And let’s get back to How I Write with me, Steve. Who Writes. This. And books. But also this post. Er. Anyway, you get the idea.
So to recap I’ve covered how I write up to the point of actually writing. It was basically:
- I get ideas (and keep track of them)
- I pick ideas to write (based on my plans)
- I outline a book (at times to the paragraph level)
- I write (by pretty much spewing writing into said outline until something booklike emerges)
By the time this is done I have a well-outlined book that is written by a mixture of gut, heart, imagination, and desperation. The outline provided guidance so the book “works” – in that it reaches a goal – but the results are often less than stellar.
In short, my first draft is usually very first and much draft. It’s often done with surprising speed, but it’s really not that great. That means my next step is re-writing.
I hesitate to call this editing since my re-writing is not that subtle an exercise. Sure, I often have content thats in better shape than it sounds when I call it “word vomit” – but at best it’s not polished, and at worst parts of the content only worked in my head. So it’s time to go through and re-write it because sometimes it changes massively.
Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Usually.
Re-writing: First Pass
So my first pass on rewriting the book is the most intense. I go through the book, in order (so I can keep the big picture), and work on:
- Concepts. Are the concepts in the book clearly presented and defined? Sometimes I realize the concepts are not clear or coherent (and in a few cases are even wrong). Sometimes I have to rethink them, detail them, more, explain then. A recent experience of mine was the “Sex” section on worldbuilding in my Way With Worlds book, I had to really work to tie the core concept together.
- Clarity. Sure, maybe my ideas were good but did I explain them in a way that made sense? Sometimes I rewrite so things are clear. it usually helps to put myself in the shoes of my audience to answer the question “does anyone know what the hell I’m talking about?”
- Spelling and Grammar. I correct this early – as I go through this first pass I try to correct major spelling and grammar mistakes. This ensures communication of concept, clarity of concepts, and of course keeps me from being derailed by my mistakes later. I don’t always run a spellcheck/grammar check at this stage.
Sometimes you have to re-outline chapters or sections in the first pass – and my advice is when you can, do it. I’ve saved “re-outlining” for later review cycles and it was incredibly painful because so much of the book had “solidified” that changing it was like adding onto a house. If you have to make major changes, do it first thing or it will be harder later (and may reveal hidden mistakes).
A first pass can sometimes take as long as writing the book in the first place. There’s no shame in this – really it’s just another part of “writing.” You’re rarely going to get it right the first time.
So after the first pass, what do I do?
Take a Break
After your first pass, I take a break from the book. Sometimes a few days, sometimes a week or more, but I try and step away. I usually need it.
Why? Because familiarity breeds not only contempt, but sloppiness.
I can get to know a work too well, and then I start seeing what’s in my head, not what’s on the page.
I can get tired and want to just “get through” the re-writing – so I rush it. This always comes back to bite me.
I also need a break.
So I rest. I do something else. I blow up some enemies in Team Fortress 2. Then I’m back at it with a new perspective.
Re-Writing: Second Pass
Usually after a first pass the book is in pretty good shape. It may not be “book like” but it’s “sort of a book.” That intensity in outlining, that instinctive writing, that careful review pays off so later passes are less painful. If you think about it the book had a solid idea, a solid outline, a massive dump of information, and a later shaping of that information into something clear.
Its usually pretty good – but I always have to make that second pass.
On the second pass I’m focusing on concepts and communication Did I really say what I want? Is the order right? Are things clearer? Does the book do it’s job? Is it really what I planned?
If I planned well and re-wrote well, the second pass isn’t so bad – it may even be easy to do – and it’s easy to spot problems. By now the book is polished enough my mistakes are obvious. Here I can correct them if I didn’t get them a first time.
In some cases, I may have to re-work a section. When I’m on to the second pass, I do not do the re-working as a “vomit draft.” I take a much more craftsmanlike approach – taking my time, editing as I go, etc. At this point since most of the book works, trying to ram ahead and dump a bunch of writing in can throw you off.
The only exception is if a section or chapter has to be completely rewritten – then I may re-outline it, dump it, and edit it separately.
Also at the end I usually run a spellcheck and grammar check, for my sake and for those who may soon see the draft . . .
I may have to make other passes if the book doesn’t “feel” done or if I keep finding mistakes and thus assume I’ve missed even more. I keep going through it until it’s done right – often three to five passes.
Looking at a book over and over again can make you miss problems, however – again one can end up reading the book in their head, not what’s on the page. So here’s how I mix it up:
- I read chapters in backwards order – or even sections of chapters.
- I read chapters that are grouped together as whole units, but in different orders.
- I keep a list of “problem chapters” and review them in whatever order I want.
- I randomly skim to see what pops up.
I keep going until it’s done. Speaking of, what is done?
Done – Or Done-ish
So at some point I’m done (usually about 3 passes in, sometimes 5). I consider it “a book.” That is done by the standard of:
- I can’t find any more problems to fix.
- It feels right.
- I’m sick of looking at the damn thing.
So what’s next? Editing. Where the book goes to someone else who then promptly tells me everything I screwed up.