Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

A Question I Got

And My Answer…

I deleted the question and my response and decided to answer it here so the author is not seemingly attacked by me. The author’s only fault is a massive belief in myths. So no point in me getting personal.

So here is the author’s question in general.

The author had a large (400 plus page book) that was in 4th draft. The author wanted to know if we had a workshop that would help him make the next rewrite/polish/edit draft better.

Yes, someone actually asked me that question.

Here is my response:

I’m afraid not a one of our workshops will help you at that stage. You have pretty much already ruined the book. My suggestion (which you won’t like and will be insulted by I am sure) is go back to your first draft, spellcheck, and get it to a copyeditor to find typos and then release.

That first draft will retain your original voice. 4 or 5 drafts just make your work same and dull and takes your voice out of it. And trust me, I don’t teach people how to ruin their work. I teach people how to believe in their own work and trust their own voice.

David Farland (if you take a year or two of his workshops) might be able to teach you how to rewrite without killing your voice if you want to spend that much time and money at learning a skill you really don’t need. But it takes a couple years of time to learn to do it right if you are invested that much in the rewriting myth.

But instead, why not go back to the first draft and just trust your own skill instead of believing in all the myths? You might be surprised at the result.


Well, I am sure that the author would not have been satisfied with that answer. So I deleted the question and my response and decided to just put it here. The author would have never asked the question if he ever came to this blog, so this is for just general practice. He will never see it, I am sure.

For those of you new here, let me be clear. I believe rewriting is a horrid myth that will kill a writer’s joy of writing and fairly quickly their career. The rewriting myth is based out of fear, a misinformed thinking that rewriting makes perfect instead of dull and same, and a lack of trust in the author’s own voice.

Plus it is a vast waste of time. This rewriting myth pushed by English teachers and the November writing month challenge creates sloppy writing as well.

My belief… Write in creative voice, clean copy, get done, and release. Then move on to the next story.

And all of our workshops and lectures are positive and meant to help writers learn craft skills, business, and how to have fun telling stories.


  • Murees Dupé

    I started reading your blog a few months ago, because you and Mrs Rusch are awesome, and I started by reading both your blog archives. I learn so much by those older posts, and yes, it answers your question about rewriting, which I’m a big fan of. Again, thank you for always sharing your honesty and advice?

  • Harvey Stanbrough

    Great post, Dean. We’ve all been telling stories from the subconscious since before we even were aware there was an alphabet. Recapturing that trust in ourselves and our own voice can be difficult after years of indoctrination (from non-writers), but it’s possible.

    I was fortunate. When I renewed my acquaintance with you in February 2014, something you said made a light come on. It was in a post about your experience with Nina Kiriki Hoffman and the “Dare to be bad” challenge in which the two of you engaged. If I recall, you were working in a bookstore at the time to make ends meet.

    After that, when I had tried writing into the dark and was stuck and emailed you for advice, you replied that being stuck happens even to you and recommended I TRUST my subconscious and “just write the next sentence.”

    Then I learned (again, from you) to cycle back every thousand words or so. (I now cycle back through what I wrote the day before when I sit down to begin the day’s first session.)

    And I haven’t looked back since. That was over 200 short stories ago, and today my characters will wrap my 35th novel.

    My own “secret” is to let the characters tell the story. After all, they’re the ones who are living it.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Harvey. Glad some of this hit home. And I owned the bookstore and also worked two other jobs while in that challenge with Nina.

      The real secret to all of this is Heinlein’s Rules. You ride those five simple rules and everything just falls into place, as you know. (So I’m talking to everyone else. (grin))

    • Philip

      Harvey, I’ve been reading your comments her for a long time, but I never bothered Googling your name. Finally checked you out and it looks like your fiction is right up my alley (as both a reader and writer). I’m going to read some stuff. Looks good.

  • LInda Maye Adams

    Unfortunately, the reason for the question is that there is so much incredibly bad advice out there. If the writer of the question is reading this, in 2010, I was struggling to complete my ‘get off the horse’ book after I broke up with my cowriter. The book was born broken because all those tips that get passed around had gotten in the way of my writing (like knowing your ending, doing plot points, etc.). So I was revising to fix one problem, and it would break the story somewhere else. So sections of it had been through more than four revisions.

    Then a writer posted a link to one of Dean’s “Don’t revise’ posts. All of us, including me, were outraged at the thought. I can still find that post where I’m saying that I couldn’t imagine not revising. But I was also so frustrated with that process that even at that time I mentioned that I was thinking of just dropping all the writing advice I was getting (creative brain clearly was asserting itself). The writers where I posted that were horrified, like I’d suddenly turned into a vampire and needed to be attacked with garlic. They were really afraid of it.

    I didn’t understand it at the time, but if a story is born broken, no amount of revision is going to fix it. All I would be doing is smearing putty over the craters and hoping no one noticed. So when I ran across Dean’s revision post a second time later on, I was ready for it. The writing community teaches us to not trust our voice, not trust ourselves. It was scary, but I wrote ten short stories in ten weeks–wrote, proofread, and sent to a magazine in one week. Nine form rejections and one “I must have this.” That story was when the revision was screaming that something was wrong with the story, and I ignored it and sent it anyway.

    Revision feels like a safety net, but it’s one that looks like it’s there, but there are sharks swimming under it.

  • Tony DeCastro

    I concur. The person obviously never visits this blog if he asked that question. (Or he’s pulling your leg). The myth is deep. Most writers truly believe spending years on one story “workshopping” it will make the story better. I’m no different, I used to believe that “re-writing was writing.” Fortunately, I learned on my own how much I hate returning to a story. Finding this blog was a revelation, because even though I realized I hated rewriting I still believed it was a necessity. In retrospect, those beliefs are silly.

    • Janine

      It is really deep. It’s tied into the belief that “first drafts are dumpster fires” and “the more revision, the better”. They will also tell you that revising will always make it better. Problem is that when you start messing with things, they start to get stale and blend together. Think about if you reheat certain dishes over and over again. Some might taste good after 1-2 reheats, but once you get to like 4-5 and beyond, it’s usually finished. Don’t worry, I used to feel bad because I couldn’t revise/rewrite anything to improvement. It used to just make the dumpster fire worse. Now I know why. Now I cycle in and make the first draft as clean as possible to avoid rewriting. Sure it’s a bit slower than the sloppy first draft, but it’s better than lots of rewriting and starting over.

      • dwsmith

        Janine, and always remember that when you have a dumpster full of garbage on fire, putting out the fire and stirring the remains still means it’s a dumpster full of garbage. (grin)

  • Janine

    I’ve noticed something lately: a lot of the rewriters in the writing community that tell people that “you must revise your story multiple times to make it shiny and polished and will make it better” actually hate, and I mean hate, writing the first draft. They have admitted that they write the first draft sloppy because “it’s the foundation for revisions” and I’ve found it silly since you already have a built house with bad work. They are also in the “writing is super hard” camp. Shame they are the overwhelming voices in the community right now.

    Fun fact: just yesterday, I tossed out a novel I’ve been working on for two weeks due to a gut feeling that it felt off about 20K in and decided to redraft it from scratch. Not much progress so far, but already feeling better about it, but we’ll see. I haven’t received any severe backlash, but I know the rewriters will tell me “finish the draft, fix it in rewrites”. Problem is, that when I used to do that, everything was a mess and sounded bland and I ended up having to start over anyway, wasting months of time. Better that I caught it early.

  • Philip

    It’s funny because if you read Writers Digest type articles about struggling authors, you’ll often hear how difficult it is for a new writer to “find their voice.” These are the same authors doing a zillion rewrites, so that goes to your point, Dean. As you say, the writer basically sands down all his originality by making it sound like someone else because that magical, unnamed someone else is “a better writer” or “doing it right.”

    I just started reading the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, and I was interested in what his process was and it sounds a lot like he took your lectures. Writes one draft into the dark and tosses it to the publisher. Meanwhile, he sells millions of copies and seems to have a ball doing it. He started writing when he got canned from his longtime job. He could have found a million other ways to make a living, but he always though he’d enjoy writing.

    In this first book I’m reading (THE KILLING FLOOR), I notice he also writes crisp, simple prose yet he uses a ton of your Depth techniques–pulls you right into the scene with sensory details.

    Finally, he breaks rules throughout and–surprise–as a reader it doesn’t diminish my entertainment experience. Gasp! He uses “the passive voice” sometimes — oh no! And he… wait for it, cover your ears… TELLS instead of SHOWS! How dare he!

    • dwsmith

      Philip, there are no rules to break if you tell a good story. Words are just tools in the use of telling a story. Rules are made up by beginners and non-writers to try to make sense out of what looks like magic to them.

  • Kessie

    Oh wow, I was embarrassed for this guy the instant I read his question. Talk about coming to the wrong place.

    I’ve been watching my friends doing Nanowrimo, and they’re bragging about writing filler, and writing sloppily, and writing long notes to themselves that they’ll “fix later”. And I’m so horrified. I wrote one Nano novel that way, and it was an unsalvageable mess. Never did Nano again. I hate rewriting.

    • Janine

      I used to do all the tricks with lots of filler and sloppy writing. And then I tried to fix it via rewriting, turns out I created a dumpster fire and would have to start all over since very little was usable. Months wasted. Now, drafting does take a little longer than it used to, but it’s clean and best of all, no rewriting!

  • Mike N

    I know there is no chance of this but maybe he meant he’s in his “fourth draft” – write, cycle, cycle, typos?? Or perhaps you’ve become the target of Russian bots!

    If by any chance he’s reading this comment – SIGN UP FOR A LIFETIME SUBSCRIPTION!! It will be the best money you’ve ever spent.

  • emmiD

    Where should I begin?

    I think the belief in re-writes comes out of critique groups. Share a chapter or five pages+, and everyone comments and advises. Go back and fix it. On to the next chapter. Then get someone to read the completed MS, and fix it based on their suggestions. Get another reader; have more fixes. Finally read it yourself, realize you’ve lost the original vision and fix that. And we have four revisions.

    The problems with critique groups: 1) few groups read the novel in its entirety, 2) most members are not Pros, 3) since they’re not Pros, they focus on the wrong things.

    The major problem with finding someone to “fix” a novel is that you never learn for yourself 1) about story structure, 2) about character development, 3) about stretching yourself for originality, 4) about analyzing for yourself, and 5) learning how to fix it yourself.

    I nearly fell into the critique group trap a couple of times. Luckily, first distance and then time constraints forced me to dig for the answers myself. I’m not where I want to be, but I am definitely closer.

    As a former HS English teacher, let me share work habits for students that my fellow teachers thought were helpful for writing (all sorts: essays, discussion question answer development, creative writing [which in the modern test-driven world rarely finds a place in the modern classroom]): use your neighbor student for ideas, for sentence structure, for revision, for editing, for correcting.

    I said to my students, “Writing is a solitary activity. You won’t have your neighbors for the test which means you will also not have them for writing in my class. Learn to do it yourself.”

    Too many young writers (young in writing, not in age) fall into the “neighbor” trap. (After all, bum lazy English teachers taught them that horrible habit.) That may be the reason so many books by newbies are so similar.

    But Dean, you have to remember one major thing: You are a pro, a long-term highly successful Pro who has internalized plot and character and theme and enhancements so that these flow easily out of you and onto the page.

    I believe you are right with Writing into the Dark and cycling back in. For newbies, however, they might need a little after-completion structuring and character discrepancy-clearing our that you as a Pro never find problematic.

    I hope someday that I will achieve that clean one-draft-and-done.

    I’m not there, not yet. I’m closer than I was five years ago and certainly far closer than 10, 20, and 30 years ago. The more I write, the closer I get.

    But while I may want to emulate your writing into the dark and done, I ain’t going to run a marathon ?

    (Yes, this old English teacher used “ain’t”. It’s a word.)

    Congrats on that, btw. ( That probably should have come first. ) ?

    • dwsmith

      Well you were doing fine until you got to the “old pro” excuse for you not being able to do something. That is just silly. You were taking in story since you sat on your parents lap and had stories read to you. So sorry, the only problem a beginning writer has that I don’t have is the belief in the myths. Including that you can’t do something. You can write great stories if you keep learning and get out of your own way. It really is that simple. You have it all inside you because the creative voice in all of us knows how to do all this. The key is to believe it and let the creative voice alone. But as long as you believe only old pros like me can do it, that is a self-fulling myth for you.

      • Lyn Worthen

        I agree completely – almost. The “old pro” has learned to trust their ability to tell a story, while the “newbie” still doubts themselves << a doubt that the myths encourage.

        So it's not that the "old pro" can do it and the "newbie" can't – it's that getting the newbie to get out of their way, ignore the myths, and just write a story without multiple revisions isn't easy – there's a lot of climbing over myths and doubts that they have to be willing to do.

        But just like learning any new skill, every time they write a story without revising it to death, and discover that they can actually produce a finished, readable – and, dare I say, even salable – story without multiple revisions, setting aside the myths and trusting their own voice (and the craft skills they should always be learning & practicing) gets easier.

        • dwsmith

          Agree, Lyn. They can do it and that is what I have been saying and why I don’t let anyone get away with “Oh, you’re old and can do it and I’m young and just can’t.” They can do it, if they clean out the myths.

  • Mark Kuhn

    And then there is this quote by the great Raymond Chandler:

    “The faster I write, the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.” 

  • Jo

    I was listening to a screen writer talk about something similar. He says that often times when you hear about a great script, one that has sold for a significant amount, and then never hear about it again, it’s because of meddling.

    Basically, the first producer or director gets it, someone with creative control, and they change it. Then the next, and the next. Tweak here, tweak there. Rewrite this section, that section.

    Before you know it you’ve lost what was good about the script in the first place, why it was purchased initially, and the project dies. And no one, NO ONE, is willing to just go back to the original. That would mean tossing out all the intermediate work and the suggestions of ‘important people’.

    The screen writer just hopes a few of his scripts get made, so that will help him sell ones in the future, but once he sells it he has to let go and hope they don’t eff it up. Because when or if they do eff up his work, his name is still on it.

    The script for Passengers (the Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) film was like that. In the script, the audience doesn’t know Chris Pratt has been alive and alone for so long. They find it out at the same time as the Lawrence character. So that moment is an OMG horror moment and you are feeling it the same time as the Lawrence character. A huge POV intersection between audience and character, those can be powerful, jump you right into the head of the character. It probably works better on paper/text, I dunno, but they chose to change it for the movie in order to give the Chris Pratt character a more sympathetic angle and maybe to lessen the horror vibe.

    The problem is that when you read something, and it works, and you like it, you are excited. Then, if you read it over and over, that super cool thing that blind sided you, made you laugh, or cry, it no longer evokes emotion. So you’ll rewrite it. Trying to reach that same emotion you got the first time. The first time you read it. The first time you wrote it. But you can’t find that emotion again, not with any intensity. There’s only one first time.

    I’m just yammering here. I don’t have a real point. But I think you know what I mean.

  • K

    I have done this with my first-ever novel, the rights of which got reverted to me. Fair disclosure, I had to do a lot more than just a spell-check. I had to make sure that tense and POV was consistent in each section, which meant rephrasing every so often.
    Be prepared to stay your hand and NOT rewrite. Is it clear? Does it make sense? If yes, then trust it.
    The book is out now. Done is done and I’ve already moved on. It did take a lot longer than I had budgeted for though.

  • James Palmer

    Good stuff as always, Dean. I was listening to an episode of Mur Lafferty’s and Matt Wallace’s Ditch Diggers podcast the other day, (since it had been several years since I’d listened) and they were answering a similar listener question by stating that you have to do a rewrite. Then I remembered why I stopped listening to that podcast.

    Even if this guy’s first draft is truly terrible, four rewrites aren’t going to fix it. He would learn more if he wrote something completely new and different. After four drafts I’d be so sick of it that I’d HAVE to write something else or go bonkers. Write it, fix typos, hit publish, and move on.

    While not all of your advice works for me personally, this one certainly resonates. Good stuff.

  • Rikki Mongoose

    It’s as enlighting, as your post about need for ideas.

    I’ve decided to check, how big were ideas for wolrld-aporeciated nivels after a conversation with a friend who said me about it.

    So, I took academic editions (this huge volumes with all letters and drafts included) and checked, how the first notes for classical works looked like.

    So, none of them was an “elevator pitch”. And all of them surprisingly changed during actual writing process.

    “The Captain’s Daughter” – inspired by Walter Scott, was started as story of young officier who joins Pugachov’s rebels seeking revenge. When story had been written, he turned to Shvabrin, the antagonist of central character.

    “War and Peace” – started as novel about a participator of decembristan revolt, returning to Petersbourg after 30 years of exile (based on bio of Sergey Volkonsky). So, it turned to huge epic novel about Napoleon wars of 1805-1812).

    “Anna Karenina” started as novel about adventures of “Russian Becky Sharpe” during 1870th.

    “Crime and Punishment” started as social novel about alcohol addiction destroying a family (used as Marmeladov’s arc). Publisher needed not so literary, just a tragic crime story, and Dostoevsky needed money to pay his gamble debts. So he started a story about young idealist who tufns criminal… and had no way to abandon it, because he’d lost his advance on roulette.

    “Idiot” started as historical novella based on story of Ivan VI.

    “The Possessed” and “Karamazov Brothers” were started as parts of huge epic novel “Atheism, or Life of a Great Sinner”. “Karamazov Brothers” are left unfinished, there’re just some sketches about next parts.

    So, now I’m not afraid of beinv ouf of ideas. Even if I outline it, outline changes a lot during writing.

  • Maree

    I’m always confused about exactly what you’re supposed to be doing for all these drafts. When I wrote my first novel I tried to do successive drafts and I was at a loss. I tried to follow the steps people suggest but I didn’t want to change everything?

    I knew it wasn’t the greatest thing ever written, but I was proud of what I’d accomplished and didn’t really see what I could do to make it better. I made a second pass, and cleaned up some details, but it wasn’t like my abilities had suddenly advanced in the couple of months since I’d started it. I didn’t want to change things just for the sake of it, so I just went ahead and showed it to a few friends. Overall they liked the middle to later chapters better, which was the part where I’d picked up momentum and written faster and fiddled less.

    I got some comments that the ending was sort of a cop out, and I realized I’d been hesitant to let my protag be in real peril, so I cut the last 10k and wrote it over. I guess that counts as a second draft? I dunno.

    What are people doing in a 4th draft? I still don’t understand, but wow am I glad I saw some hate post that brought me here so I could find people who don’t roll their eyes when I ask that.

    • dwsmith

      Maree, well, when you find an answer to that question, let the rest of us know. (grin) I can’t even imagine it, to be honest. And makes me shudder every time I try.

      I think the key to why those folks need a lot of drafts is that they write sloppy the first time through and don’t care at all about what they are writing, figuring they will “fix” it later, but as Algis Budrys once said to me about that sort of thinking, “When you have a pile of shit and mix it up with a stick, it is still a pile of shit.”

      Me, I care what I write and try to do the best I can, and sounds like you do as well, Maree, so therefore, neither of us can figure out what there is to fix when we do the best we can and don’t be sloppy. That’s as best I can figure.

      • Lyn Worthen

        I’ve heard authors talk about going through separate drafts to look for things like theme (a draft), consistency (a draft), pacing (a draft), technical or historical fact-checking (a draft), grammar and punctuation (a draft), etc.

        I don’t see how they can do that without driving themselves mad and ending up hating the book. Makes my head hurt whenever I hear someone talk about their “fill-in-the-blank draft.”

        About the only time I do a “targeted” draft is when I’m actively trying to focus on a skill – such as when I was trying to remember to put in sensory details more than once or twice per book, lol – and even then the “draft” is just reading through the manuscript to make sure I’ve done whatever the thing I was focusing on was with some semblance of consistency throughout.

        But beyond that, if I haven’t fixed whatever little problems during the initial writing that everyone else is relying on separate drafts for, and my first reader doesn’t catch the issues, I’m probably not going to spend a lot of time worrying about them.

        Life is too short, and I have too many books I want to write 🙂