Journal

Journal

book inc  –  journal  –  Writing is Rewriting (Or, Things My Father Was Right About)

Writing is Rewriting (Or, Things My Father Was Right About)

book inc Peer Artist Leader Jennifer Gaites reflects on the reluctant lessons she learned as a teen from her father about writing and how she is applying those lessons now to her novel revisions.

By Jennifer Gaites

February 15, 2024

When I was in high school, my father edited my papers before I turned them in. I don’t remember how he became the designated proofreader in the house, other than he is a great writer–clear, concise, dry-witted. As a 16-year-old, I appreciated his writing skills; however, I was often less enamored with his editing skills. With some regularity, he’d hand my essays back to me and say, “You have to rewrite this.”

“The whole thing?” I’d ask, bottom lip quivering.

“The whole thing. Make a plan this time.”

Of course, I thought he was being totally unreasonable. I whined. I complained. One time, when the assignment was a 10-page paper (and I’d written 10 pages!) he handed the pile of papers back to me without even one edit. 

“Start over,” he said. I cried and stomped up the stairs. In other words, there was a decent amount of drama.

But I know now that I learned to write by rewriting. 

I learned (stomping and crying) that first drafts are rarely good. That sometimes revision means starting over. That subsequent drafts often come together more easily, are more interesting and more nuanced, after you’ve gotten your original thoughts down. (I also learned that writing a 10-page paper isn’t really a big deal, but 16-year-old me wasn’t hearing it). And now, in much of my writing, I fully expect to draft and then rewrite. Start over. With a plan.

I thought I was cool with this.

Last year, I set out on the largest writing project I’ve ever worked on. I finished a draft of a novel, and now I’m revising. I am overwhelmed by the amount of work that lies ahead. I’ve revised plenty of short essays, but never anything on this scale. I keep thinking of plot points I want to add, characters I want to take out, themes I want to strengthen. But how? Where do I start? I revised the first chapter. I added some scenes. But I couldn’t see how these small changes would add up to big improvements.

One of the craft books our Book Revision Lab uses is Matt Bell’s spectacular Refuse to be Done (he also has an amazing Substack, “No Failure Only Practice,” that’s chock full of advice and writing exercises like this one). In search of a revision plan, I picked up Refuse to be Done, and I found the exact suggestion that I’d been looking for … and also avoiding.

After writing a first draft, Bell suggests constructing a reverse outline. At this stage, you reread your manuscript to discover what material you already have and make an outline that captures the events of the narrative. Using only the outline, you edit and tweak until you have a plan.

Then–and you might want to sit down for this–you rewrite the book.

How did I feel when I read this advice? Did I regress to my 16-year-old self and slam the book shut, throw it down, and stomp upstairs? Tempting, but no. At first, I felt panic. Rewrite an entire novel that it took me a year to write?! But then, I felt a strange sense of relief.

“Of course,” I thought, “This makes sense to me.” (Followed by, “My father was right.”)

I’ll use my existing draft to make a plan. I’ll gain a clearer idea of what I’m trying to say. With a revised outline in hand, I can set out to (re)write the story I hope to tell.

Jennifer Gaites

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Hippocampus, and Literary Mama. Her flash essay "{ }nesting" won first place in WOW Women on Writing's Quarter 4 2023 contest.

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Hippocampus, and Literary Mama. Her flash essay "{ }nesting" won first place in WOW Women on Writing's Quarter 4 2023 contest.