How Important Is Rewriting?

Photo by Jeffrey Abrahams

By Ross Howell

Ross Howell followed a career in academic fund-raising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1978. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction full-time, and will be teaching at Elon University in the fall. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, and English cocker spaniel diva, Pinot.

Since this rewriting story has a happy ending, I’ll tell it.

Back when I started writing in high school, I never rewrote anything. That was because at the time I produced an original draft, I knew that my device—at that time, a pen or pencil—was guided by pure inspiration. In my college days, I rarely rewrote because I knew my device—at that time, a Smith-Corona Selectric III typewriter—was likewise guided by inspiration that was only a little less pure. By the time I enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I knew my device—still the Smith-Corona—was guided by, well, I knew it was sometimes totally misguided.

Still, I hated rewriting. Working alone in a solitary garret, it was easy to gloss over the weak point in a narrative. To temporize about that section of dialogue that didn’t ring true. To ignore that a plot line was held feebly together by coincidence upon coincidence.

When a roomful of your peers points out these problems, however, it’s difficult for someone, even someone as hard-headed as I, not to understand that parts, if not the whole, need to be rewritten.

Now I rewrite constantly. I rewrite obsessively. Sometimes I’m rewriting too soon in the creative process, so that it impedes my progress on a story or chapter. I’ll lose the thread of an idea, stumble around till I rediscover it. Sometimes I find I’ve forgotten the idea altogether.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Here’s why. Before I came back to writing, I spent a lot of my career editing the work of others. Sometimes it was pretty good. But more often than not it was lazy work, completed with little care, rife with bad logic, and redundant. I sometimes wondered if the author had reread the text, let alone rewritten it.

The greatest thing about a writers’ workshop is the simplest thing—it forces you to read your work. Really read it. It took me a career of editing the work of people who hadn’t read theirs to understand how essential the process of reading and rewriting truly is.

Sometimes I spin out something I’m sure is inspired. And it can be. But you know what? After a day or two, when the bright luster of pure inspiration has faded, I go back and pull that inspired work apart, indefinite article by adverb, verb by prepositional phrase, comma by period. And the rewriting usually makes it better.

The happy ending? I workshopped a first-person story in an informal writing group years ago. Readers liked the narrator, but couldn’t relate to the main character, who had to be sympathetic for the story to be successful.

In recent months I’d pulled the story out again, determined to rework it so it would be accepted for publication. It got better, but still wasn’t working.

I went back through my Iowa files. Mind you, those files are nearly 40 years old. There I discovered a draft of the story I’d written but never submitted to Workshop. The first-person narrator was more of a presence in the draft—I liked him. The main character was more sympathetic, too.

I grabbed the narrative voice and maybe two paragraphs intact from the 40-year-old Iowa draft, punched “delete” on more than 60 percent of my current draft, including what I thought was the most important scene, and rewrote scene after scene. I felt the story worked. A journal editor agreed.

I love a happy ending.

3 responses to “How Important Is Rewriting?”

  1. ROSALYN DREXLER

    Your comments on rewriting are useful and true. I feel that the best writing is in the rewriting . . . you have the material in front of you, and are free to create. I used to do everything longhand, without even a typewriter. It was hard. Then Elaine DeKooning insisted I get a pc. It was a Godsend. The best way to rewrite. Using the computer is like having a spare brain, an extra hand, a friendly editing companion. Anyway, I have a book being reissued by the Brooklyn Rail (Black Square Books) called TO SMITHEREENS. It’ll be a month or two I think before it gets out. I taught at the Writers’ Workshop 1976-1977, so perhaps we’ve met. Hope you manage to get a copy of TO SMITHEREENS (it’s about my life as a lady wrestler, Rosa Carlo, who has an affair with an art critic. Takes place in the sixties and seventies.) The cover art uses one of my paintings THE WINNER . . . I believe Glenn Schaeffer owns the painting.

  2. Ross

    Rosalyn,
    Yes, the PC certainly makes rewriting easier–a little detail I omitted! Long-term I wonder what effect the PC will have on the study of writing. Back in my grad school days, I had classes where we studied different manuscript versions of a work. Consequently, you could see the process of a writer’s ideas changing–it brought a real intimacy between reader and author. Sad to lose that, but I’ll still take the PC!
     
    Definitely remember your time at Iowa, though I wasn’t in any of your classes. I remember your raven black hair. I don’t think I was alone among men who were a little afraid of you, given your professional wrestling persona. I’ll keep an eye out in the bookstores for To Smithereens.

    Wonderful to hear from you.
     

  3. Don

    Like you, Ross, I lived with a magic pen, Adler, and even a KayPro IV. Don’t know why they suddenly stopped producing perfect, error-free prose (even though that prose rarely was perceived by others to be perfect). Then, like you, I awoke to the joys of rewriting.

    Like Rosalyn, I suspect the computer helped. Too many times I was too put off by the thought of all that work — all that white-out, or even putting in a clean page, heavens! — to act. Instead, I tried to talk myself into believing the prose was better than it was. With a word processing program, prosaic as it may sound, I no longer had an excuse. Lazybones could now get rewrite on the horn and demand action!

    Another true thing here. Like you, Ross,I also am a secret believer in the mingling of ancient and modern drafts, in search of a fresher voice (often from the past). We knew things at 24 that we no longer know at 58. There’s gold in those old notebooks.

    Thanks, Ross.

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