and then re-write some more. The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden has archives of his work and perhaps the most interesting of his re-writes is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or Charlie's Chocolate Boy as it was originally called). Dahl went through five drafts spanning four years. In the first drafts there were ten golden tickets to be won and so ten children to dispatch in various ways. The original ending had Charlie being made into a chocolate boy, being placed in a rich house, the chocolate being slowly eaten off him and then Charlie witnessing a burglary.

JK Rowling’s website chronicles the amount of re-writing that she undertook for the Philosopher’s Stone. Originally the book started with the Granger family and Hermione’s father rowing out to a small island after an explosion takes place and discovering Harry amongst the wreckage. Rowling comments ‘I can't remember now why I thought this was a good idea, but I clearly recognised that it wasn't fairly early on, because the Potters were re-located to Godric's Hollow for all subsequent drafts.’

It’s fascinating to know how much background work Rowling undertook, especially for her minor characters. Speaking about Dean Thomas’ character she says ‘I had a lot of background on Dean, though I never found the right place to use it. His story was included in an early draft of 'Chamber of Secrets' but then cut by me, because it felt like an unnecessary digression.’

It’s important to write instinctively and to follow your characters, but at some point you have to take control, and ensure sure it’s going somewhere interesting and meaningful, otherwise it doesn’t matter how beautiful or evocative your writing is, you will take your readers nowhere.

It's important to follow your characters, but at some point you have to take control.

Who’s afraid of the Second Draft?

The first rule of re-writing is not to do it straight away. Once you’ve finished the first draft put it aside and do something completely different. Leave it for as long as you can and allow your mind to forget it. Then you can re-read and start to re-write.

Methods to help a rewriter:

  • Create a timeline of your story – start before your story begins and end after your ending. Include all your characters to see where they fit into the story. This will help you follow the story arc and understand the story history.

  • Get to know your characters – answering questions as your character which range from the basic (age, appearance) to the more unusual (favourite music, strongest memory) can allow you to find out whether they are fully rounded. If they’re not, should they be there?

  • Break down your book into its chapters and chart the flow of action throughout it. Note at which points the tension slackens, or the story begins to meander.

  • Distil your story into one sentence – (e.g. boy wizard fights for freedom, family, trying to survive and stay together during a time of war). Keep this sentence in your head as you read and re-write; it is the essence of your story.

  • As you re-read make a note of any questions that arise and highlight the text where you think of them. Are these questions meant to be being asked or do they indicate gaps/inconsistencies/confusion in plot or character? Are all questions answered by the end?

  • Do all your characters have a part to play? Imagine your characters in a hot air balloon; the balloon is losing height, it’s going to crash and the only way to avert disaster is to throw out unnecessary weight. All the sand bags have gone overboard. Make an argument as to why each character is necessary for the story to work. The one with the weakest argument is thrown out.

Free yourself

The decision to write on a fresh page rather than working on what you already have can be daunting, but also liberating – you are freeing yourself from the weight of all those words. Refocusing on the story and the characters will make the next draft stronger.

I’m starting a fourth draft of my novel StorySeeker and at times I worry that I am writing in circles. But I only have to take a look over the work that I’ve done to see how much I have learnt and how much I continue to learn by rewriting. I’m learning about the craft of writing, about my own motivations and processes and I’m learning to make every sentence and every character count.

Rosemary Bird-Hawkins has an MA in Writing for Children from Winchester University and has been running creative workshops for children for ten years. She has worked for various publishers as well as freelancing as an editor. She currently lives in Dorset with her husband, cat, two rabbits and a house full of books and instruments. Rosie writes fantasy and dystopian fiction for children and hopes one day to be published. Until then she continues to seek out more stories, while encouraging others to explore their writing abilities. For further resources and information about running writing workshops, you can visit her blog.


  1. brilliant post, you've really pulled together all the critical points. Think I'm going to print this out and pin it up so I can keep reminding myself what to focus on when I'm rewriting!

    1. Thanks Nicky - very glad you found it useful!

  2. That's funny, the title of episode 4 of Duck & Bear is "Writing is rewriting". Seeing the link to your post in a W&P email this morning made me think I'd accidently uploaded it ahead of time - even before episode 3 ("Killing darlings")!
    I couldn't agree more. D&B has been rewritten many times. One of the nice things about creating a comic is that you naturally get different views of the story as you go through the processes of scripting, designing, roughing out, re-roughing and final art. It is more difficult, I think, when you are just working with text, to stand back and see what needs to be done but you've given some good tips.

    1. It's very hard to see through the tangle of text! Which is why sometimes you just need to start on a blank page again (the ability to cut and paste makes editing the work you've already done very tempting, but can end up with writing that jars against itself). Looking forward to the next episode of D&B!

  3. So true but no one told me this when I started! I thought novels fell on to the page fully formed, were tweaked a bit by the publisher and then voila straight onto the shelf! It gave me a new respect for every author out there when I realised the true effort involved in every book.

    1. Absolutely - I read a quote once in a Mslexia diary - can't remember who said it, but it's always stuck with me. It was something like... 'you know when you're done writing a book because you can no longer look at it without wanting to throw up.'

  4. Thank you for another great feature, Rosemary - really practical tips and I didn't know that about Charlie and Harry.
    And I loved this re starting over and reconnecting with the story: "you are freeing yourself from the weight of all those words." Brilliant.

  5. Hi Rosemary, this was really helpful, and told me all the things I 'should' be doing in a nutshell. I started my novel 6 years ago now and have totally revised it in full once since then , plus tweaked along the way. You have inspired me to look at it with fresh eyes. Thank you.

  6. It is helpful for the students to buy an essay online, as it helps assuring perfection and excellence.

  7. Really nice work! Your article is unique, informative, interesting and is captivating attention of the readers. You have emphasized on a good point. Well, I'm offering reword my sentence. Which is very useful for all viewers.


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