One of the most useful tasks that writers can give themselves during revising is keying in the whole text all over again: a Retype Draft.
I’ve actually met gasps of horror when I’ve suggested this in workshops. To which I usually say: lazy bastards! In fact, for many heavily changed drafts this work is not really a duplication of labour, and it’s probably more efficient to retype than scratching around in your own leavings, getting confused and failing to see what’s in front of you.
Also, don’t forget those poor Macless authors of yore scratching away with their quill pens or tapping at their typewriters; back in the day, producing a revision was even called ‘putting it through the typewriter again’. Imagine yourself as Ernest Hemingway or Truman Capote (now there’s a choice) or Dorothy Parker, clattering out a new draft.
Some writers of course still write by hand. I remember novelist and teacher Rikki Ducornet describing how she did seventeen drafts of her novel The Fanmaker’s Inquisition – by hand! Drafting and revising are vital to her creative practice; I remember her talking about doing a new draft as ‘pulling the writing through’, which is a lovely way of embodying revision as an intuitive process.
And, too, this is a physical act: your body (and mind and soul) will be energised. I’m always keen to find intuitive approaches back into writing and looking at your work afresh. Liberate yourself from attachments! And from being locked into the downward scroll of the screen, looking for edits on your last draft with a frown on your brow. Start afresh.
So: try either of these writing experiments at an appropriate stage in your drafting:
* Allow your first draft to be a Zero Draft, and then embark on a Page One Rewrite for the next draft.
A Zero Draft is as much as anything a state of mind in which you allow your initial draft to lay out your content and reveal your story matter – as Terry Pratchett apparently said (please tell me where!): the first draft is just a writer telling herself the story. Let the story drift, find yourself in a few dead ends perhaps, see what surprises might surface. But too it’s fine to write and follow an outline.
Then print it out. You might want to make it look like a book or page proofs, i.e., single-spaced and justified, two columns or pages per A4 sheet, and using a bookish font such as Garamond or Baskerville. (And with page numbers, of course.)
Then read it. Maybe read it aloud. As you go, resist editing the text (refuse to engage in that way), but write any notes for the writer (yourself) in a separate notebook. You might even want to create a chapter and/or scene summary based entirely on what is contained in that draft, or to identify the gift given to the reader on every page.
Then put that draft away – in a drawer, in a safe. There is a good chance you might refer to it again, but there is a good chance too that you might not. I know of some writers who know they are never going to look at their zero draft ever again – simply surfacing their content this way was the important task.
Then, using your notes, or perhaps drawing on your inner resources – for the book is inside you, after all – start your next draft in a new document: effectively, a rewrite from the beginning (a Page One Rewrite is, I gather, a term used in the film industry). You might want to write a new outline or treatment at this stage, or even several different outlines to help you explore variations.
* The Polish Draft: This approach is also useful for a later draft, e.g., when you are doing a line edit on your prose and working on voice, smoothing out glitches and clunkiness, spotting repetitions, and dealing with redundancy and overwriting. It can be particularly useful if you have been making lots of stylistic alterations, e.g., shifting tenses or changing POV – it’s not only inevitable that some of the old text remains, but it’s also likely that here or there a deeper change is required, e.g., would a present-tense narrator even bother to pay attention to certain details that a past-tense narrator can accommodate?
Also, given that many manuscripts are assembled in a patchwork fashion and at different times, sometimes over a duration of several years, it can be useful to go through the text from start to finish in the order in which it will be read, digesting and reprocessing the text from the more unified perspective of that writer you are now. And so much cleaner than trying to make fixes in an old document!
Again, read a print-out of the previous draft, making edits on a hard copy: this time, it perhaps makes sense to go with regular double-spaced unjustified manuscript pages in clear, open fonts such as Times or Georgia (though maybe again experiment with a font you don’t usually use?). And you can even give yourself wide margins for adding notes and additions by hand.
Then reread, adding edits on the manuscript in pencil.
Then, sitting comfortably at your computer, and perhaps using a page holder or stand, rekey the edited text in a fresh (and clearly identified) new document.
It’s amazing what comes up, and also how easily you can start to see (and feel) things anew: simple word repetitions, or slips of the keyboard. Or garbled syntax. And yes – maybe your beta readers were right in saying that phrase was too cute, now you come to type it again. And you know – that scene is in fact too boring to retype, so maybe it’s just too boring?! There – a darling murdered more easily than you imagined. (Don’t be too brutal for its own sake, though.)
Whether you’re doing a Page One Rewrite or a Polish Draft, the work you’ve completed soon mounts up, and with it a sense of achievement. Just doing half an hour a day can bring fresh life and greater certainty to a project quite quickly. Depending on your working style, it can be a great task to tackle on a retreat or during a lull in other activity, or when other demands stop you from embarking on something new. Or maybe it’s it the sort of thing you could accomplish during a quarantine?!
We discussed Retype Drafts in a Craft of Revising workshop in June 2018, where a number of people were enthusiastic about the idea. Isabel Costello, who attended that class, later made a post about her own experience of retyping a draft on her blog The Literary Sofa – A Novel Process – the ‘Re-type Draft’:
With the benefit of time to ‘marinate’ and the observations of my trusted advisers, re-typing prompted me to question whether what was on the page felt ‘true’ – anything which didn’t leapt out at me. Whether in terms of plausibility or language, there’s nothing like having to reproduce a line or paragraph to reveal whether it belongs (or is banal/clichéd/superfluous). It made me realise how easy it is to settle for what’s already there, the parts you skim over in revisions because they’re ‘good enough’.
And if you want proof that retyping really is efficient, pay attention to what Isabel added in a later post:
Yesterday, on an impulse, I decided it would be fun to add up the ‘edit time’ on the five drafts of the book. I know, what was I thinking? The total (even after I remembered to convert minutes to hours) is so outrageous it can’t possibly be right, but I’ll tell you one thing – writers, you can thank me later – the second draft, which I retyped in its 90,000 word entirety, to many people’s horror and disbelief, amounted to the fewest hours by far, despite taking six incredibly intense weeks. Not only this, but it was so transformative to the development of story and character that I estimate it saved one or even two further drafts in the key mid-phase. Thanks again to Andrew Wille for putting me up to it!
Some writers, of course, write very deliberately: John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Cynthia Ozick, Eliot Weinberger. Or they write spontaneously: Jack Kerouac, apparently (though we know that is a bit of a myth). They are planners, or process each word emphatically as they come out, or they are geniuses. And good luck to them! But not everyone works that way – or can work that way, or wants to work that way.
You could even consider starting each major revision in an entirely fresh document.
Rewriting has negative associations – as if we’ve done something wrong in the earlier drafts. But it’s remarkably liberating to actively incorporate it into your process. Free yourself! Embrace rewriting, and freshen your work in the process.
And of course if you are one of those writers who already write your drafts by hand you can just turn to the rest of us and say: Told you so.
Now, pick up your quills …
(Updated June 2019 and April 2020.)