Can re-writing be harmful?

Last night I began tackling a chapter that has been a problem for a long time. I first wrote a version of it over a year ago, and another version was workshopped in January. It got mixed reviews in class, and my professor/thesis advisor, who is normally mild in his criticism (sometimes too mild!) was surprisingly dismissive of this chunk of text. I have struggled to rewrite the piece over and over, but it remains a collection of mismatched sections and I am always trying to force a common theme on them by adding a few sentences here and there. I have reordered the sections, dropped sections, added sections and reworded sections. And still, this chapter is not successful.

This morning, in a last-minute attempt to fix it before my thesis is due, I started reworking it again. I began by thinking that the third section of the chapter should be the first, but then paused. Hadn’t that section once been at the beginning?

I opened my handy file of previous drafts and found one from last October — frankly, I didn’t remember that this chapter even existed way back then — that included many of the same sections that are still in the chapter…with one noticeable difference: They were better! More emotion, more tension, a whole entire subplot that has since disappeared but which adds, I now think, a lot of depth to the chapter.

Which makes me wonder….can editing and rewriting harm more than they help? As I read over three previous versions of this chapter, I see that I edited out all feeling, streamlined the action to the point of blandness, and cut out some telling interactions. Why? And since I am now going to weave many of those previous cuts back into the chapter as I restructure it, what was the point?

I suppose that one could argue that it took all of those rewrites (Five? At least five that I saved) to help me see what the chapter needs. But man, think of all the time and anguish I might have saved if I had just gone with the first version! Argh.

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One thought on “Can re-writing be harmful?

  1. This is a question that’s making me think a bit–I wonder what the rewrites/edits are in response to? I suppose that’s a driving factor in whether editing/rewriting can help or hurt. As I’m in teh middle of revising my novel, and as I HATE revising…those are my only thoughts on teh matter for today.

    I like to believe that eventually we get to the ideal draft, and however long that takes, is how long it takes. Kind of like how one of my mentors told me, “Something you have to write crap to get to teh good stuff.” So as I (ahem) have those days where I write crap after crap, I keep thinking, “Man, the good stuff must be REALLY good. ” :P

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