Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rewriting Your Manuscript (Lizzie)

Spring is known for cleaning sprees, so much so that we talk about "spring cleaning" as much as spring flowers and spring rains. It's also time to rework old manuscripts, judging by my current writing project and that of many writers I know. A friend recently asked advice of other writers on the subject, and since, like her, I'm doing major rewrites on an old story, I followed the advice with interest. It seems that rewrites run the gamut: comments ranged from "if it needs that much work, I'm tossing it" to a laborious "open the manuscript and a blank document and retype manuscript making changes as you go" approach to a highly organized outlining approach using Scrivener. This last approach is closest to what I'm doing.

Before I explain my method, though, I want to note that there are really three kinds of rewrites--ones that focus on story structure, ones that focus on character, and ones that focus on the writing itself. Most are a blend but focus on structure or structure and character. My rewrite is focused on structure with a secondary interest in character. I don't anticipate a need to "rewrite the writing" (I had to do that kind of major rewrite on another story to remove "overwriting," but that's a topic for another day). Thus, this is a structure-focused rewrite plan. And a warning to self-editors writers like edit--turn off the inner editor. Line editing and copy editing should be among the final worries. Getting the story content right must come first.

Lizzie's Approach to Rewriting a Manuscript

1. Break the task into chunk to keep from becoming overwhelmed

When you have a 130,000+ word fantasy novel that needs its plot restructured, its goals changed, its story world enriched, and its characters developed, the task can seem overwhelming. To keep me from sinking into despair and leaving the story in pieces for another five years, I am breaking up the work into small, short tasks. This gives me something I can do each day, even when I'm tired and don't have much time. My first task is to take stock of the story and make notes.

2. Reread the story and make notes

I have the novel in Scrivener, which is great for this stage. I re-read every scene and use the notecard feature to write a short summary of each one. Each scene also needs a one-sentence title for the Scrivener (or real-life) notecard; this can be used in an outline. This and the summary can be useful for the synopsis as well. I also mark each scene with "Keep," "Delete," "Keep with these changes...," "Keep and move to...."

As I go, I also write copious notes on suggested changes, background information, ideas on theme, nuances to add, historical details to research and include, new scenes, etc. Another good idea is to make a style sheet, if you haven't one already. Include proper spellings for places and characters, important dates, character details (eye color, etc.), and any other important details.

By the end of this stage, you should have a rough outline of the current manuscript, a mental image forming of where you want it to go, and plenty of notes. The next step is to organize.

3. Create a Master Rewriting Document by organizing all notes

I collected years of scribbled notes and typed notes and combined them into a single document and am in the process of organizing this document using the scheme below.

Master Rewriting Document

Story Structure
Goal/opposition for hero
Goal/opposition for heroine
Goal/opposition for antagonist

Story Richness
Details to incorporate (nuances, foreshadowing, loopholes to close, story world details, etc.)
Character/setting/fantasy element specific notes (character details, arcs, historical details, etc.)
List of subplots and threads to be sure to tie-up

Story Scene List
List of critical points (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.)
Events in Order of Occurrence (with details for new scenes or notes on scenes to be rewritten)

The first section is to help me keep focused and make sure the story structure is solid. The second to enrich the story with consistent details, strong character arcs, and so on. It also serves as a filing place for my notes. If I know I made a note on a minor character, I simply search this section for that character's subheading. The third section is also story structure and an outline.

4. Write a new outline or synopsis

Using your scene notes in Scrivener and in your Master Rewriting Document, create a new outline or synopsis. This will be a tough step because I have so many scenes I love but which may not fit into the finished story. This will also be where the Critical Points list and Goals/Opposition list will help me decide on a solid story structure.

5. Make changes to the manuscript

Once I have decided on how the updated story will look, I can go back to my manuscript and start work. Here's my anticipated order of operation:

  1. Delete scenes marked "Delete"
  2. Move scenes marked "Move"
  3. Add blank pages for new scenes and fill out notecard with title and short summary
  4. Change scenes marked for change
  5. Write new scenes in the pages created for them (only scenes to be kept should now be present)
  6. Add nuances, foreshadowing, etc. as indicated in Master Rewriting Document
  7. Reread and smooth out the manuscript
  8. Let sit for a month
  9. Reread for structure
  10. Line edit and copyedit

Whew. Doing all this will remind me to be more careful plotting my next novel! But it's doable taken "bird by bird." What advice or concerns about rewriting manuscripts do you have?


  1. Wow, this is an awesome post, Lizzie! Thank you so much for sharing about your process! Fortunately I've never had to take on a full manuscript overhaul before, though I did some pretty major revisions to one section of Common. I remember it involved a lot of note-taking!

  2. Thanks, Laurie! I hope you never have to rewrite one to the extent that I am rewriting mine. :)

  3. Thanks for the post, Lizze! I've got two manuscripts sitting in a filing cabinet that might need this. :-)

  4. Great post! Definitely keeping this in mind if I ever have to do major rewrites again.

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