Enough Rewriting Already!

This is an old post, but it kept springing to mind when I was writing An Intervention for the Literary Lothario. What’s described below is the Lothario’s polar opposite.

Hope you like it!


Remember this thing? It was awesome.
Remember this thing? It was awesome.

By day, I write and edit for a magazine called The Lawrentian, and the job allows me to meet a lot of interesting people. In a recent issue, for example, I worked with the inimitable Ken Hakuta, the inventor of The Wacky Wallwalker – that sticky, octopus thing that could be found on the bottom of just about every box of cereal that was sold in the 1980s. It was one of the most popular toys of the decade and earned Hakuta (aka “Dr. Fad”) a fortune.

For those of you who never saw one of these things in action, The Wacky Wallwalker was tossed upon a wall where it would stick for a moment or two before gravity would take hold and make the thing crawl down the vertical surface to the floor below. That was what it was supposed to do, anyway. Sometimes it just fell on the floor with an almost-but-not-quite-gross-sounding “plopple.”

Moms hated The Wacky Wallwalker because they assumed it would leave a slimy snail trail in its wake. It never did, but their suspicions were never entirely allayed. This made playing with the toy almost naughty, really, as it encouraged you to invent parent-pestering games. (“How many times can I throw this thing against the wall before Mom threatens to take it away?”) And if you pestered Mom to the point where she did take it away, so what? All you had to do was open another box of cereal to get a new one.

Anyway, Hakuta wrote a playful article for the magazine titled  “How to Create the Next Big Thing,” where he provided some advice for aspiring fad-creators. Aspiring writers, however, should also take note of one of his nuggets of wisdom:

Get a Move On One of the things I hear most when I’m talking to would-be fadmakers is that old lament, “As soon as I’ve gotten my gizmo just a little better (a little cuter, a little shinier, a little uglier, a little bouncier), then I’ll be ready.” …Often tinkering is symptom of birth pangs, a fear of letting your baby out of the garage. You’re wasting time.

I have earned my keep through writing and editing for the past 17 years. During that time I have seen and worked with a number of writers who endlessly tinker with their prose. Some fixate on details, rewording the same sentences over and over again. Others take perfectly fine ideas that are developing well, and perform the writing equivalent of a teardown; they scrap everything and start over for reasons that are inexplicable – even to them.

Both of the above examples illustrate procrastination in action – an especially insidious kind, for it cleverly disguises itself as “working.” Procrastination isn’t only about watching TV and messing around on Facebook, it’s also in evidence when you spend lots of time fixing things that don’t need fixing.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewriting is every bit as important as writing, and everyone needs to do a lot of it. That being said, you also need to periodically ask yourself if your endless tweaks or teardowns are necessary or if they are just a tactic to avoid sending your work out to be scrutinized by editors.

Being judged can be very hard – especially if you spend a particularly long time crafting and honing a piece of writing that’s personally important to you. The longer you mess with your story, however, the easier it is to keep hanging on to it in order to make it “just a little better.” It’s a vicious cycle, really; the longer you keep your story, the harder it is to let it go. The longer you keep it, the more painful the rejections will be when they start to arrive.

But, like rewriting, rejection is also part of the writing process. It’s gonna happen no mater how good you are. So accept it and get your work out there. Throw it up against a wall; maybe it’ll stick, maybe it will hit the ground with a disappointing “plopple,” but you’ll never know if you don’t let it go.

29 Replies to “Enough Rewriting Already!”

  1. Great re-post! I have one of those…rewrites from somewhere that’s hot all the time. It was my first one…and I still haven’t let it go. But, hopefully, I learned my lesson…the last one I wrote…I just did it…reviewed it…and sent it on its merry way. And honestly, I feel a lot better about it. It isn’t gnawing at my brain matter and removing all my thought cells…okay, that was a gross visual but heck…it’s almost Halloween!

  2. Mike, Great post! I think it’s a very hard balance to figure out when you’re done with rewriting. If you send something out too soon, you’re going to face rejection. And once you get a rejection, they won’t want to see it again even after a complete revision. You only get so many bites at the apple. But this is where critique groups and good agents come in handy. They can really help you navigate and figure out how much more rewriting is needed. p.s. I used to love those Wacky Walkers. Up there with Silly Putty.

      1. I hadn’t. Thanks for the link. Great post! Did the student get into Brown? p.s. Does your Magic 8 Ball have any insight on the fate of my manuscript that’s going to an acquisition meeting this week? (I keep badgering my family to guess and all they say is that it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs.)

  3. I would like to print out this post and give it to my creative writers (the wonderful writers in my class who, even though they’re all 50 plus years young and write with incredible dexterity, still don’t want to believe their story(ies) are ready yet). I totally agree with you and love your metaphor with the Wacky Wallwalker.

    Just throw it against the wall, for heaven’s sake!

  4. You are absolutely right, Mike. No matter how many times I re-read my manuscripts, I always find something to change. There comes a point when we just have to send it out in the world and trust that an editor will be impressed by the whole and will catch any minor details that still needs to be fixed.

  5. I am definitely guilty of this– I will labor over editing something for way too long (I’d never thought of it in relations to *actual* labor, that’s pretty interesting). But you really can get so caught up in those small tinkerings that you miss your shot. Must remember, must remember.

    1. I’ve never thought of editing as actual labor, either. It’s like a puzzle. What is the best way to fit this idea together?

      I think many people are guilty of this. Tinkering is a lot of fun — at least for me — but too much of it can interfere with writing process in a big way.

  6. I sometimes rewrite AFTER I’ve submitted something. I’d say the rewrite is the number one thing stopping me from posting more often. I think the curse of highly creative people is that we never stop wanting to tweak things.

    1. Most writers endlessly tweak stories in their mind, even after they are published. Every time I read my children’s book at a school or a bookstore I ALWAYS find myself wishing that I had cut three words from of the finished story. It’s only three words, but those words drive me nuts.

  7. It’s so hard to know when I’m done. Sometimes, I just have to get rid of the thing because I can’t stand looking at it anymore. And then once it’s gone, I immediately see where I could have made it better. It’s maddening.

    But I have to tell you story I heard at LitQuake this weekend. An editor of a literary magazine said that they were going to publish a story by Alice Munro, but one paragraph didn’t flow as smoothly as the rest. By the time they ended up publishing the story, Ms. Munro had not only fixed the paragraph, she had been tinkering with the entire story, making it better until that last moment before publication. Cheers me up a little to know this.

    1. Oh, writers are never done with stories, I think.

      As I mentioned in a response above, there are three words in SARAH GIVES THANKS that I wish I had removed from the completed text. What’s particularly galling is that during the editing process, I had fought to keep those very words in. GAAH!

      1. Yes, we are our own worst enemies, as they say. I suggest you just not read those three words when you read the story aloud and explain this to the kids who are listening. It would be a great lesson about writers and writing. I use the 40th anniversary edition of Corduroy to teach kids about the writing process. It comes with examples of letters from the author to his editor and other materials. Kids love it.

  8. Excellent post as always Mr A, and I love the wallwalker analogy. It’s very true. It’s all about pacing as well, I tend to procrastinate and procrastinate on things, and then rush them through at the end. The thing is with editing, as with decision-making, the moment of absolute certainty never arrives.

    1. Oh, I hear you. Good writers are never absolutely finished with a story, I think. Never.

      After one of my articles is published, I often find myself tweaking things in my mind, frequently muttering, “Why the hell did I write it that way?”

  9. Glad you re-posted this. Sound advice…and I just love that word ‘plopple’! You always serve your excellent medicine with just enough sugar that I can take it – OK, time to let the medicine go down and send those poems OUT! Blessings and gratitude, Harula xxxxxx

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