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Robert's Rules of Writing #65: Show No Mercy

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #65, Robert Masello morphs from a mild-mannered freelance writer into am evil supervillain, bent on world domination...

No, not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

Rule #65 has to do with rewriting. Basically, Masello's for it. And, in general, I am too.

Writers will give varying pieces of advice on rewriting. Some will tell you that books aren't written, but rewritten, and that you should do at least two drafts of anything you write before you submit it. Others will suggest that you get it right the first time.

I hate to sound like Polonius, but I honestly feel that it depends on what kind of writer you are. Some writers find that their first drafts are very close to their final drafts, if not final already. Others come to the realization that they need to go over their work one or two more times before it's ready. In any case, the most important thing is to figure out what kind of writer you are, and write accordingly.

The one statement I would stand behind, though, is this: With limited exceptions, never begin writing anything with the assumption that you'll just fix the whole thing when you rewrite it. That assumption can lead to sloppy writing and result in a weaker first draft than you might otherwise be capable of creating.

Being willing to rewrite can lead to uncovering gems of prose that you might not have realized you had within you. Rewriting can also lead to great improvement in your work, if you're willing to jettison some of your earlier prose that no longer fits.

To that end, let me quote this one sentence from Masello's essay: "Many times the very thing that sparked your imagination, that got you writing this particular piece in the first place, will turn out to be, by the time you're done, irrelevant or besides the point."

That nugget of truth reminded me of the process that went into writing my short story "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" (Analog, November 2000). The impetus or genesis for that story was a particular image, an ending scene that I adored. I wrote that ending scene first, it was so important to me, and then I wrote the rest of the story to lead up to it.

And then...and then...encouraged by the advice of a few early readers, I came to see that my original ending simply did not work as well for the story as something else would. So, most reluctantly, I removed that scene and wrote a new one, and the story ended differently.

Did it work? Well, the story ended up on a few awards ballots and is probably my most well-regarded tale at this point. Is the new ending better than the original ending? It certainly fits the story better, although to this day I'm sorry I lost that image.

Did I show no mercy? Most certainly.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein

Comments

"The one statement I would stand behind, though, is this: With limited exceptions, never begin writing anything with the assumption that you'll just fix the whole thing when you rewrite it. That assumption can lead to sloppy writing and result in a weaker first draft than you might otherwise be capable of creating."

Interesting. I want to say I've heard or read of an author's opinion, which proposes the opposite. The theory behind that opinion was that a completed first draft gives the author a sense of encouragement, even if the first draft is lacking. I want to say I read that in Stephen King's "On Writing" but it could have been something I picked up at a convention. It is also possible that my neurons simply misfired. Or an opinion I've completed mangled and/or taken out of context.

"Being willing to rewrite can lead to uncovering gems of prose that you might not have realized you had within you. Rewriting can also lead to great improvement in your work..."

On a related note, I think Stephen King said (or a character in one of his novels said) that the purpose of the first draft is to define the plot, and the purpose of the second draft is to add the meaning, message, or emotional oomph, that becomes apparent after the plot is written.

When asked about rewriting here is what seven authors had to say.
Interesting link; thanks for posting it.

The main reason I said what I said is not that I don't believe in the usefulness of just getting something, anything, down on paper. Ellen Kushner advises her students to write "cookie dough drafts," and not to let the inner critic cause you to freeze when something you write feels like it doesn't work. But my point is that if you go into a project thinking you can afford to be lazy or sloppy, you'll probably end up doing a lot more work in the end.
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