Why You Need to Stop Rewriting

 “Every time my computer has ever crashed in the middle of writing an unsaved scene, and I had to rewrite it all from word one, it’s turned out better. There’s a lesson in that, and I think it’s this: I don’t need a muse; I need a less dependable computer.” –James V. Smith, Jr. from The Writer’s Little Helper.
Photo credit: Abizern on Flickr
The very first writing book I ever purchased was The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr. When I came across the quote I started this post off with, it stuck with me. I thought it was an interesting observation, although I secretly hoped it was one I’d never have to make myself. Over the years I did a lot of writing and editing and even some rewriting, and as I tried to rewrite sections of my WIP, I would occasionally think back to that quote and silently thank my computer for not crashing on me so I had something to reference while I was rewriting.

Then, as I continued reading books on the craft, I started to notice a pattern.

In many of the exercises that included completely rewriting a scene in The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, one of the steps included a variation of, “Without looking at your original draft, rewrite this [x]” (x being passage, scene, exposition, etc). And in Plot & Structure byJames Scott Bell, these two quotes stuck out to me:
“Let your characters have their way. Let your secret life be lived. Then at your leisure, in the succeeding weeks, months or years, you let the story cool off and then, instead of rewriting, you relive it.” –Ray Bradbury (page 173)
“Relive your scenes. Not rewrite. Relive.” –James Scott Bell (Page 203)
I have to admit, I initially resisted the thought of reliving versus rewriting scenes, but this really hit home for me when one of my critique partners suggested I rewrite a scene from my last WIP. Even though I’d already rewritten it, I took her advice and rewrote the scene again and submitted it to her to take a look at once more to see if it had improved. I was hoping she would say it was better so I could move on, but she didn’t. She suggested I rework it. Again.

I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t frustrated. I was. But as I sat down with my notebook to try to rewrite the scene yet again, I remembered what I’d read about reliving the scene rather than rewriting it—and at this point, what did I have to lose? So I did. I relived it and got the new version of the scene on paper. And while the scene played out the same way, it was different this time. I felt more directly connected to my protagonist’s experience and the writing showed it.  

So when my hard drive died the other day and I lost a new WIP idea I was working on (which I hadn’t backed up yet), I’ll admit I was less than happy. I may or may not have even written a few passive-aggressive tweets and Facebook posts about it. But part of me instantly remembered the quote I started this post off with, and I thought, well, I guess now I’m going to find out how true it is. So I replotted everything and started over. And I have to say, even if I do manage to get those files back, I don’t think I’ll need them anymore.  

Have you ever tried reliving a scene? If so, what was your experience? If not, do you think you will? 

34 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

No, but that is a brilliant idea. I'll have to keep that in mind next time a scene just isn't working. Plus, I'm going to rework a previous novel. I think I'll just rewrite it from scratch. That might be exactly what it needs.

Carissa Andrews said...

Let's try this again… Yeesh! Last time I tried, my computer flipped me off. HA!


I've been stuck in re-writing hell. For… a long time now. And I've been forgetting to relive. I think this is a fantastic way of looking at things when you need to make something better. The first time i wrote my ending scene in Pendomus… well, it stunk. And my beta-reader-extraordinaire told me so. Damn, that hurt! But I took the time to channel my villain (In other words, CRANK Disturbed, Godsmack, etc) and write as evilly as I could. And you know… it worked! Sometimes, we get so hung up in getting it out… or getting it right… that we forget to LIVE it the first time. ;)

Catherine Noble said...

I absolutely adore the idea of reliving instead of rewriting! You're so lucky to have a critique partner who is invested enough in you to keep sending your work back for improvement. Kudos to them.

Ava Jae said...

I found that the little shift in the way I thought about rewriting made a huge difference for me. Best of luck with your rewrites--I hope this method helps you as much as it helped me! :)

Ava Jae said...

Sorry about the technical difficulties. That happens sometimes, but I really appreciate the extra effort you took to comment, so thank you! :)

As for the rewriting, I feel your pain. I was in perpetual editing/rewriting mode with one WIP for...a very long time (as in over two years long time. Heh). You make a great point about forgetting to really experience our stories even the first time around. As you said, it's easy to get so caught up in just getting it on the page that we forget about actually trying to experience the words we're putting down, so that's a good reminder. Thanks!

Ava Jae said...

I can't say enough good things about my critique partner. She is absolutely fantabulous and an editing genius if you ask me. I definitely consider myself lucky. :)

Laura Pauling said...

A couple years ago, Cynthia Leitich Smith spoke at our SCBWI conference and she suggested writing the first draft and then pressing delete. Everyone gasped. she said that's what she does, similar to what you're saying. Don't know if I have the guts to do that yet!

Ava Jae said...

Oh wow. That's definitely the extreme version of the reliving creed. Not sure I have the guts to do that, either, but wow!

Leslie S. Rose said...

I've never heard this concept presented quite this way before. I love the idea - very freeing. I'd never be able to toss out the original though. I guess that makes me a WORD doc hoarder.

Anna Hailey said...

Ha! I remember those tweets! So glad you were able to recreate everything, and make it better in the process!

Ava Jae said...

No worries! You can still relive your work without throwing anything out. I'm a WORD doc hoarder myself and have files of just about everything I've deleted from the WIP while rewriting. The key is just not to look at any of it while you're reliving a scene.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you! I'm very relieved, myself. :)

Pamela King Cable said...

Part of reliving the scene for me, is allowing my characters to relive it by talking to me. Sounds weird, I know. But it works. Once I wrote a scene where a character drove a beat up Chevy. The next day I heard his voice inside my head as I rewrote the chapter. "I don't drive beat up cars," he said. "Souped up, maybe, but not beat up. Give me a '72 Barracuda, not a rusted out Javelin." Loud as day, he made his demands known. So I gave him a Barracuda. When your characters start to demand you make changes, that's even better than reliving it.

Ava Jae said...

That's an interesting process. I can't say I've ever had a character talk to me in that way, but I've certainly had them surprise me with some of their decisions or comments along the way.

Morven said...

I wrote [url="http://matthewjudebrown.com/blog/2012/6/20/build-one-to-throw-away.html"]a response[/a] to this, drawing comparisons to the programmer's saying "Write one to throw away", and about how in exploratory arts it often takes an act of creation to know what you should have created in the first place.

Ava Jae said...

That was an interesting take on the topic--thanks for sharing the link! ^_^

Yesenia Vargas said...

(So that's what those tweets were about...LOL)


Awesome quotes! Just saved them :) Will definitely keep the "reliving" thing in mind when rewriting. Thanks!

Ava Jae said...

(Yes...yes indeed).


Thanks, Yesenia! I'm glad you enjoyed the quotes--I know I thought they were really helpful to keep in mind while rewriting, so I'm glad you thought them memorable as well.

Tahlia Newland said...

I find that reliving scenes is vital whenever I'm rewriting, otherwise my writing looses its omph

Matthew Rowe said...

I hate rewriting so much! I feel like if I have to rewrite something it will never be as good as the first time so I generally refuse to do it.

Ava Jae said...

Agreed. Rewriting without reliving is like transcribing the scene you already wrote over again, which isn't very helpful.

Ava Jae said...

I honestly believe that reliving the scene is essential while rewriting. Not only does it make the process easier, but in my experience at least, it makes the results significantly better.

Diana Rajchel said...

Yes! Reliving verbalizes exactly what I'm going for!

Ava Jae said...

Changing the way we think about it makes all the difference, in my experience. :)

Rachel Frost said...

Wow, similar experience here. Writer's Little Helper was the first writing book I bought as well--and I love that quote.

I love the idea of 'reliving' the story. It proves that our minds can mold and adapt and change as we go along--and we're better for it.

Ava Jae said...

Wow! Very cool that we both bought the same book as our first writing book. :)


I really like your observation about what reliving a scene infers about our minds. I hadn't really thought of that, but I think you're absolutely right.

Rebecca Enzor said...

As terrifying as this sounds, I've done it before and it really does work. And it's a nice reminder that as I start my re-write I need to do it without opening up the old document and trying to fit in all those pretty little pieces I don't want to loose.

Daniel Swensen said...

Okay, I guess I don't fully understand what "reliving" means. Does that just mean writing the scene again from scratch without reference to the old version?

Ava Jae said...

I was a little surprised by how well it worked the first time I did it. It completely changed the way I look at rewrites.

Ava Jae said...

Basically, yes. The idea is rather than trying to remember what you wrote the first time, to go through the scene again and write it fresh, as if you're reliving it.

Andi-Roo said...

I unfortunately have not yet completed a project, thus have not reached the re-write stage. It sounds scary & difficult --- more so than the original writing. However, this article makes me feel a little more capable. Hopefully when the time comes, I will be able to "re-live" my story so that the re-write isn't too bad. But first --- finish that manuscript, Andi-Roo!!! :)

Ava Jae said...

Rewrites can be a little intimidating, but with the right mindset they can often become just as enjoyable as first drafting. But first you need to finish the WIP! Best of luck!

Robin Red said...

Am I weird for being excited to rewrite my WIP? I've grown so much since I started it, I can see the mistakes and what I could have done better. But instead of putting bandaids on my WIP, I want to finish it, kill it, then resurrect it. The second draft is going to be phenomenal.

Ava Jae said...

You're not weird at all for being excited about future rewrites--in fact, I think that's fantastic! A willingness to rewrite and rework our WIPs are hugely important for writers, so I'd say that the fact that you're looking forward to your rewrites is a wonderful thing. :)

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