Novel Revision Strategies: Retyping the Novel Draft

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field


This week, along with spending time with my boys for their spring break, I am working full days on novel revisions. The first 2 days, I was writing new material and then integrating all new “add ons” into the existing draft, then printing it out. Deep breath. Then, yesterday, I decided to try out a whole new strategy for novel revision.

First off, as with other posts in my Novel Revision series, this is a revision strategy intended for a mid-level revision. That is, at least one complete draft has been accomplished (more about that below). If you want other ideas about novel revision, click this link for a full listing of posts in the series or look for links at the end.

If this novel revision strategy doesn’t work, you’ll hear me cursing. But, so far, I can see merit, so let’s try it out.

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Stage in Revisions

The novel draft I am working on has held together as a novel for at least a year and has gone through several revisions to develop the internal and external conflicts, so that I have my permanent story line in place. The characters are fully developed. It is at the revision stage of working together scenes from multiple revisions, purging out weak portions from early drafts, and working toward smoothing out what will be a final version (prayers skyward).

Where did this approach come from?

Within recent weeks, two writers I follow each shared this piece of advice, here in a tweet by Alexander Chee:

By coincidence, I had just heard the same strategy in this New School interview with Anthony Marra, whose Constellation of Vital Phenomena I’ve been reading (look for link to my review of Constellation below):

At about 7:30 into the interview, Anthony answers a question about how he came upon the narrative style of the award-winning novel, in which there are no minor characters.

Explain the Revision Strategy

In sharing how the style came about, Anthony explains his writing process this way:

I retype everything.  That is sort of my revision method: just retyping and retyping. I’ll print out a draft as soon as I’m finished and put it down in front of the keyboard and go back and retype the whole thing…  This process of retyping, I feel like it’s the way some painters paint the same landscape again and again because… you start seeing it more through your memory than through your eyes…”

Wait, What?

Tell me you didn’t say, “retype the whole thing.”

I know. Isn’t “retype the whole thing” the great nightmare we all have of what would happen if the computer crashed, losing all but that one print copy?

Do the math: Type 30 words a minute? Maybe you’re lucky and type 60 or even 100? Yeah, divide your novel’s word count by that. Starting from scratch on all those finished pages – you’re staring down the long road of WEEKS worth of typing.

As the groan ebbs, the more patient writer inside — the one who genuinely wants excellence — toys with the idea, thinking, “What might I fix more authentically if I were typing this manuscript in from scratch?”

My Manuscript Tests it Out

My novel draft is in a good place for this kind of revision.

  • I want to read the whole thing through.
  • I want to make major revisions to resolve differences in voice that come from working on a novel over a few years’ time.
  • I’m willing to drop any scene or sentence or word that isn’t working.

This is a great point to be recreating the story on a blank page, rather than just tweaking an existing draft.

And I type nearly as fast as I think. It may be faster for me to retype what I like than to mark up a draft and have to go back and implement those changes, knowing they still won’t perfectly fit with neighboring text.

So How’s It Working?

Two days into this approach I’ve typed in 6,993 words (or 19 pages) which is essentially the first chapter (or first chapter and half).


Retyping has been a great approach for this section of revisions, as 1) I needed this part of the novel perfected to submit as writing sample with a couple applications, and 2) the existing draft was made up of a handful of draft options.

Retyping went very smoothly. I typed in the first 4 pages exactly as they were, as I’ve revised them several times, although I discovered some obvious sentence errors in a couple places. I then cherry-picked 4 old scenes to rescue just key details and wording. Then I typed in, nearly verbatim, a couple recent drafts, which are closest to my intent with the narrative voice.  There was one small chunk that I cheated and used copy-paste to transfer. Sue me.

There were several pages of text I willingly dropped. In particular, it was good to see those “explainy,” psychology-heavy sections from early drafts falling behind on the cutting room floor. This is why I wanted to use this process. I kept only the best wording — only wording that felt strong enough to be worth typing again.


It does take a bit of time. I did the math but refuse to accept it would really take me 219 days to retype this thing. I’d like to claim faulty division and tell myself I can do it by May. (Update in June: nope, not finished by May. I haven’t given up the approach, but did not have time to devote to it while busy with students the past two months. Getting back to it…)

Have issues with your eyesight? I don’t normally but would empathize with anyone who does, as I injured my eye last month, which has made my vision more sensitive, and it is a little demanding on vision to go back and forth between the print draft and on-screen draft.

Worry about losing one of those darlings you slaughtered? I have a longstanding practice of saving a “cuts” document for anything I delete from a draft, because I can just cut it and paste it there. With this retyping process, I technically still have a record of those lost words as I have the printed draft, but, in order to move quickly, I was not clearly marking the printed text to keep track of words or sections I chose to exclude while typing. Keeping colored highlighters on hand would help with this: highlight one color for deleting and another if you are thinking to move something to another part of the manuscript.

Ah, typos. For anyone who’s already gone through a draft correcting dropped letters, misspellings, capitalizations or dropped words, this is the little nightmare: retyping exposes you to a whole fresh round of typos. I’m sure that writers using the retyping method just address those on the final version, or aim to do their best correct them with each round. < Note the irony of typos in that line? Point made.


Definitely, I see a value in this revision process, so will keep it in my toolbox, although I don’t know that it will become my one and only process.  I’ll post an update over the coming weeks to see if I stick with this process through the whole draft.

My biggest concern, overall, is that it is very tempting to make drastic revisions when retyping. This could be good — it lets you release those outgrown darlings readily — but that also means that the current revision can only be as good as I am on the day I’m retyping any revisions. Although, just as easily, one could tune out and simply type what’s there without real revision. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Update 6/8/14: I can’t update with a fabulous success story, as I went back into the distractions of teaching for the 2 months since that post, so have not made it far through the manuscript. However, I did finish reading Anthony Marra’s novel (look for link to my review, below), which I praise for its clean narrative and ability to accomplish a complex narrative structure. The strength of his narrative control is a nod in favor of his revision technique. I’ll update again as I move ahead with long revision days now school is done.

Read more about Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in my June 7, 2014 review.

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How About You?

Are you at work on revision? Have you tried this strategy? Or, what strategies do you recommend? Feel free to share links to your own posts if you’ve written about your own favorite approach.

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Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

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Filed under Novel Writing, Revision, Writing Process & Routine

11 responses to “Novel Revision Strategies: Retyping the Novel Draft

  1. I heard Jane Hamilton talk in a workshop about re-typing. She does it *from the beginning*: in other words, she re-types as she’s developing a draft, day by day, so she’s revising as she goes as well as expanding the story. Interesting, don’t you think? I haven’t tried it as a revision strategy, but I’ve done it some in the developing stage. Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, also professes to type everything he’s written in a draft EVERY DAY. So good for you! I’ll be interested to see how it works.


    • elissa field

      Hey there, Gerry, it’s great to see you here. Anthony Marra seems to be saying he retypes multiple times, too. And didn’t Ann Hood say she starts each day by revising the prior day, then writing new?

      Here’s my thing: I don’t want my work over-revised. You know what I mean? I’ve had a draft where I knew it so well that it would be easy to smooth out some of the early energy without remembering its value anymore, so I don’t think I’d be tempted to do this over and over. But we’ll see.

      I hope your writing is going well!


  2. Very interesting for read about this process and actually feel the pain of complete do over. But I imagine what pops through your mind while doing this has a lot of truth since the story is already known. Sort of like your mind saying, ‘no, that not how it was…it was like this.’ Have fun. XXOO


    • elissa field

      You’re right, mom. There’s another process that is often used in a similar way and that is to read work aloud. Either way, that process of hearing the work in a new way helps to edit out whatever doesn’t ring true. I’ve definitely been having more fun with the book as some side characters’ voices have developed in recent revisions. I just want to get it done, though. Thanks for reading and commenting!


    • elissa field

      Oh, and I should say: credit goes to you for the flowers in the picture at the top. That was still my favorite place to work, all year. :)


  3. Wow, that’s quite a task! Very interesting to read about it as a case study, so to speak. Will be interested to see how you continue with this process. Best of luck with the editing!


    • elissa field

      Thanks for commenting on this post. This editing process has continued to be a great tool, although… slow. So far, I’ve kept a 20,000 word draft from the initial 167,000 draft. I get bogged down and stop retyping in places where major revision decisions still need to be made — in those cases, I am marking up the printed text, but not typing it into the new draft… So I don’t know that it’s the most perfect solution for getting this thing done. I’m keeping notes to post about the process again, with feedback on how well it worked. Thanks again for your comment.


  4. I’m interested in this. JRR Tolkien essentially rewrote all his books when he got stuck at a point. Imagine re-writing (by hand or typewriter) the entire LOTR set!

    I actually tried that with a previous ms, but it didn’t work because the voice wasn’t matured and still doesn’t satisfy me. I’m looking at doing that for my CampNaNo piece, as I think once I’ve edited the plot holes and storylines and scenes and replotted it, it will work well to just rewrite/retype. Let us know how it goes!


    • elissa field

      Heather, I’d never heard that about Tolkein. More than once I’ve thought of earlier generation writers (say, Tolstoy) and wondered how on earth they accomplished edits of long works without computers.

      So far, what I like about this technique is that the new draft contains only parts of the book strong enough to stand as a final draft. In a way, it makes some editing decisions easier, as these ‘bones’ don’t need some of the scenes or details that I didn’t revise from the earlier draft. But it is slow going.

      I’ve been keeping notes to share another post about the process later, with feedback on what worked and didn’t

      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to see you here. Hope your writing is going well (are you doing CampNaNoWriMo this month?).


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