“Faced with a text, the reader can transform the words into a message that deciphers for him or her a question historically unrelated to the text itself or to its author. This transmigration of meaning can enlarge or impoverish the text itself; invariably it imbues the text with the circumstances of the reader. Through ignorance, through faith, through intelligence, through trickery and cunning, through illumination, the reader rewrites the text with the same words of the original but under another heading, re-creating it, as it were, in the very act of bringing it into being.”—Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. — Vladimir Nabokov,”—flavorwire
“John Adams and Thomas Jefferson argued over whether the correct word was "inalienable" or "unalienable," with Adams winning, not on the floor of Congress, but by quietly "correcting" the printer before publication.”—Insights into the Declaration of Independence’s drafting process from The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America by Dale Taylor.
“I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it.”—James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78
The Newly Discovered Art of Rewriting
I have just recovered from a slight panic attack. What caused it, you ask? Let me tell you.
I’m working through revisions and I reached a scene where my protagonist’s motivations and beliefs within that scene are considerably different from my first draft to the second. As I was trying to revise the scene, I had a moment where I found that I couldn’t put in my changes to the scene without making a million other changes to the scene, because otherwise I was contradicting myself - or, better yet, my narrator would be contradicting herself - one paragraph to the next.
Basically, let me put it like this: the scene needed to be rewritten, not revised.
This was what I came to realize which stopped my panic attack. “What am I doing wrong?” was my number one thought, “How can I fix this?” was number two, and “I should hide in a corner and cry” came in number third. And then my sister said something very potent. She said “Just go write it! You’re rewriting! So write!” (Or something along those lines.)
But she was very accurate. The central emotions of the scene has changed, meaning that the entire scene needs to change. There are a few pieces of information that still need to be given, and certain things that still need to be processed, but how they’re given to the reader are going to be entirely changed. Originally, the narrator believed, but held doubts. Now, the narrator needs to be entirely doubtful, with moments of belief. That changes the entire way the scene is built, meaning that the scene, as a whole, needs to be redone.
That difference, that balance between what can be revised and what can be rewritten, is something that I am very, VERY glad I learned now and not on draft eighteen (or some other obscure big number). To all writers, take note: a first draft needs to go through both revisions and rewrites. Understand what the differences are and why a scene would need one or the other.
I’m nice and relaxed now, and can go back to my revisions/rewrites. But that knowledge, that moment of clarity, makes me feel like a real writer. I’m not just making small changes and editing my manuscript. I’m rewriting entire scenes.