See that up there? That’s my thesis statement. In the next 478 words, I’m going to develop it, flesh it out, then restate it in my conclusion. Then do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to reread it. At least three times.
On my first time through, I’m going to check my overall flow and make sure I’m making my argument effectively. The second time, I’m going to double-check my spelling and make sure that the only bad grammar I have is intentional and emphatic (like where I made “At least three times” its own sentence).
Then I’m going to read it once more from the point of view of potential readers as an extra check of clarity and style. If I find any other changes that need to be made, it might necessitate a fourth or fifth read-through.
I’m not shy. That’s how the greats succeed in this business.
What, you didn’t think that Stephen King just hammered out a novel at his prodigious 10,000 words per day, then sat back, cackled, and called it good, did you? Oh, no. The true professionals, the household names, they’re the ones who reread and rewrite their material more than anyone.
They understand that “rough draft” is an understatement, that you can’t emphasize the right plot points and themes and character traits nearly as well the first time as you can the third or fifth or tenth.
Think of a bestselling author. In most cases, they’ll have spent much more time rewriting their work than they spent writing it the first time. The others? Hacks.
I should know this. Not all that long ago, I was a book editor, and a good one. Print publishing being what it is, when my job security was in question, I moved on. I now get paid to write training materials for the professional development of state employees. I use my own advice. I rewrite my material. As an editor, this was the second piece of advice I gave my authors (right after, “Please, for the love of God, read at every possible moment!”). And I would give them no peace until they demonstrated that they were actively reworking their material.
In my experience of writing my own work and editing that of others, I’ve discovered two immutable laws of human nature. First, no matter how good your book is on the first draft, it is always better on the third. Second, those authors who aren’t willing to rewrite their material are always the ones whose material isn’t very good in the first place. I have found no exceptions to these two laws.
You do yourself and your readers a disservice by being satisfied with your first draft. Your work can always improve, be it poetry or science fiction or applied mathematics. I and the other editors on this site can show you how.
My name is Thomas Beard, and this article required five read-throughs.
Thomas Beard is a writer and editor with the Consortium. Every Wednesday he shares an article about revision, rewriting, and story structure.
Find out more about Thomas Beard at his author website, and watch for his debut epic fantasy, The Orphan Queen.