How to Rewrite a Novel: 6 Starter Steps

In the process of writing a novel, there's a lot of excitement (and dread) around getting to the editing stage, but not every writer realizes there's potentially another stage along the way: rewriting.

While not every novel needs a full rewrite, many do, especially earlier on in a writer's career or when they're venturing down a new creative path.

So what exactly does this process involve, and how do you know whether to embark on rewriting a story?

When does a story require rewriting?

If your story has problems like these, it's definitely in need of a rewrite:

  • written a long time ago and no longer matches your current writing skills
  • the intended audience has changed
  • a massive tone shift takes place by the end (an initially cheery tale becoming a grim thriller, for example)
  • massive plot holes
  • the heart of the story is nowhere to be found
  • a supporting character would make a more fitting, compelling protagonist
  • the factual underpinnings of the story's foundation make no sense

There is also another possibility: you might begin to edit your story, thinking there's no need for a rewrite, and notice a domino effect from some of your edits. This can be a sign that you need to dive into a rewrite after all.

For example, you could remove a subplot that feels unimportant, only to realize that without it, your characters would never have met the character who gives them access to a secret hideout. So you create a different hideout for them to stumble on, except now the scene where the antagonist ambushes them requires a different strategy ...

... and on and on, the dominos tumble!

A realization like this doesn't necessarily mean you need to rewrite your entire draft, but it is a signal to take a bird's eye view, rather than the ground-level approach often used for editing.

What does rewriting look like?

At the simplest level, rewriting your story involves writing it all over again with the benefit of knowledge and insight gained from the first draft.

Not every rewrite is so drastic, and there may even be times when it's hard to tell the difference between a rewrite and a revision or edit. Don't get too caught up in terminology. Do what your story needs you to do, and don't let the breadth of work required hold you back from giving it all you've got.

If you're still not sure what your story needs, I've found it useful to try editing a portion of my work as a sample - say the equivalent of a chapter. If a rewrite is what's truly required, editing often makes things feel patchy, and less cohesive rather than more; rather like trying to stop one leak and seeing three more burst through the cracks.

How do you start to rewrite a novel?

While some writers love the rewriting process, it can be one of the most daunting tasks a writer faces. A rewrite lacks both the fresh, buoyant feeling of a rough draft and the methodical grace of revision.

When a rewrite looms on the horizon, the steps that follow will help you start things off on solid footing.

Step 1 | Read the draft through, from start to finish

Before making any changes, you need to know which problems require attention.

Read through the draft from beginning to end with a keen eye for any big-picture concerns and write them down, including the page numbers, scenes, and/or chapters where they come into play.

Resist the urge to make line edits while reading, as they likely won't survive the rewrite!

Step 2 | Review the list of changes

Once you've read the whole draft, you'll have before you a hefty list of issues and changes to make. That's okay! With a bit of sorting, you can turn this overwhelming quagmire into an actionable, even inspiring set of tasks.

One way to organize this list is by first dividing it into two categories: big-picture and chapter-by-chapter.

Big-picture tasks could be something like, "Add a search for the magic tome rather than having it hidden in the library".

Because these kinds of changes take so much effort, it's worth taking the time to split them out into a few stages. For this example, it could be broken out into steps like, "Drop a few hints about the location of the tome", "Add a red herring", and "Incorporate disappointment of not finding it into the argument in Chapter 6".

Chapter tasks, on the other hand, could be something like, "In Chapter 3, 7, and 14, swap the lakehouse setting for tiny ice cream parlour (3) and the scrap yard (7, 14)".

You'll need to decide on a system that works for you. Perhaps you'll divide up the tasks by chapter. Maybe you'll sort the notes into categories like, "Research", "Timeline", "Plot", and "Character".

However you organize the list, make sure it's still flexible enough to allow you a bird's eye view – it's important not to slip into a more zoomed-in editing mindset when you still need to look at the big picture.

Step 3 | Sketch out a new outline to guide the rewrite

Even for writers who aren't intense plotters, adding some kind of structure to rewrites keeps them from meandering, something which tends to make an even bigger tangle of things! Writing an outline is a perfect way to do this.

When creating the new outline, include any scenes or subplots from before that still (a) serve the story that needs to be told and (b) intrigue and fascinate.

This is also the perfect time to look at any big-picture notes from Step 2 and make sure they're addressed in the outline.

Step 4 | Decide where to begin

Have a look at the notes and outline you've crafted in the last few steps, and ask yourself, "Which impending change will have the greatest domino effect on the story? What's the most logical starting point?"

For example, say you're writing a science fiction novel and there are three significant issues to be addressed in your rewrite: travel between planets, giving the protagonist more opportunities to take charge, and vastly decreasing the habitability of the planet central to the story.

Of these three issues, which one will have the greatest effect on the other two and the rest of the story?

In this example, it's likely to be the planet's habitability. Once that's clearly established and woven through the story, you'll have a clearer picture of how people could travel to and from this planet (and the obstacles in their way).

What's more, if you start off by finding ways to make the protagonist more proactive, you could figure out all sorts of badass encounters and decisions, only to realize that you've painted yourself into a corner when it comes to making the planet less hospitable, because you either have to change what your character does again or mould the planet's dangers to the twists and turns you've devised for the protagonist.

In genre fiction like fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction, worldbuilding changes will often be a high priority when it comes to rewriting, though it's not a hard and fast rule.

Step 5 | Do any prep work

Now that you've decided where to begin, you'll know whether you can immediately move on to rewriting the draft itself (Step 6) or need to lay some groundwork first.

This is the time to do any research, worldbuilding, and plot/character development you didn't do (or didn't realize you needed) before and during your rough draft. Without this, you won't have the tools you need to complete a full rewrite of your story, because there will still be integral pieces missing!

Take a deep breath, gather any resources you need, and get to work.

Step 6 | Start the rewrite in a new document

Now that you've completed the necessary prep work and have a roadmap to follow, it's time to begin the rewrite itself.

While you can make changes directly to the rough draft document, it's usually best to begin with a new document – a clean slate. This is a great way to encourage creative bravery and fresh ideas, because you won't be tempted to cling onto writing from before that no longer serves a strong enough purpose, and you can even capture some of that sparkling "new draft" excitement.

Something you can do, if it feels helpful, is to keep the rough draft nearby, either electronically or on paper. This way, pieces of writing that you do want to bring along for future drafts can be easily transcribed or copy-pasted into the new document.

Rewriting a novel can be a terrifyingly daunting endeavour, but it's also one of the most important stages along the way to transforming your story into an unforgettable experience.

Take the rewrite one step, one piece of the roadmap at a time, and you'll find your way ... and, in the end, wind up with a stronger, more delightful draft.

Happy rewriting, creative soul!

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