When to reread your work-in-progress

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is delighted to welcome back Connecticut-shoreline author Maddie Dawson, whose novel The Stuff That Never Happened (right) is now out in paperback. A year ago, Maddie gave us insights on creating characters (“Living with Fictional People,” July 27, 2010). In this exclusive new post, she offers her thoughts about reading your own work-in-progress and asks eight other accomplished writers for theirs.

By Maddie Dawson

People think—okay, my friend Sue thinks—that authors have the best jobs of all, because they just sit around keeping themselves entertained reading their own manuscripts.


If she were to peek into my life during writing time (and I will not invite her, or anyone, in to witness that) she would instead see somebody pacing, then obsessively typing for ten minutes, then pacing some more, then checking emails, pacing, typing even more obsessively, drinking iced tea, typing, making more iced tea, and then perhaps scrolling back through the day’s pages, followed sometimes by falling on the floor, moaning and groaning, or else doing a little happy dance because things have gone better than expected.

Authors have a dickens of a time reading and rereading their own words because—well, perhaps because nothing is ever quite as perfect in the execution as it was when it bloomed inside our heads, or perhaps because by the time we get to the end of a book, we have read its passages so many times that oftentimes the words feel all used up and dried out.

That being said, we’re also enchanted with reading our work as we go. We have to do it to keep the story moving, of course, but we can’t do it too often lest we get bored with the book before it fully ripens. A dilemma, to be sure.

So I asked some well-known authors just how they handle the when-to-reread problem, and they gave me a fascinating look into their own particular process.

Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You:

I reread all the plonking time. My process (I’m very superstitious) is that I have to have a first chapter I love before I can go on because a good first chapter keeps me from junking the novel as I venture deeper into the jungle of it. I often spend six months just on the first chapter alone, writing and rewriting and rereading. Once I’m past that, it’s a little different. I have to keep moving forward in my first draft, so I assign myself sections or chapters to push through, but I always reread.

Not only do I reread, but I trick myself into seeing what I’ve written with fresh eyes by writing it in a different font! Sometimes I’ll read it aloud. Sometimes I’ll paste it into a textbox on email and read it there! But in early drafts I won’t stay on one section more than a week before I just push on. My goal is to get the book written. And by the way, I usually do about ten to fifteen drafts and I reread and reread every single one of them.

Meredith Maran, author of My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, (nonfiction) and whose debut novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, comes out next year:

Fiction and nonfiction are so different for me. With my novel, it wasn’t so much a matter of rereading as much as rewriting. I wrote the first precious five pages and then I showed them to 100,000 people. It was like, “I wrote five pages of a novel! Can you believe it?” I actually felt it was so important to get a good start on it, and then I was able to keep going. Every time I reread it, I changed it so completely.

Katharine Weber, author of The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities:

When I am writing a novel, each day my first act of writing is rereading the entire sections or chapter that I’m working on, which might be as much as 20 or 30 pages, before I start to write new sentences. It’s a way of finding the rhythm and language of what I have written to that point. It feels like running alongside and then jumping onto a moving train.           

 Hallie Ephron, author of Come and Find Me:

Do I reread my manuscript? I do it all the time and at every step along the way. It’s my favorite thing to do instead of writing first drafts! After I’ve typed “The End” for the first time—and what a glorious moment that is!—I set the manuscript aside for a few weeks so when I pick it up again, I’m reading with fresh eyes. The next time I read it through, I want to be thinking like a reader, not a writer. To do that, I have to make myself put away the “blue pencil” and NOT line edit as I read. Because now I want to see the big picture and understand what’s working and what’s not. Excising of nits and warts will come in a final read-through, and with most works in progress, it will take many weeks to get to that point.

Kristan Higgins, author of the New York Times and USA Today bestseller, My One and Only:

I read what I wrote the day before, fix it as best I can in that moment, then trudge onward. When I’ve completed the first draft, I read it all the way through, mark it up with red pen, slashing, hacking, burning. Then one more time for a polish, and it’s off to the agent.

Ann Hood, author of the bestseller The Red Thread:

My policy is that when I sit down to write, I read aloud whatever I wrote the day before. Otherwise, I read the pages either when I hit an obstacle or every hundred pages or so.

Lucy Burdette, author of the upcoming An Appetite for Murder:

Rereading is my go-to procrastination technique—which happens more often than I wish it did! I almost always start the day rereading a part of what I wrote the day before—it reminds me where I was and where I should be headed. All told, I would guess I’ve read each paragraph ten or more times—but not the book as a whole. When I finally get some semblance of a draft done, I like to let it sit for a couple of weeks so I can come back with fresh eyes.

Alice Mattison, author of Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and of When We Argued All Night, which will be released in 2012:

 When a story or novel is done, I read it two or three times, rewriting, show it to friends, then rewrite, read once more, rewrite again. . . . I print out everything and scribble on paper. It helps to put it aside between bouts for a few days or weeks.  The best revising I ever did was on a group of stories. I didn’t look at them—because I was writing a novel—for three years.  When I finally read them, it was as if someone else had written them.  I didn’t even remember the endings, and revised easily and radically.

Published in: on August 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oh good, that sounds just like my day. lol! Had one of those today – revisiting an old MS, spent all day editing it, and at the end of the day decided it was hopeless and I should move on to something else.

  2. I obsess over my work all the time. Once it’s on the page I keep working on it until it’s good.

  3. This is so interesting! I read what I wrote the day before as well. I love how Katharine Weber says “it It feels like running alongside and then jumping onto a moving train.” That’s exactly it! And I love Caroline Leavitt’s process with the first chapter. I may try that out– right now my first chapter is weak, flimsy and meandering. I was trying to find my way into the story, and now that I’m in, that first chapter is just hanging there, hardly pulling its weight.
    Thanks for the great post!

  4. I’m still fighting deep-seated resistance to reading my work out loud. It’s tough enough with my writers group, much less alone at my desk (the dogs are so critical!). But everyone insists it’s necessary, so I’m trying.

    But rereading – absolutely. As many of these talented authors noted, I reread the last few pages or paragraphs to get my mind back into the story, and the voice and rhythym, before moving on. I have to force myself not to get stuck on edits during the first draft. Only by turning off that oh-so-nasty internal editor do I have any chance at getting the whole story down before I talk myself out of it.

    Then yes, set it aside for a bit before rereading in its entirety and editing, editing, editing.

  5. What a great post. It’s always helpful and interesting to learn about how authors approach their work. I tend to take an approach similar to Caroline Leavitt’s — I reread constantly throughout the first draft, and then I reread and revise the full manuscript many, many times. Thanks to all these authors for sharing their insights and to Fairfield CT Public Library for providing a place for them to share!

  6. […] I stumbled upon this link to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog’s. The post, When to Reread Your Work-in-Progress, […]

  7. Wonderful post, and I found all of the ideas for WIP interesting and helpful. Think I’ll try some out.
    Jackie king

  8. I reread my first draft all the way through. By the time my first draft is done at least the first few chapters will have been read by my critique group. My next step is to format and upload the ms to Lulu and then have a copy sent to me. Seeing it in book form is great way to spot things you constantly overlook when editing on a computer screen. I can highlight words, sentences and paragraphs and write out notes. Another method of giving myself new eyes is to convert the ms into the mobi format and read through the novel yet again on my Kindle. With the ereader I can highlight and make notes. An added plus is I can have the ms read to me. The voice is mechanical but in some ways this suits the process. It makes me focus on each word. And like someone else has mentioned, I also find using new fonts and sizes I will find things missed during other edits.

    Just this week I met with the woman who is now my agent. When she said she wanted to do one more read through herself, I had a paperback copy of the ms with me and gave it to her. For a final read for her it was perfect.

    I don’t know how other ereaders work or whether you can do this on them, but the physical print copy is easy. There’s no cost ot upload the ms and give it a cover. The only charge comes when you have it printed and shipped. My 99-100,000 word ms usually costs me about $20 USD and that’s shipping to Canada.

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