Rewriting vs. Tweaking

Until the last year, I believed that the small tweaks and grammar corrections I made to my writing constituted “rewriting.” I heard about people starting over with their rewrites and thought “well clearly they didn’t have this amazing base for their work that I do.” That overhaul rewrite was for other people, not me.

It wasn’t necessarily that I thought I was better, just that I had taken the time to outline my story, craft my characters, and nestle everything nicely together. That’s what I told myself. The truth was, when I read a finished draft (be it a short story or screenplay), I sensed there were things I could do better. I just didn’t know where to start, and so I resigned myself to learning better next time because this was the top effort I was able to do.

In other words, I was lazy.

So I would write a couple fresh pages to clear up a plot point, do some line edits on sentence structure, and make sure my margins were correct. That’s what I called a “rewrite.” HA.

Michael Arndt is a guy who knows about rewriting. He wrote 100 revisions of his screenplay Little Miss Sunshine, which won lots of awards and broke out his Hollywood writing career like nothing else. It’s probable that not every revision was a complete rewrite. It’s probably that maybe the first 7 or 8 were, though.

Workshop leaders from the UCLA program advised how to proceed with my class’ rewrites. For months, friends and I struggled to figure out what we were doing, where we’d gotten lost, and what was causing the nagging sensations in our stomachs that something with our drafts just wasn’t right. In many ways, the process of writing doesn’t begin until you have a first draft down that you can look at and plot against in the wee insomniac hours of the morning. That’s why first drafts don’t matter. They can be shit. I don’t worry about them anymore. Some writers call the first draft “the children’s draft,” because it’s just an outpouring of every unplanned gut reaction you have to your characters and the events unfolding in their stories. It’s fine to write the children’s draft, just don’t leave it that way.


You’ve got to get out and push the bus.

It’s taken a lot of banging my head against the wall to come to terms with the necessity of true rewrites. Of taking my work apart and addressing each part of it that needs attention. I’m not a master at it. I envy whoever is. But I do trust myself, and my process. I trust in my procrastination, and I trust in the power of chai lattes. By these things, I will complete my rewrites (maybe not 100 like Arndt but…6 or 8 or whenever I stop getting useful feedback).

This is why they say that stories are never finished, just abandoned. I just can’t bring myself now to abandon mine before they’re reasonably ready for the world.

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