By Deborah Brewer
Writing a novel or even a short story is no small task. A writer has to accept that after that first creative rush of putting their vision into words comes the hard part of crafting it into a coherent, polished work of fiction. On the internet, one often finds this quote ascribed to Ernest Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” Though I have found no evidence of his originating these words (see note below), I think Hemingway would agree that much of what makes a story worth reading is the result of rewriting. If so, let’s consider what that looks like in practice.
The writing process for fiction involves drafting an initial narrative, revising the content, and polishing the language.
Drafting a Narrative
A writer collects all their notes from daydreaming, brainstorming, research, and outlining, then organizes this trove of ideas, images, and feelings into sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. This writing is, hopefully, of a very personal, emotional, and self-indulgent sort—like you might keep in a private journal. Your unique perspective and feelings will be the spark that makes your finished work come alive for others. Resist polishing or revising until the story is complete, or you may get stuck in a creative rut. Don’t criticize your story; enjoy the ride all the way to the end.
This is the first draft. Its structure may be questionable, especially if you didn’t work with an outline, and its language will be uneven at best. This is not the draft to submit to a critique partner or editor. It needs at least one thorough revision first. But if you must share the manuscript at this early stage, polish the language lightly, removing typos and grammatical errors. There is no need to subject your readers to torture.
Take time away from your first draft, whether a few months or days. Do something unrelated to writing or work on another writing project. This time away will help you be more objective when you revise the story you wrote as self-expression into a publishable work of art.
Revising the Content
Revising, or rewriting, comprises adding in, taking out, and re-sequencing. A story is pulled apart and put back together, generally more than once, with more clarity, logic, and power than before. Developmental editing concerns premise, plot, tension, genre expectations, pacing, characterization, and more.
Revising can require several drafts, even if a writer begins with a detailed outline. Depending on the writer’s experience and the work’s complexity, a manuscript’s second draft, third, fourth, or beyond may still be rough. The developed work may have some new or different characters, scenes, and settings. A first-person, single-point-of-view narrative might have changed to a third-person narrative with multiple POVs. If you are new to writing fiction, expect this stage of the writing process to be challenging and to take considerable time.
Polishing the Language
In this last stage, a manuscript is made to shine with stylistic line edits, copy edits, and proofreading. It won’t be pulled apart but will be subjected to multiple editing passes. Line editing, stylistic or otherwise, concerns communication rather than content. Thematic language is sharpened; metaphors are honed. Overused words and filler words are replaced or dropped. Paragraphs are reorganized for clarity and redundancies are cut. Good grammar is considered.
Copy Editing checks for consistency and accuracy. A copy editor will ensure the same names and eye color are used for a particular character throughout the manuscript. They will check to be sure that a character walks out of the same room they walked into a moment before and that Doctor Jones isn’t sometimes called Mr. Jones instead. The copy editor will look for misspellings, missing words, extra words, unintentional formatting, erroneous facts, awkward verb tenses, confusing point-of-view changes, and more. Proofreaders chiefly look for typos and formatting mistakes. Proofreading is done several times in the writing process; before a manuscript is handed off to a reader, agent, or editor for review and as a final check after it’s fully formatted for publication. In practice, the various types of edits tend to overlap. A developmental edit may turn up a typo, while a copy edit might flag an illogical plot point. Like cleaning out a closet, editing is messy.
So, when a manuscript is polished, is it finally done? Not necessarily. The editing process is iterative. You sort, discard, reimagine, polish, and do it all over again. Your work is done when your editor accepts it or you love it enough to self-publish it. At this point, rather than a state of happy-ever-after fairy tale bliss, it has more likely reached the modern romantic story’s happy-for-now. Authors have been known to rewrite their backlist to their current, improved writing level. So clearly, the definitions of “polished” and “done” are open to debate. Hemmingway offers encouragement. In Arthur Samuelson’s memoir, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba (1988), the author says, “Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit.”
At Pikes Peak Writers, we embrace the hard work it takes to grow in the craft of writing. We aren’t afraid to discover our work isn’t done because we have the grit to rewrite it, again and again, if we must, to make it shine.
This blog was inspired by a quote the internet loves, “The only kind of writing is rewriting,” supposedly from Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris, A Movable Feast (1964). The quote was not on the Quote Investigator website. I repeatedly combed the book and could not find the reference. So, while Hemingway may have stated the words, it wasn’t in either the original or the “restored” version of that book. Even Microsoft’s Bing AI was no help, telling me, ultimately, it only knows what is posted on websites, it doesn’t read books. You can search Quote Investigator for quotes from Hemingway and others here: https://quoteinvestigator.com/about
With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba by Arthur Samuelson, 1988, is the memoir of a young writer whom Hemingway mentored. Like Hemingway’s memoir, it was edited and published posthumously. As the book is hard to find, the curious can read some excerpts here. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/09/20/draft
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.