4 Things to Focus on in Your First Rewrite

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Every year, we’re lucky to have great sponsors for our nonprofit events. Reedsy, a 2018 “Now What?” sponsor, is a user-friendly site that helps authors find editors, designers and publicists. Today, Reedsy staff writer Martin Cavannagh shares his top tips on how to approach your first novel edits:

Everybody talks about how hard it is to finish a first draft—as if to suggest everything that comes after that is a joyride. But in reality, the work has only begun.

Many advice posts will offer a laundry list of novel revision tactics: Show, don’t tell! Hone your dialogue! Get rid of unnecessary adjectives! These are all valuable tips, but your first rewrite must focus on basic storytelling. In this post, we’ll look at four things you should address in your first revision.

1. Uncover any hidden motifs and themes.

All artists (novelists included) will have specific obsessions and interests that percolate under the surface of their consciousness. In a quick first draft, it’s inevitable that some of these interests will work their way into your work. One hallmark of a skilled novelist is the ability to identify these motifs and lean into them.

For example, you may realize that your protagonist is betrayed by a number of her allies—and from that, it can become apparent that the idea of trust and faith plays a big part in your novel.

Once you’re able to identify your theme—that is, the spine of your story—you may find it easier to rewrite scenes to reinforce this idea and bring cohesion to your novel.

2. Identify your protagonist’s arc.

At its core, a story isn’t just a series of events that take place in a world. Drill into any story and you’d find that it’s almost always about characters dealing with conflict and change. A character arc is the internal journey that undertaken as a result of the plot.

TV’s Breaking Bad is about a chemistry teacher who starts making drugs and fighting the law. But if you track Walter White’s character arc, it’s also about a man who sacrifices his principles in the pursuit of power—and the real underlying story is his evolution from mild-mannered teacher to drug kingpin.

So ask yourself: “What want does your character have at the start of your book? And, under pressure, what are they willing to do to get it?

As your story develops, you may find that the answer to that last question changes: that’s character development, and as long as that change is logical in some way, then you have the basis of a character arc.

3. Ask, “what does this scene achieve?”

Very often, rewriting involves a whole lot of cutting out.

Of course, this is your book, and you can go on as many story tangents as you please. But if your intention is for other people to read your book, you need to be conscious of their time and interest. To ensure that you maintain momentum in your novel, you need to ask yourself what scene achieves.

If you aim to create a tight, propulsive structure, each of your scenes must either advance your plot or reveal something about your characters. Of course, there are exceptions to this loose rule: you may have chapters that are designed to elaborate on the world of your book. In these cases, you could argue that you are giving some greater context for why your character is the way you are. But if there’s a wonderfully written chapter that does absolutely nothing for character or story, you can either rewrite it so that it does or remove it to preserve the pace of your novel.

4. Build to an ending that is surprising and inevitable.

Sticking the landing is always one of the hardest things to do. The good thing about writing novels is that, unlike gymnastics, you can take all the time in the world to figure out how best to nail your ending.

In Poetics, Aristotle talks about the nature of drama and how an audience will respond well to endings that take them by surprise. But that in order for them to be truly satisfied, every step leading to that ending must be logical. When your reader reaches the climax of your novel, they won’t be saying, “Wait! Where the heck did that come from?!”

Twist endings, of course, shouldn’t be the goal of every novel. But if your climax involves a big reveal, make sure that you seed little clues in the build—so that readers can look back and go, “Ah, now I see what that means.”

The basic story elements that you’ll focus on in a first rewrite will be the firm skeleton upon which you will lay the muscle and skin of dialogue and narration. Once your characters are fully realized, and your structure is tight, you’re off to the races and ready to dive into the nitty-gritty of crafting remarkable prose.

For more tips on writing novels, check out this free online course from author Ben Galley.


Martin Cavannagh is a staff writer at Reedsy, a curated marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers and marketers. Over 2,500 books have been produced with Reedsy since 2015.