It’s the writer’s best friend or worst nightmare: the page one rewrite. You’ve written a draft (or several!), and yet you’re opening up a blank document to begin your story again.
While it might look (and sometimes feel) like you’re going backwards, in reality, this is some of the most significant editing progress you can make.
In this article, I talked about what it really looks like to make progress when you’re editing your novel.
And I used an analogy: the way we like to imagine progress is linear, like a road trip from New York to California. You start, you get on the road, you go straight there. It’s a long journey, but it’s a pretty much straight line, and then you get to your destination.
But in reality, editing a novel is a lot more like you’re climbing a spiral staircase. If you’re looking at it from above, you just look like you’re going around in circles over and over and over and staying pretty much in the same place. Doing the same thing. Working on the same piece of text over and over and over.
But if you look at it from the side, you’ll see the truth that you’re actually making progress, going upwards with every single cycle.
I go into a lot more depth about that here, which I highly recommend that you go check out.
In this article, though, I want to talk about a specific kind of editing progress that can be a little hard to embrace as progress. Which is why I think it deserves an entire article all its own.
I want to talk about the page one rewrite.
What Is a Page One Rewrite?
Let’s start off with a definition of terms.
A page one rewrite is when you write a draft of your manuscript, and then you read through your manuscript and you find a lot of structural problems to fix. You create a plan for all of these changes that you’re going to make in your next draft.
And then, as you’re making this plan, you decide that actually this next draft is going to be really, really different from the draft that you currently have. There might be some lines or scenes or some elements that are going to be the same, but on the whole, it’s a pretty significant change.
You could open up your original draft of the manuscript and work hard at reshaping it to fit this new plan.
But you decide that actually, it will be easier and more effective to open a new document and start writing your next draft as a completely fresh manuscript.
You’re starting a page one rewrite, where you write a completely new draft of your novel rather than making changes to your previous draft.
When Do You Do a Page One Rewrite?
I’ll note here that a page one rewrite can happen at any point in the developmental editing process.
It often happens between early drafts, because you just discover so much about your story when you’re going from draft one to draft two.
Another common time when writers choose to do a page one rewrite is after receiving significant editorial feedback.
A developmental editor can help you unearth major structural issues that you didn’t see, even in a fourth or a fifth or a sixth draft. And in those cases, even though the writer is many drafts into the editing process, they might decide a page one rewrite is the best way to incorporate that new vision.
Why You Might Not Love the Page One Rewrite (Yet!)
Now, you probably don’t need me to tell you that this editing strategy is often met with resistance. You might even feel a visceral reaction to all this in your body—a sort of “that sounds awful” rejection of the idea.
After all, you know how hard you worked to get your current draft down on paper! You know how much time and thought and energy and effort it took to write every single word.
To suggest that those words aren’t the words you’ll use—that you won’t be making changes to the existing manuscript, but writing an entirely new manuscript all over again—can make it feel like all that time and energy was wasted.
If you’re imagining your editing process as a linear journey, this feels like you drove from New York all the way to Colorado, only to turn back around, go all the way back to New York, and start again.
It feels like undoing your work. Throwing away everything you’ve achieved so far. Erasing every word you’ve written.
And that’s incredibly defeating. A real bummer.
Who wants their writing process to feel like that?
Here’s the thing, though: while all these feelings are understandable, this isn’t how I as an editor think about a page one rewrite at all.
Let me give you a different vision for a page one rewrite.
Why I Love the Page One Rewrite
Honestly, when writers tell me they’ve decided to do a page one rewrite of their novel, I get really excited. I’m so happy for them. I celebrate that as one of the biggest steps forward they can make in their editing process.
And here’s why:
Your developmental editing process is all about getting a clear vision for what your book is ultimately going to become, and then executing that vision on the page. This is why it’s called developmental editing—you’re developing your idea.
And the developmental editing process can take a long time because it is really dang hard to get clarity around your vision.
When Do Writers Clarify Their Vision?
Some writers spend a lot of time planning their novels before they write their first drafts. They frontload the discovery and vision-casting into the planning process.
I’m currently studying a book coaching methodology created by Jennie Nash, book coach extraordinaire. She developed a process called Blueprint for a Book to guide writers through all this up-front discovery before they write. It’s a really great process, and when she coaches writers through the blueprint, she spends four to eight weeks helping them make sure their blueprint is really, really solid before they ever begin writing their manuscript.
You don’t have to do all that work up front (although it does have a lot of benefits!). Some writers prefer to discover their stories as they write. This is the world of pantsers who write “by the seat of their pants” through their first drafts to find out what their stories will be.
Once pantsers have that draft in hand, they have material on the page. Then the even larger step begins: figuring out what their vision is for what all that material can become.
And sometimes, whether they’ve pantsed or planned, writers decide to make a major pivot in their novel a few drafts in. Maybe they get significant feedback from an editor, or maybe they discover something really important about their story that they missed before, or maybe their reason for writing or their goal for the book changes.
And then they have more discovery ahead of them to figure out what the vision will be for this next version of their book.
No matter where you are in the developmental editing process, it’s all about getting clarity about your vision so that you can execute that vision on the page.
And the challenge of the developmental editing process is that once you have material on the page, it’s easy to get attached to it.
3 Ways to Get Attached to the Material You’ve Already Written
You can be attached to your existing material for a lot of reasons. But there are three reasons in particular I want to highlight.
1. Writing what you’ve created so far was hard!
First, of course you’re attached to it because you know how much work it was to get it down on the page.
2. You created some awesome things!
You’re also attached to it because once you got it down on the page, you discovered some things you really liked. You created a fun new character. You wrote a clever plot twist. You crafted some witty banter worthy of Emily Henry.
There are parts of this manuscript you really love, and it’s easy to lose the focus on your big-picture vision and instead start trying to enhance these great parts.
3. Your existing material limits your imagination.
But there’s one more way in which you’re attached to your existing material—and this one is the most insidious, and the thing that makes a page one rewrite so powerful.
The thing is, once you have material on the page, your imagination for your story narrows.
When you’re looking at something that already exists, what you see is what’s already there and the ways you can adjust it—the little tweaks this way or that to make it stronger.
That’s great if the words that are already on the page are in line with your vision. But if they’re not, they’re actually trapping you, limiting your imagination from seeing all the possibilities before you.
It’s way, way more difficult to imagine something entirely new when you’re focusing on what already exists.
The Power of the Page One Rewrite
And this is why I love the page one rewrite. Because when you embrace the blank page, you create space for your vision to emerge.
When writers tell me they are choosing to embark on a page one rewrite, I celebrate. Because what they’re really telling me is that they are fully embracing unhooking themselves from what is so they can create space for what can be.
These writers have clarity around their vision—so much clarity, in fact, that they don’t want to wrestle against a manuscript that they know doesn’t match that vision, and they don’t want to risk losing that vision by directing their focus to the words they’ve already written and the ideas they’ve already tried.
They have the kind of clarity that they know will carry them through an entire manuscript. They can picture what that manuscript will be at the end.
They honor the work they’ve done so far, the work that brought them to this point of clarity—and they have the courage to open a fresh document and begin a new manuscript.
What About All the Work You’ve Done so Far?
In fact, I want to pause there for a moment and talk about that work they’ve done so far.
Remember, in our road trip analogy, the page one rewrite means driving from New York to Colorado and then turning around to undo all your progress and go back to the beginning.
But that’s not really how editing works. If you picture editing like a spiral staircase, the page one rewrite is like completing one full revolution around that staircase.
You’ve gone around in an entire circle, and you’re standing directly over the bottom stair, the one you began with. But now, you’re one floor, or two floors, or five floors higher up.
You’re not in the same place anymore. You’re not actually starting over completely from scratch. You’re climbing higher and higher and higher in your tower, never going backwards, passing over your starting point again and again, but a level higher each time.
In fact, my friend and fellow editor Kim Kessler likes to say that “there’s no such thing as a page one rewrite because you can never know less than you did when you first started.”
You are never actually going back to the beginning. You’re never seeing New York again. The reason why you’re able to get the clarity about your vision that you need is precisely because of all the work you did in your previous draft (or previous many drafts!).
We’re not undoing anything or throwing any work away. In fact, we’re building upon it and adding to it.
It’s just that the specific strategy that will most help you do that at this point is to open a blank document and allow what you know about your story now to pour out onto the page afresh.
2 Tips for Your Page One Rewrite
If you’re listening to this and thinking, you know, maybe a page one rewrite is what I need, then I have two tips for you to help you make the most of your rewrite.
1. Clarify your vision before you write.
The first tip is this: before you embark on your page one rewrite, make sure that you do the work of clarifying your vision first.
The page one rewrite is most powerful when you go into it knowing exactly what you’re trying to create next. So spend time—days or even weeks—working through your story development and clarifying your vision so that you know exactly what to write.
Don’t pants your way through this as another discovery draft. You already wrote the discovery draft and discovered your story.
The page one rewrite is your chance to execute your vision with intention. That means doing the work of developmental editing first:
- Make a scene list that reflects your current manuscript,
- Identify what’s not working in your story,
- Figure out what needs to change in order to solve those problems,
- And plan the changes on your scene list.
I want you to walk into your page one rewrite with intention and clarity, a solid plan in hand. You have earned that clear plan by doing the work of writing your previous drafts. Don’t shortchange yourself!
2. Save your previous drafts!
And the second tip is this: just because you’re starting your next draft from a blank page doesn’t mean you have to burn everything you’ve already written!
Make sure to save your previous drafts in a nice cozy file on your computer where they can rest happily, knowing they’ve done their jobs of bringing you to this point of clarity.
After you finish your page one rewrite, you might decide that there are hidden gems from your previous drafts that you want to bring into your latest manuscript. And since all your drafts are safely stored away, you’ll be able to pull them back out and find exactly the pieces you want to keep.
The beauty of this is that it gives you all the spacious opportunity to create fresh material in your page one rewrite, and then, once you know what that new draft becomes, you can strategically pull in specific elements from your previous manuscripts.
Now, your old drafts are working for you to enhance your imagination rather than keeping you stuck within the limits of what you’ve already created.
Celebrate Your Editing Progress!
Above all, what I hope you’re hearing throughout this whole article is that a page one rewrite is editing progress. In fact, more than that, I believe a page one rewrite is such significant editing progress that it’s worthy of celebration.
It indicates that your vision is now so clear and you’re taking such a significant step forward that it is worthwhile to create space for that vision by opening up a blank document and rewriting the entire story.
There’s no loss or failure or shame there. That’s progress. That’s success.
The page one rewrite is so challenging to embrace. But it’s so, so worth it.
Remember that when you embrace a page one rewrite, what you’re saying is that you are not so attached to what you’ve already written that you are unable to see the potential your story holds.
You’re choosing to set aside anything that could be a distraction from that potential.
You’re choosing to create space for the next and even better version of your story to bloom on the page.
And you’re recognizing that in order to give that vision the space it needs to flourish, it needs to start from a blank page.
Embrace the Cyclical Nature of Editing
I hope that this helps you embrace all the many forms that editing progress can take, including the forms of editing progress that might look like going all the way back to the beginning. It is okay, wonderful even, if your editing progress looks from the outside like you’re going all the way back to the beginning.
Remember, it is not a road trip. It’s a spiral staircase. And even when it feels like you’re going back to the beginning, you are actually leveling up and up and up.
And your manuscript will only benefit as you embrace the possibility that opens up when you let go of what is and create space for what can be.