Keep Your Post-Draft Tasks Distinct

Writers are not all the same.

I realize that may come as a shock to you, but it’s true. Trust me. Job One (or something very close to it) for every writer is to find the rhythms and routines that work for you. That may be quite different from what works for other writers. And that’s okay. Say it with me: “That’s okay.”  

Still, whatever suits you as a writer, there’s a good chance that keeping your post-draft tasks distinct will help you produce better writing. More specifically, understand and practice what differentiates rewriting, editing, and proofreading. They are distinct tasks that take place after a first draft is completed, and each requires a healthy distance from the creative process, which is why it’s usually helpful to wait a few days between each step.

Rewriting (as many writers do it) refers to a dramatic overhaul, akin to an HGTV house renovation. For this task, you may stand back and look at your manuscript, asking such questions as, Does this accomplish what I set out to accomplish? Does it engage the reader? Does the flow of ideas or action make sense? If it’s fiction, you might ask, Does the story begin well? Is it meandering? Are the characters’ wants and needs clear? Are the stakes high enough? Do they change as the action progresses? And so on. You want to know if any part of the manuscript is boring or confusing, or if some parts are repetitive and redundant (see what I did there?). You might cut chapters, move scenes around, change the order of paragraphs, remove whole sentences or even entire pages, etc. Too many of us neglect this process, assuming that the way we wrote it is the best way for it to be written; and that’s almost never the case.

Editing is usually best undertaken after the rewrite process is complete. It involves attention to details and correction of errors. For example, I run my copy through ten separate self-editing exercises (such as highlighting all adverbs and adjectives with the intention of removing most of them) before I proceed to the next phase. Whereas rewrite is like a house renovation (what Chip Gaines did on Fixer Upper), a good edit is more like Joanna’s tasks—choosing the right colors, hanging pictures, getting the details right.

Proofreading, then, is like the final walk-through before the homeowners are shown their new house. It’s the inspection, once the article, chapter, or book is nearly ready for sending to an agent or editor. Proofreading makes sure that spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all correct, no typos appear, and no missing words haunt the manuscript.

As I said, most of us will be helped by keeping these tasks clear and distinct in our minds and on our to-do lists. And sure, they may seem elementary to some, but I’m often surprised at how few do these post-first-draft tasks and how few do them well. If you’re already doing these things with everything you write, you’re well ahead of the pack. If you’re not, now is the best time to start.

36 Responses to Keep Your Post-Draft Tasks Distinct

  1. Roberta Sarver November 28, 2018 at 5:16 am #

    Thanks, Bob, for your instructional posts. Although we all like your humorous ones best, it’s part of our job to dig in and learn as we go. I guess the writing life is not all birthday cake and ice cream. Sometimes we have to gag down the liver and onions.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 5:54 am #

      “Liver and onions?” I love liver and onions. Retract your offensive comment or something worse will come upon you.

      • claire o'sullivan November 29, 2018 at 3:48 pm #

        I agree with Bob. I have never even touched liver and onions, and went to bed without dinner happily. Same goes with caviar and my folks loved both liver/onions and caviar.

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 28, 2018 at 5:25 am #

    Great post, Bob, and I like the metaphor of real-estate prep.

    One thing I’d suggest is to keep a continuity checklist, to avoid inconsistencies, anachronisms, and unexpected ‘rocks tossed in a still pond’, events that seem to come from nowhere; the last happens in life, but shouldn’t happen in fiction as fiction’s supposed to make sense.

    Managing minor characters is also important. In one of my favourite literary exemplars, Wouk’ “The Caine Mutiny”, a wardroom scene shortly after the protagonist, Willie Keith, reports aboard the USS Caine has an interjection from a character named ‘Barrows’, who has not been mentioned before and who is never mentioned again. In context it’s clear that he’s one of the Caine’s officers, but his sudden appearance and his subsequent ignoring are made worse by the fact that he delivers his one line with “a short bark of male laughter’, rather a memorable description that is used nowhere else in the book.

    The fact that I remember this, years after having read the book, speaks not, I think, to my elephantine memory (too many rugby-induced concussions have put paid to THAT), but perhaps more toward a basic ‘good housekeeping’ principle that writers should uphold.

  3. Bob Hostetler
    Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 5:55 am #

    Great point, Andrew. Thanks. (I say that with a short bark of male laughter).

  4. Barbara Ellin Fox November 28, 2018 at 6:20 am #

    I love these three stages. I’m currently going through a fourth stage. I call it death and dissection. It’s where you pull out all the useable parts and save for later! It occurs after sweating through the first three stages and finally realizing the story doesn’t work! Smiling.

  5. Shirlee Abbott November 28, 2018 at 6:38 am #

    As a home-improvement DIY veteran, I understand completely. Rewriting requires many trips to the dumpster–mostly to put junk in, but occasionally to haul out a piece that can be reworked and put to use again.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 7:12 am #

      Yes, Shirlee. Writers must be willing to dumpster-dive. 🙂

  6. Mark Alan Leslie November 28, 2018 at 7:07 am #

    Bob, the Everly Brothers might take umbrage at your willingness to kill all adverbs and adjectives.
    : )

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 7:12 am #

      Tell them to hold their umbrage. I didn’t say “kill all.” I highlight all adverbs and adjectives, and then remove most. They still have their function.

      • Mark Alan Leslie November 29, 2018 at 3:56 pm #

        I left the brothers your message and they’ve called off their bodyguards. Thanks, Bob.

  7. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D November 28, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    Thanks so much for this blog posting, Bob! The fact that you used Chip and Joanna Gaines as your example really helped (as opposed to a college prof I had who only used football examples. I know nothing about football – or microeconomics, as it turned out). Superb help!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 9:33 am #

      To be fair, most of my examples are baseball-related. But Chip sometimes wears a ball cap, so….

  8. Judith Robl November 28, 2018 at 7:52 am #

    Thank you, Bob, for this clear list of well-defined, unique writing tasks.

    Although you didn’t mention it, After your adjectives/adverbs list, I’m fairly certain you also check for repeated words and phrases.

    Just a hint, I’d like to look at your list of ten self-editing exercises, and I’m betting that a number of regular readers would appreciate a post of that nature. That is, unless you’ve already done it, and I missed it somewhere.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 9:34 am #

      Judith, I haven’t yet blogged about my self-editing tasks. But may soon do so. 🙂

      • Judith Robl November 28, 2018 at 11:20 am #

        Waiting with bated breath (not the “baited breath” I’m forever correcting in manuscripts).

        Thanks in advance.

      • Judi Clarke December 3, 2018 at 8:40 am #

        Thanks for this helpful post, Bob. I too would love to know your self-editing exercises. I have a few of my own and am sure I’m missing some expert ones I should add. I look forward to learning yours.

  9. Jaime November 28, 2018 at 8:22 am #

    This post was very helpful for me. I have no issues re-writing and editing my work, but I do often get off-track and either blend the tasks together or jump from one to another. And of course, that’s how things get missed. The way you explained it here helps me to keep each process separate.
    Thank you!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 9:35 am #

      They’re all related, of course, so it’s easy to blend them, but for many writers it’s crucial to keep them separate.

  10. Jeanne Takenaka November 28, 2018 at 8:23 am #

    Thank you, Bob, for your explanation about the phases of a manuscript’s process. 🙂 I find the rewriting step the most challenging, but it seems like, with each manuscript, I better understand how to rewrite more effectively.

    And, I’m with the other commenter . . . the Chip and Joanna Gaines illustration was so helpful!

  11. Richard New November 28, 2018 at 9:01 am #

    All of the post-draft tasks are great things to do, even mandatory, in my opinion.

    But what do you do when you’ve honed all that to the best of your ability and the acquisition editors still reject the piece? And provide zero information as to why?

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 9:43 am #

      It is frustrating, isn’t it? Though acquisitions editors aren’t obligated to explain their decisions or offer feedback to writers, it can be so difficult all around to understand why a well-crafted piece of writing doesn’t get accepted. Sometimes it’s timing. And it’s such a subjective business that there may be no easily-quantifiable reason. But the “what do you do” question is much easier to answer: You keep writing. You start the next project. And, if need be, the one after that, and so on. You’re going to be writing next year anyway, so might as well keep moving. And maybe that universally-rejected piece becomes marketable down the road…and maybe it doesn’t. The only way to stay sane (except for those of us for whom that ship sailed long ago) is to control the things we can control (producing quality writing in a marketable genre, primarily) and not try to control what we can’t control (market realities, timing, publishers’ preferences, etc.). Maybe.

      • Richard New November 29, 2018 at 6:21 pm #

        Yes, its frustrating. Even after reading a lot of items on this web site about all the possible reasons, I still find that not notifying an author stinks. Even in this digital age where communication is so easy, editors are not required by the industry to say “yes, we accept the MS,” or “no, we reject the MS,” or anything. The poor author is left blowing in the wind of indecision, whipped back and forth with “maybe,” “what if?,” or “perhaps,”

        It’s disgusting, really. Especially for a Christian publishing house. Seems like they are forgetting some of Christ’s teachings, like: do unto others the way you would like them to do unto you, be kind, don’t mislead, think and act in nice, goodly ways, etc.

        Bob, you mentioned that the lack of a definite rejection is just part of the landscape. Well, in my honest opinion, the landscape needs to be bulldozed and raised to a higher standard. Rejection is one thing and it’s expected most of the time. But there is something slimy and devilish about being ignored.

        A simple “sorry, this isn’t for us,” or “the market’s not right for this,” or “something” would be, at the very least, helpful. Being ignored in the digital today, is plain satanic. It needs fixing.

  12. Carol Ashby November 28, 2018 at 9:14 am #

    This is a great description of the process, Bob. Perhaps it’s not rewriting per se, but I find my betas and critique partner can sometimes identify a place where inserting one extra scene focused on the antagonist can ramp up the tension/suspense if I’ve focused too long on the protagonist. Most of the time when I’m editing, I’m tightening, but those extra scenes can add a lot to the build-up to the climax.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler November 28, 2018 at 9:44 am #

      Good word, Carol. Rewriting does often include insertions as well as deletions.

    • claire o'sullivan November 29, 2018 at 6:58 pm #

      agreed! Last year left a critique group (gained a stalker which was weird at best), and have cruised for other critique groups so far without success. My Beta group was on the same site 🙁 but yes, critiques and a good beta will really help polish up a manuscript. I keep going through, ‘is this sentence necessary, needed, tight? What about the paragraph? The scene? Does the reader want to turn the page?’ Without a critique group sometimes our eyes just gloss glaring errors over.

  13. Loretta Eidson November 28, 2018 at 10:04 am #

    As they say, truth hurts! Each step in the writing process takes time, but we mustn’t skip steps when it comes to perfecting our manuscripts. My recent rewrite resulted in deleting over 6,000 words. Surprisingly I’m happier with the new version.

  14. Jennifer Mugrage November 28, 2018 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks for this clarification. I’ve never really understood the difference between editing and proofreading, maybe because I tend to do both at the same time, iteratively. That’s because whether the needed change is word choice, a missing word, or a punctuation error, I can’t bring myself to leave it for another pass lest I fail to see it the next time.

    I’ve found that trying to spell-check and accept or reject changes for a whole document at once is a monotonous task that leads to eye fatigue and hence, error. So now, whenever I finish a new chunk (usually about 1000 words), I immediately run spelling/grammar check on it so that I know it’s been looked at at least once before it goes to beta readers.

    My worst proofreading errors tend to come in the most intense scenes. If I try to proofread, I get carried away by the emotion, read what I intended instead of what I actually wrote, and blow right by the errors.

    As for rewriting, I tend to do that, iteratively, while drafting. (I test as the most disorganized personality on most tests.) I do keep notes so I don’t mess up characters’ ages or even lose track of entire characters like Andrew mentioned.

  15. L. K. Simonds November 28, 2018 at 11:01 am #

    Hi, all!

    For me, rewriting is the most difficult task because to do it properly, I have to have learned some things I didn’t know when I wrote the early drafts. Unfortunately, I don’t know what I don’t know, so how do I set about to learn? By the grace of God is my best guess.

    In my first novel, I had to learn how the protagonist would behave in the latter part of the book, which was not how I had written her in the early drafts. I also had to learn how to bring out the internal conflicts of a secondary character without going into that character’s POV.

    In my second novel, I had to identify the dynamic that drives the characters and their collective story forward. (It has a name.) I thought I knew what it was, but it turned out that I did not. Now I’m working to make that single thing present in the subtext throughout the novel.

    In the case of each of these manuscripts, dormant time (years) passed between the early drafts and the rewrite – I’ll call it the defining rewrite – at the end of which this weird, inexplicable learning occurred and I had an epiphany.

    Bob, I would add an edit by a professional to your list. At least a copy edit. Hopefully, by an editor who “gets” what the writer is trying to do. My editor enhanced my first novel so much that her fee was a pittance compared to what she contributed.

    Finally, to proofreading. A lot of people may feel it’s overkill, but I advocate hiring a professional proofreader. They catch mistakes that get past editors and writers. They make sure word usage is consistent and that the CMoS and publisher’s guidelines are followed.

    I can’t say enough about the value of teaming up with the right professionals. How can two walk together unless they are agreed? And how can a project as major as a book be successful without a single, focused vision?

    This much I’ve learned so far.

  16. Renee Garrick November 28, 2018 at 11:05 am #

    Thanks for breaking it down like this. While I can focus on one or another task when editing or proofreading for others, in my own writing, I tend to blend those tasks into a series of rabbit trails.

  17. Cindy Fowell November 28, 2018 at 11:33 am #

    Bob, thank you for this information. Now I know I’m rewriting, not editing. For me that is freeing. I tend to jump to the editing too soon and get discouraged.
    Also thanks to those who commented above. I learn from your posts as well.

  18. Roberta Sarver November 28, 2018 at 8:16 pm #

    Okay, about the liver and onions: I’ll gladly retract my offensive statement about onions. They’re great. But liver–well, my first reaction to eating liver is, “Yeck!” followed by gag reflex, excessive salivating, stomach roiling…you get the picture. But I truly respect people who can keep liver down, and live to tell about it.

    -Hope this un-offends those liver-loving writers who read this. (Chuckle)

  19. Tisha Martin November 29, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    It’s often surprising at how much we can self-edit our own manuscript before passing it along to our editor, beta readers, mentor, etc.

    Excellent blog post, Bob. Thank you for sharing.

  20. claire o'sullivan November 29, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

    Hi Bob

    I agree with your list, and the lists of other post-ers. And I am glad to see that I am not the only one whose ‘ship has sailed.’

    I use a critique group, a beta group, edit, edit, edit (this is ad nauseum for a newbie), rewrite, rewrite, rewrite (I think I should say the rewrite comes first). I print the manuscript and tag inconsistent scenes, poor syntax, too much fluff, too many adverbs. Red mark it to pieces. I write they synopsis because that can sum up in 1-3 pages a faux pax or more. I use a program like ProWriter Aid to help, though it is tiresome.

    Then when happy enough, I put it through an e-reader. I use a free one, which has funny voices (Natural Reader which is not at all natural for the free), and I follow along in my MS, correcting as I go.

    Then, proofreading and copyedit afterward (by a pro). OK. So true confession here, I’m not yet published. I am considering a professional writing coach. Also, am reading ‘It was the Best of Sentences, it was the Worst of Sentences,’ which is causing me fits and starts. Good book. I hate it. J/K.

    When I cannot stand rewriting any longer, I put it down for 2 weeks and do something else or start a different novel (i.e. work on rewrites of a different novel).

    Polished? Not yet. But hope to get there before I am 97.

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