“You Have a Question? I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.
Q: What is the difference between rewriting and editing? To me, rewriting sounds like starting with a new, blank page. Editing is going through and proofreading, making sure that plot sequencing and continuity work, and making sure that everything makes sense and remains engaging throughout the work. Clarification there would be helpful. -E.B.
A: When agents and others in the writing and publishing industries mention rewriting, they aren’t necessarily talking about starting with a clean slate. I mean, sometimes they are, but not always.
These two terms are used somewhat interchangeably because they tend to be intertwined. In fact, I would say rewriting is actually the umbrella under which editing falls because you almost can’t have one without the other. However, I suppose it depends what kind of editing you mean.
Line editing is more like proofreading. When line editing, you go through, line by line, and check for grammatical, spelling, punctuation, and formatting errors—and generally, that’s it.
Copy editing takes the aforementioned into account (what good editor doesn’t notice those things?), but this is where you look at everything as a whole and focus more on character, plot, cohesiveness, sequencing, etc. Chances are, if you are wired to do either of these things well, you probably cannot completely shut off your grammar/spelling/formatting switch when you’re trying to focus on the piece as whole, and that is how these two become intertwined.
Rewriting is something that happens whenever the writing transforms.
You almost can’t have one of these without another (unless you scrap the whole thing and begin again at page one) because if you find that you need to alter something with plot sequencing or character, it’s usually not just a matter of changing one word. You fix those things by weaving in new details in various places of your novel, and you omit what doesn’t work. Any time you tighten a paragraph or clean up a sentence, your original manuscript becomes something else—transforms into something better. Translation: You are rewriting.
One example of something that toes the line between editing and rewriting is replacing passive verbs with active verbs. Say you notice that you’ve used mostly passive verbs throughout your manuscript. If that’s the case, you must rewrite because those are countless opportunities for revision.
Let’s take a look at a very basic example.
She is drinking the tea.
This is a passive sentence in that we’ve used a passive verb form here (present progressive form, for my grammar nerds out there). We can do a number of things with this sentence, but even using an active verb can transform the writing.
She drinks the tea.
OK, so here, we’ve kept it in present tense, and we’ve cut down a whole word. If you’ve got a manuscript chockfull of is/are/was/were, cutting down on just that one word per sentence will add up big time. Paring down word count is definitely a transformation. Depending on how much you cut, it can mean the difference between an agent asking for pages or rejecting your query.
But this sentence is kind of boring. Not as much of a transformation as I’d like to see, as it doesn’t give the reader much of an indication about the character. We could certainly use a better verb to convey something more—even if that’s all we change.
She slurps the tea; She sips the tea; She downs the tea; She gulps the tea; She ingests the tea; She swigs the tea; She guzzles the tea.
And so on, and so forth. But you get the idea: One verb can mean the difference between proper and boorish.
Each of these verbs does something more than the original sentence, and—though it may be painstaking to some—it’s these kinds of decisions that make the writing clearer and cleaner.
To me, if you’re putting that kind of time and care into your editing (as we all should be), that goes beyond just editing and fits more into the category of rewriting.
I hope that answers the question!
My favorite editing book—in fact, it changed the way I write and edit—is Bobbie Christmas’s Write in Style.
Christmas’s patented “Find and Refine Method” provides lists of words and phrases to put into Microsoft Word’s “Find” function to make for speedy editing. If you follow her suggestions throughout your entire manuscript, adding, omitting, and revising where necessary, your writing improves 100%.
Unfortunately, it’s out of print, but you can still get it here.