• Writing Is Rewriting Is Rewriting Is Rewriting

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 63 comments

    Discussion questions: What is your approach to rewriting and revision? Do you buy into the whole “Ninety percent of writing is rewriting” thing? Why or why not? Do you have a good example of a passage from your own work that you’ve changed so much, it barely resembles the original? If so, copy/paste the various versions in the comments below, and detail, if you’d like, its evolution.


    The actual percentage will vary depending on your source, but there’s an old writer’s saw that goes, “Ninety percent of writing is rewriting.”

    We’ve always believed this. It’s a rare writer who can sit down and bash out a draft that doesn’t need an immense amount of attention and love.

    This was driven home to me earlier this week, as I flipped through my blue notebook and stumbled across the opening line of a story I began some months ago, a story that I’m now almost done with and am getting ready to submit for publication.

    The original opening line bears little resemblance to the current version. Luckily I’ve saved the in-between drafts too, and so I thought it might be interesting to explore the evolution of the first sentence, and to try to remember, or guess, why I made the decisions I made during the various stages of rewriting/revision.


    The original handwritten version, including crossouts, goes like this:

    After Schneider’s funeral they we all went to Weisler’s to tip a few and tell Schneider stories, so of course Lenhart tells them us all the Navy one.

    The following lines are in first-person plural, so that’s a decision I must’ve made in the moment, moving from “they” to “we,” from “them” to “us.” Following my instincts, which is something we always urge other writers to do.

    It’s a simple line, about twenty-five words, just the one comma. It establishes the place and the situation — someone named Schneider has died, some group of people goes to a bar to tell stories about him, and someone named Lenhart goes first.

    It also establishes something of an unpolished “voice”: “tip a few,” the use of Schneider’s and Lenhart’s surnames only. And the “of course” kinda/sorta implies that the perceived audience is familiar with these people, which I like.

    But there’s something unsatisfying about the line. Maybe it’s a little too simple. And colorless! As a reader, I just want to shrug and say, “OK. So?”

    As you’ll see, I later veer a little too far away from simple.

    I also definitely do not like the repetition of “tell,” especially in such a short amount of space. Come on, David! Do better.


    In the next version, I move back to the third-person and shift to present tense. By then I was writing on a computer, so there aren’t any strikethroughs; I don’t know what kinds of edits led to this:

    After Schneider’s funeral some of the boys from the plant gather on the back patio of his favorite bar to daydrink and storytell, same as they did after Lathrop’s funeral, then BossMan’s, and Scholz’s, and same as they’ll do after the next.

    A similar setup — Schneider is dead, people go to the bar. But clearly this time I felt a need to introduce this daydrinking/storytelling thing as a tradition. And add the fact that they work (ostensibly) at a plant.

    It’s kind of clunky, though, and throws at the reader a lot of character names that have little to do with the rest of the story.

    And it immediately deflects some attention away from Schneider, whose death is the occasion for the story. Also, I omitted any mention of the Navy, which is at the heart of not only Schneider’s death, but Lenhart’s story.

    Oh yeah, I guess I also omitted Lenhart. He’ll come back. And then disappear again.


    I go whole hog on the “voice” in the next draft:

    After viewing Frankie Schneider’s carcass up at the Lutheran church we all go down to Weisler’s to tip a few in his name and take turns telling Schneider stories, so of course Lenhart goes first, you know how he is, and he starts with this one from twenty-five, thirty years ago about Schneider and some kid.

    Back to a collective narrator, and this time the tone is more like an oral telling of the story of a night of storytelling.

    I like the “up” at the church facing the “down” of the bar. And I took the “of course” thing even further this time, adding something of a direct address to the reader with “you know how he is” — Lenhart is someone you know, so of course he’d go first… you know how he is.

    Plus, “carcass” is kind of a grabber. Why are they referring to their dead friend’s body as a carcass? Their dead friend whose name we know this time is Frankie.

    I like the rhythm here, but as a first line, it’s… a lot. You might even call it off-putting. A 56-word run-on sentence with four commas is a bit much to open a story.

    And it still doesn’t include mention of the Navy, which is more important to the story than the fact that Lenhart speaks first.


    So in the next (and current, though probably not final) version, I push Lenhart out and instead spend some time establishing the themes to come. It’s even longer than the previous one, but the colon (I’d hope!) prevents it from being a potentially confusing run-on:

    After gawking at Frankie’s carcass up at the Lutheran we all go down to Weisler’s to tip a few and tell Frankie stories, but after we get our pitchers all we can talk about is that U.S. Navy T-shirt he was stuffed into: who put it on him, was Frankie even in the Navy, can’t a workingman get some dignity in his goddamn box.

    Not only does it mention the Navy, it specifically mentions the Navy T-shirt, which is really what sparks Lenhart’s tale to come. Frankie’s “carcass” is “stuffed into” the shirt, clearly an undignified look, especially for a funeral. Which the narrators are aware of, because last version’s “viewing” has become this version’s “gawking.” As much as they want to do their usual thing — tell old, comforting stories about their dead friend — the only thing on their minds is the hows and whys of this T-shirt.

    And why don’t they even know if this friend of theirs was in the Navy? Will they (and we) find out by the story’s end?

    It also, in a way some of the previous versions don’t, explicitly identifies these guys — or Frankie, at least, and the others, implicitly, by extension — as working-class.

    It still showcases the demotic “voice” (gosh, I find it difficult to use that word with a straight face; that’s probably why I use the quotes), but in a more controlled fashion.


    I’m sure I’ll do more work on this — it’s a story-in-progress — but I think this line is near its final version. Until the other day, flipping through that blue notebook, I didn’t remember how simple and uninspiring the original version was, which is why I think this makes for a good example of the importance of rewriting/revision.

    Whether you like this line or not (and I’m definitely not asking!), it has come a long way from “After Schneider’s funeral we all went to Weisler’s to tip a few and tell Schneider stories, so of course Lenhart tells us all the Navy one.”


    Is there an example from your own work that you’d like to share? A line — not necessarily an opening line — you’ve changed so much that it barely resembles the original?

    If so, copy/paste the various versions in the comments below, and detail, if you’d like, its evolution.

    Also, what is your approach to rewriting and revision? Do you buy into the whole “Ninety percent of writing is rewriting” thing? Why or why not?

    Let’s talk about it below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast. He writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”



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    Yes, Dave, I think writing is mostly rewriting. When working on a given story, I wonder if the rewriting ever ends. This is an interesting exercise you’ve suggested. Maybe a little scary. Looking over my novel for revision examples, I see too much needed. No end in sight. Well, here’s a little “revision stream” that shows, I think, a progression. It is meant to introduce a group of people who are an important political force in the story (post-apocalyptic science fiction). Here is the progression from oldest to latest: 1. It seemed all of Dentville watched them pass. Fennec didn’t… Read more »


    It does end….when you publish it. After that the (unofficial) rules say you have to wait 5 years to revise it again.


    I’m not much of a rules follower. At least, not these days. Thanks, Bobbie.


    Interesting insight. I think at some point my revisions become mostly deletions and move-arounds.


    If you are just tinkering, then move on. You learn by write, edit, repeat. Each book or story you learn more. Each time you edit, you get better at it. Don’t be like a guy in my critique group in FL who had been working on chapter one for 5 years. That’s it. The rest of the book had been forgotten.

    david lemke

    I do editing all wrong. Since I need to blame it on someone other than myself, I blame it on writer’s groups. Writer’s groups work fine for short stories, but less well for longer fiction. The first writer’s group I was in was fine with 4 pages (double spaced, 12 font) so I would write 4 pages and do a first edit just to make it readable, picking out grammar, spelling, word choice and occasionally rewrite a sentence or paragraph that needed a fix. Even though the novel was on page 4, 40 or 400, but not yet done with… Read more »


    I get it David. A 4 page limit isn’t realistic if you are writing a novel. There isn’t much you can put into it uniess you are doing very short chapters. My group doesn’t fuss at my 3000 word chapters. You have to get a feel for those characters, the action and all the other stuff going on. I feel really lucky in that my group is only 6-8 people and they give the best feedback. They are all serious writers and the whole purpose is to let each other know what is working and what isn’t and if that… Read more »

    david lemke

    I worked it out; 4 pages X 4 weeks = 16 pages a month. We meet every week, but we stick in a misc. meeting once a month. We focus on one writer per week so I try to submit 20+ pages once every 4ish weeks. I was up until 2am last night because I was running behind, completed my critique for tonight and my 22 pages. I was suffering a block, but that seems to be fixed, so I’m back on pace.


    We do 2 x per month, so yeah, I’m pushed to edit that book but it is only in second edits, so I can change the whole book if I want.

    david lemke

    When John was here, he tried to keep us on task, but this bossy former English teacher woman writes non fiction well but has no clue about fiction on the fact that quantity is important. Don’t get me wrong, I have every respect for English teachers. Some of my best teachers taught English, but there is an intergalactic gap between teaching English and writing good fiction and she has neither the FTL craft or a worm hole or even an under standing there is a gap.

    david lemke

    Faster Than Light!

    Elissa Malcohn

    For decades I’ve written all my drafts on computer, so the prior edits are all gone. But when I started in the 70s I wrote everything by hand and kept a 3-ring binder. First draft was filled with cross-outs and marginal notes; then I made a new handwritten, clean copy. Lather, rinse, repeat. When I felt I was ready for a final draft, I typed everything up on my manual Smith-Corona. About a decade ago, I tried to write a scene to get my characters from point A to point B, but the scenario I had envisioned (and done research… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    PS: Welcome, Marie!

    Elissa Malcohn

    Since the scene was in the middle of a novel that was part of a six-book series — no, I didn’t think of ditching the whole thing. :-) I was merely using the wrong narrative tool for the job I had to do. Eventually I landed on the right narrative tool.

    david lemke

    Slap your hand, avoid that any way you can. I’m getting away with a “Make Pretty” quick edit to make it readable for group, but I won’t take time to make it good until the first draft is done. It’s not as fast as I would like but 80000 is better than nothing.

    Elissa Malcohn

    I like my hand the way it is, thanks. My method works for me and has landed me some nice publishing creds.

    david lemke

    So noted. Thought there was an issue. My bad.

    Hans De Leo

    I agree that writing is mostly rewriting. I also agree that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. It’s the same principle. Most of the writing I’ve done is rewriting, revising, restructuring, cutting scenes, putting them back in, writing new scenes, trying to find more colorful language, you name it. At some point I had to decide to draw a line in the sand and pull the trigger. Putting thoughts on a page and fleshing it out into a story are two different things. Being able to do both at the same time is a rare gift, one I don’t… Read more »

    Hans De Leo

    My strategy for that line in the sand is that: a) I know it will never be perfect, and if it ever was, I’d mess it up in one of my revisions. b) After two (or more) in-depth peer reviews, it should be good enough. I know that I’m close when reviewers disagree on things. c) Don’t be afraid of making major revisions if the peer review goes badly. d) Most readers aren’t critics. As long as the work is reasonable, they’ll enjoy the story. e) I have to complete one work to move on to finishing the next.


    I’m one that will say 90% of writing is editing, so you better get used to it, along with getting good at it. There is always a progression of the rewrites. With each one, you learn more about your character, the setting and what you really want to say and where it’s going. Because I really didn’t know how to edit, my first books are lame, but I’ve noticed that I’ve been cutting, condensing, changing and making it all better over the past 6 months as I’ve learn more about writing and editing. This is #1, second draft. Large boulders… Read more »


    Slow down? I did that when I retired and this is as slow as I can go. Writing is the fun stuff I’m doing now. As to the opening, I mention the boulder in the action of her going over them while talking to Jill, the girl behind her in the latest draft. You don’t understand a whole lot until you get toward the end of the chapter as to why Sarah and Jill are in the cavern. Let’s say, I took an article about a large chemical spill that was affecting a lot of people and ran with it.… Read more »


    Okay, I will play devil’s advocate on this topic. Because I had a demanding job as a professor plus two kids to raise, and an old house to maintain, I developed the habit of writing in my head. I would just play out the article, essay, story in my head and then put it down on paper, and it was finished. Even if I did go back to revise a bit, I almost always went back to the original version for the final draft. It takes some practice, but it can and does work well. I wrote my dissertation this… Read more »


    Superwoman! Maybe you have something akin to a photographic memory? At any rate, that is admirable. If I can remember accurately back that long ago, I believe I used to write my college papers in one draft, if for no other reason than it was a real pain to use white out on the old typewriter. This is my first ever time that I’m writing a novel, (and I don’t even like to say that, it seems pretentious or something, and I actually get better response from people if I say I’m writing a story.) Anyhow, so I can’t imagine… Read more »


    Susan, Thank you for your response. I think my writing has a lot to do with the great education I received from Catholic schools growing up–misspelling was akin to sin or something like that. I could not agree more about the travail of white out, which may also have shaped my writing experience. I would get the stuff all over the place, spill the bottle, etc. So much for a good memory!
    What is your novel about? (I also get the “story” protection.)


    Hi Joanne. Well, without exposing it too much (it’s shy), it’s about the power of intuition. It’s aimed at middle grade readers, maybe with some appeal to some adults. I wanted to create a quiet heroine–no bows and arrows or superpowers, just her heart, a stray dog, a guardian angel, and a fun nun. Due to her quiet persistence family wounds are exposed and healing begins. Also, I am quite famous for winning the 4th grade spelling bee at my Catholic school. Misspelling is a venial sin.




    Come to think of it, why do they call it a novel? Maybe that’s the problem. If I say I’m writing a story, people say oh! what’s it about? If I say novel they say oh, la-dee-dah. So if short stories are just stories I think I will say I’m writing a long story (or maybe a storey.)


    Well, there. You have just exposed the root of our problem. I just happen to be listening to a talk show in the background, and the host, from Manhattan, has said ‘novel’ three times now. Just don’t drag those vowels.


    On second thought, it’s been an awfully long time since the 14th century, and, we don’t speak the Queen’s English here anyhow,basically the word novel makes no sense at all, maybe that is why you have a hard time saying it. So, time to coin a new term for the thing… The opposite of novel is traditional, I think… The English do call their mystery novels “Penny Dreadfuls” which I do like a lot.


    It isn’t pretentious. I learned that if I said I was an author and was writing a novel, I had to get it done and published. I guess I can say I’m an author who has sold a few books after this last one was published. I actually sold a couple in Japan, Australia, and quite a few in India along with the US and Canada. I wasn’t expecting big things so when I say that I sold a couple of hundred, I’m doing a happy dance. That is more than many will ever sell and I did it with… Read more »


    Thanks, Bobbie. That’s the right attitude.


    David, yes I do like that line, although I had to look up the word demotic (yes, I’m embarrassed to say so.) I could feel all the emotion that those guys were trying to keep at bay by being demotic, depersonalizing the experience (“gawking” and “carcass”) and, of course, drinking, but I laughed, actually, at the bit about whether he was even in the navy, and then I felt unexpectedly really sad about the dignity of the workingman. I know that feeling. But I also hope that people find something to laugh about at my funeral too. I think it’s… Read more »


    My brother is a school teacher in Cedarburg. Wiesler’s no doubt will be a shrine for all the David Duhr fans (or do you have a nom de plume?) I’ll sit there at the bar and tell them I’m your aunt and make up stories about your childhood. I like the idea of someone dying leaving them guessing. Send that baby out.

    Torria Stevens

    I mostly remember what I’ve learned in college writing workshops (alumni, 2016) such as rhetorical grammar or word and/or sentence plasticity. Music too, as I used to be a vocalist you have a template already, but you can re-dub. However, on my own writing path and to what pertains to this topic, I think rewriting is up to the individual writer, and I guess one can’t go wrong with rewriting. Now, I don’t rewrite per se. If it’s one of my essays, I’ve already thought it out – and the original is not a bad thing. But I do revisit… Read more »

    Torria Stevens

    David, I think it has something to do with not overthinking it which I was accused of doing in the workshops (b t w workshops are good AND bad – so many talking heads). So being in the state of perfection? is the ‘vex’ but the tinkering could turn into a ‘hex.’ Then again, if the writing is for publication, I can see where writers may stress for perfection. I mostly write though, for myself. However, if I do a blog or if I send in a short story which are both random projects, then I’ll pay more attention to… Read more »

    Torria Stevens

    Good for you!

    Jennifer Pommer

    Don’t you think the amount of rewriting might depend on if the writer knows how the story is going to end and has an idea of the middle? If the writer does, then maybe 75%; if not, then more. I haven’t tackled a book or even a short story, but the ideas are running around in my head. My opinion is only one from other things I’ve written, not fiction. Time will tell.

    dennis boisvert

    If you love your story you should love rewriting your story looking for ways of improving or find a section saying not what you mean. A story I feel is part of you. Revision should be fun. I feel I must love my story to me first then revise what you feel readers would like. I have old stories that were rejected and going over it I see why. I wrote a number of stories with sloppy endings. Now looking them over with better endings. Writing must be fun for you unless under contrack. Dennis Boisvert


    I feel you know when you write a story fiction or not you know well it is a first draft. If you love your story than looking it over should be fun because your story is part of you and the worst critic can be yourself. I have stopped writing a story because I attack it. Now going over old stories I love rewriting them and here is a trick. I was going over a so so story stopped started a new story and realized that so so story fits in new one. So don’t throw away old stories. Ideas… Read more »

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