Retype Your Story from Scratch. Seriously.
Revising a short story is notoriously difficult. After the trials of the first draft, you’re left with the disheartening prospect of reordering it, deepening it, polishing it—and God knows what else. Faced with this challenge, most writers rightfully stress the importance of focusing on what you have, capitalizing on the work you’ve done so far, slowly improving it step by step. Approaching revision in this way is extremely helpful. First you handle the characters, then the structure, then the dialogue etc. Clearly, this makes things more manageable.
However, working too closely with what you have can create pitfalls as well. When we feel obligated to work on what’s already there we often become paralyzingly fixated on the sunk cost we have in the current text. When you have the draft in front of you, staring you in the face, you keep trying to find the way to make the scenes you have into scenes that work. This can be very distracting. And—more troublingly—it keeps you from envisioning radically different (but better) possibilities. What matters most during revision often isn’t what you have on the page. What matters is what should be on the page. You can always tinker with sentences until they become pretty. But the question in your mind as you revise shouldn’t be: “How can I make these sentences prettier?” It should be: “What would be the ideal sentences for this story—out of all the ones I’m capable of writing?”
Starting over from scratch sounds like an overwhelming solution to this problem, but in reality I’ve found it is often less work in the end—especially with particularly thorny stories. Starting over can liberate you. It allows you to get away from the flawed details that are dominating your attention, allowing you to more seamlessly re-envision the foundation of the story.
For me, the best way to rewrite a story involves retyping it line by line. In a nutshell, I print a draft, make some edits and comments on the hard copy, then begin typing it again (in a brand new Word document). This simple but eye-opening technique is one that Pamela Painter regularly spreads throughout the halls of Emerson College—and for good reason. The basic idea, as she describes it, is that you won’t bother to retype the wasted words. Yet retyping is even more meaningful than that. In addition to siphoning off detritus, retyping makes each draft into a new, more fluid performance of the story. Though I do get a running start by retyping the draft closely at first, I inevitably veer far away from it. The best part of doing this is that it recaptures the momentum of a first draft, but deepens the story at the same time. The feeling is a little hard to explain. In many ways, the story becomes very different. But also—despite the difference—it feels “more like itself.”
Basically, it works like this: if I were to summarize the story in a paragraph, it would sound very similar to the story I had in my previous draft. But if you were to actually read the story, the text itself would be transformed. This transformation occurs because the literary short story isn’t really about what happens in the plot. The literary short story is about how the plot is told, and how the characters are changed by it. In the writing itself, this manifests in what details you linger on, what order you present things in, and how the point-of-view stitches it all together.
By retyping you always find new ways to make your story do several things at once—move the plot forward, provide characterization, deploy the images. As such, your drafts begins to feel more developed, more coherent, more clear, more surprising—more everything. Additionally, this strategy precludes the possibility that you might write an entirely new story—one filled with new (and equally difficult) flaws. Instead, you transport the spirit and intention of the story into a distilled form. Instinctually, you’d think that starting all over would move you further away from finishing. But, in reality, starting all over has moved you closer.
For me, it is only possible to reach the final draft by putting my story through several retyped iterations. In this way, the retyping process begins to resemble ballet practice. Every draft is a rehearsal. You keep retyping the story over and over until you internalize its concerns, its textures, its characters. Each time it becomes clearer and stronger—like a dancer that nails his routine more accurately with each practice run. He keeps practicing, practicing, and practicing until—finally—his muscles know every move by instinct, make every step flawlessly.
A 2014 James Jones First Novel Fellow, Cam Terwilliger's writing has appeared in a number of magazines, including West Branch, Electric Literature, Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine's "15 Under 30." His fiction has also been supported by fellowships from the Fulbright Program, Brown University, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the American Antiquarian Society. A graduate of Emerson College's MFA, he teaches at NYU when he isn't teaching at Grub Street .See other articles by Cam Terwilliger