Later Drafts: Writing From Memory

How many times, when setting out to edit/revise a piece of writing have you lost yourself in your own prose, enjoying the story once again as a reader, rather than an editor?

It happens all the time to me.

True, it’s an excellent sign if you’re able to captivate yourself, and there will be moments when you know a scene is sizzling because your heart races every time you review that particular section.

Yet if you’re editing, you know from your critique group and the friends who you’ve let read this piece that it does need work.  You just can’t seem to easily separate what works from what doesn’t and you’re making lots of drafts, all with minimal changes.

This could be your solution.

The following editing technique requires a good deal of mental preparation at the onset, but creates a much tighter draft at the end.

Do this in a room with no distractions.

Writing from Memory

  1. Collect all of the comments and feedback you’ve had on this piece.  Type them up to make them easy to read.  Read these several times.
  2. Print out the piece that you will edit (I don’t recommend more than a few pages or one scene at a time, in order to keep your task manageable).
  3. Read over it and take a highlighter to accentuate any sections you feel are strong and worth keeping.
  4. Read this scene/chapter/section to yourself at least twice.
  5. Now flip that scene face down on your desk and write it again, making sure to get all of the highlighted sections and implementing all of the desired changes from your critique partners.

Guess what happens?  The paragraphs, dialogue and descriptions that weren’t doing anything for you will suddenly vanish.

Rather than painstakingly going through a scene that’s only sort of working, rewriting it from memory and keeping only the strongest parts as your skeletal structure will do this for you.

Once you have your newly written version of the scene, you can check it against your highlighted old draft.  If there’s anything fantastic that you highlighted in your old draft and forgot to bring into the new version, you can carefully consider adding it in to the new draft, but respect your memory. It really will distill the essentials for you if you let it.  After all, it’s your story, isn’t it?

Try this technique on something short.  It works best if you have a sheet of feedback and planned-for changes already on hand so that you know your trajectory (rather than rewriting a scene with the nebulous goal to just “make it better”).

This exercise can feel intimidating and uncomfortable if you’ve never done it before.  Are you afraid to lose your beautiful prose?  Do you think your brain will never remember all the nuances?  Any folks out there who’ve tried this technique and can share about it?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I think this is a neat idea, but I would be really scared to try it. My novel is 80,000 words, and I can’t even remember where I left my keys. I would need to reread each section maybe five times for this to work. Maybe I will try it though, if I find a scene that I think really needs new life.

    Thanks for the tip.

    1. Liz,
      I’m glad that this was helpful to you. Rewriting is far easier when you have a good chunk of feedback (that makes sense to you) from a critique group. Then you have an idea of where to take the rewrite. Plus, you’ll have discussed the particular scene with your group which will make the details stick even better in your mind. This is still a scary thing for me to do too, by the way. It takes practice and the choice to trust your own mind. Good luck!

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