Alright, so I’ve talked about my disagreement with this piece of writing advice here on my blog before, but the time for moderation is out. I’m taking a hard stance. This is a horrible piece of advice and, in fact, the exact opposite of it is true.
You’ve probably run across this piece of advice if you read writing blogs or following different writing-themed tumblrs, or just a lot a lot of writers on social media. This advice goes something like ‘don’t reread your work in progres, just keep writing onward, no looking back’ with the idea that rereading is distracting, disheartening, a time waster, or will lead to cycles of rewriting/editing that compromises writing any new stuff or finishing projects.
And, le sigh, I find this entire sentiment garbage, unhelpful, and completely antithetic to what I find helpful for my writing progress.
Now, I know I just said this was a hard stance, but I will put in my one caveat. Always rewriting beginnings and never finishing anything is a detriment to writing, but I believe that is a separate issue that rereading. If you can’t reread without needing to open a new document for a new draft then maybe you shouldn’t reread, but that’s not rereadings fault. Rereading, in fact, can be very helpful.
Why Rereading Your ‘Works in Progress’ is Good For Your Writing
1) It gets you back into the flow, man.
If you are sitting down to write for the day, working on an in-progress work and you can just pick up where you left off with no refresher, than I commend you. It is a rare day that I can do that and only if I have a new scene well-imagined and ready to go inside my skull. Rereading the last few paragraphs, the last full scene, or even farther back, can help you, the writer, to pick up the threads of the plot/characters/themes.
2) It reminds you of things you forgot.
Rereading from the beginning of your work in progress, whether its a short story or a novel-length work (or some length in between) will knock you in the head with details you had dropped earlier in the story and then forgot. Don’t feel bad about forgetting. The writing process takes longer than reading does, so use that reading speed to your advantage. Rereading may help you discover a character quirk, a plot detail, or thematic element that you had started to develop but hadn’t followed up on yet. When you get to your new writing for the day… Well it’s finally time to follow up, punks.
3) It inspires new ideas.
Hey, sometimes when you reread you see a detail that you hadn’t forgot, but one you had just put in there incidentally… and you’ll be all like… ‘Fuck, what if I turned that into a thing?!’ It’s the same point as above but more about the happy accidents you the writer takes advantage of. When you build on ideas set up earlier in the text that employs a whole bunch of great writing techniques: foreshadowing, build ups and payoffs, reveals, narrative parallels, and all that great stuff that makes for good plot, themes, and/or character development.
And another thing) Building on these last three points, if you have a writers block (or whatever else you might call it), when you get back into the flow, discover old ideas left unexplored, and discover new ideas… well, that’s all fertile ground to break through that writer's block, isn’t it?
Writing original stories is enough of a process of working from scratch. Don’t make it harder by divorcing your process from all the hard work you’ve already done. Writing is not just new idea followed by new idea. It is ideas that build on and tangle with and reflect on each other.
Stop eschewing reading, and instead embrace it as a preparatory step of writing.
There are two intersecting, commonly espoused pieces of novel writing advice I see online that I disagree with.
One - Don’t reread your novel while it’s in process, just keep writing!
Two - Don’t rewrite anything in your novel while it’s in process, just keep writing!
I can understand the philosophies behind these. Purely guessing, these might have some roots in NaNoWriMo novel writing practices, where the focus is lots of words and forward motion. This also can be good advice for writers who struggle with finishing their novels, instead focusing on just polishing up the beginning or starting new projects whenever the lumps of a novel’s forward progress gets in the way. So it’s not that this is bad for all writers in all occasions, just that its general pronouncement as writing advice for all, as it is often framed, is wrong. I, personally, have rewritten and reread in ways that have helped me overcome writer's block and even finish my novel drafts.
When To ReRead Your In-Progress Novel
1 - When you’ve hit a writer’s block. Not a temporary writer’s block of an hour, or a day or two, but a longer term one. Rereading what you’ve written thus far can provide clarity. It reminds you what you’ve written, for one, and can provide inspiration. In a reread perhaps you’ll see a plot threat you dropped that you now want to pick back up. Perhaps a throwaway detail becomes a clue to a new twist in the story.
2 - Just “maybe sometimes” during the novel writing process, *if* you finds that rereading benefits you as a writer as opposed to the other option of just barrelling ahead. Novels are long and often complex with characters, subplots, and themes; they often take long stretches of time to complete. Sometimes the writers needs to review what they’ve written thus far just to keep themselves abreast of it all.
When To ReWrite Your In-Progress Novel
1 - For immediate small corrections. Author Dean Wesley Smith, who offers some great insights into writing and publishing on his website blog that you should totally check out, employs a writing practice he calls cycling in which he writes some, then ‘cycles’ back to reread, add, and edit in the passage, page, or chapter he had just written. This is something many writers probably do automatically in the age of writing on word processors that allow such convenience as opposed to writing in the era of quills or typewriters, where corrections and additions would be quite burdensome. This immediate correction option also works longer range. Say you decide to change a detail in chapter fifteen that was first mentioned in chapter three. It might be good to back to chapter three rewrite that detail while it’s on your mind and you don’t forget to later.
2 - For big plot holes. This is one I have personal experience with. If you discover a plot hole in your story when you write, there is little purpose to burgeon forward without fixing it. For one, that makes the ending your writing null and void. For two, because you know the ending your writing is null and void, it can make you uninspired to finished it. This is also true if it’s not a plot hole but just a major plot point you want to change. Depending on the structure of the story, it does not necessarily mean back to the drawing board or back to the first sentence. It could mean that… or it could mean just changing up a few scenes.
No writing advice is universally applicable. It changes per writer, per project, per change in the direction of the wind. Rereading and rewriting your novel in progress can be something that hangs you up, or it could be something that gives your the inspiration and clarity to go on. Only flexibility, the willingness to experiment, and learning about your own preferred process will reveal which it is for you.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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