I hate rewrites.
Everybody (nearly everybody) stresses how important they are and I suppose in my heart of hearts I know they are right. I remember in the late 70s, reading in Victor Jones’ ‘Creative Writing’ that, ‘Shakespeare, it is suggested, never paused to “blot the ink” though Ben Jonson suggests that on occasion it might have been better if he had.’ Jones went on to say that Tolstoy revised his work 5 or 6 times and that generally the more one revised the deeper one went. This suggests to me that best practice depends very much on the individual author.
In ‘How to be a Writer’ Stewart Ferris says that as a publisher he can recognise a first draft very easily and won’t waste his time reading beyond the first couple of pages. Tough on Shakespeare huh? Ferris is quite up front about it and says it’s economics –why should he spend hours editing an ‘amateurish’ manuscript to produce a dazzling book when he can take three books written to a high standard and publish them in the same time? Good point but what does he mean by ‘rewrites’? Obviously you avoid and correct mistakes. But what are we really talking about? In his next chapter Ferris says that everyone’s redrafting will be different, perhaps changing 5% per draft but going through ten or more drafts to re-write 50% of the book to produce something worthwhile. Each new draft is a ‘freshening up of the text’. Maybe I’m being pedantic but I can’t believe the tenth+ draft of anything is going to be ‘fresher’. It might be more what the publisher, editor, agent wants to see, and it may be better than the original but I can’t see ‘freshness’ creeping in with this much reworking.
I have a piece of writing, originally about 120,000 words long which I revised down to about 70,000, in the process weeding out any obvious grammatical errors, gratuitously overblown sections, unnecessary repetition or factual mistakes. I redrafted it as losing that much of the original meant some structural changes were required. I was very happy with it. An agent then suggested some changes of focus so I did the rewrite and it had lost something. Another agent loved this draft but wanted some more changes just to ‘harden it up’ a bit for the ‘boys’ market. This went on and today I have six different versions sat on my hard drive and the original hard copy in my desk drawer. It has never seen the light of day, and probably never will. Times have moved on for that genre, but in any case I now hate it. Not because I don’t think it’s a good book. I think its probably one of the best things, if not the best, I’ve written, but the thought of revisiting it as a writer makes me feel physically ill. I know if I tried selling it again the redrafting and revision process would be almost impossible. Is the sixth or seventh version better than the second? No. They certainly aren’t the book I wanted to write. Will the eighth or ninth be? Don’t know because they are unlikely to happen but I wouldn’t have thought so. The spontaneity and brightness has all disappeared. It looks overworked and it is. Freshness? Please!
So do I redraft? Of course. I do a lot of it as I go along. But ten plus times? No. If I can’t get it right with four or five attempts I have to ask myself; ‘is this the right book to be writing?’ Perhaps I would sell more if I did rewrite everything ten or twelve times. But I suspect I would end up writing and selling nothing as the will to live leached out of me with each redrafting.