The Journal: The Difference Between Rewriting and Cycling

In today’s Journal

* How weird is that?
* Topic: The Difference Between Rewriting and Cycling
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

How weird is that? Two Journal entries in two days. I’m still not writing fiction, but I’m getting closer. I have a couple of major projects in mind. Once I settle on one, I should be off and running again.

But for now, this Journal entry is necessary. Not for me or a handful of others I know, but for some of you maybe.

Topic: The Difference Between Rewriting and Cycling

This is a followup to the topic I posted on July 20, “WITD Has Two Parts.” Leigh, the person whose comment on PWW spurred the topic, read my post, then added (again on PWW)

“From where I sit, that’s still ‘rewriting’ and ‘editing’ whether you or the characters are doing it, but I appreciate your explanation. Makes a lot more sense than simply writing one sentence after another without ever looking back and making adjustments.”

So here I am again, this time to explain the difference between rewriting and cycling.

First, nobody who actually practices WITD ever said WITD is “writing one sentence after another without ever looking back.” Every time I’ve heard or read accusations like that, they’re from those who don’t practice WITD and are trying to either put it down or equate it with what they do. I’ve never quite figured out why they see WITD as such a monumental threat. It isn’t restrictive; it’s freeing, and it has no requirements or expectations except that you trust in your own abilities. But back to the topic.

As I thought I made clear (but apparently did not) in “WITD Has Two Parts,” cycling is all done from the creative subconscious. That makes all the difference, and that is what sets it apart from rewriting, revising, editing, etc. Those are all functions of the conscious, critical mind.

But first, let me separate editing out. Editing isn’t the same as rewriting or revising. Editing (copyediting) is a necessary step by which errors are caught and corrected. But those errors are not things that come from the creative subconscious; those errors are universally recognized problems like spelling mistakes, wrong word uses, etc. So let’s leave editing out of it.

You have to look critically at a passage if your intention is to rewrite or revise it. It’s a highly intrusive process. You can’t do that from your creative subconscious.

“Intention” is the key word here. You can “intend” something only consciously, and you can rewrite or revise only critically. When you rewrite or revise, you’re trying to find and fix something you believe is wrong.

The problem with rewriting or revising is this: Any Other Reader might find a passage perfectly fine even though you believe it’s “wrong.” It’s all a matter of personal taste. When you rewrite or revise, you’re intentionally trying to meet some other reader’s expectations—although you have absolutely no way to discern those expectations. As a bonus, when you rewrite or revise you’re also polishing your original voice off your story. How insane is that?

When cycling back, by contrast, you aren’t consciously looking for anything. Your conscious, critical mind isn’t even engaged. You’re simply reading for pleasure. If an error (see the editing part above) pops out at you, of course you fix it. Then you go on reading for pleasure with your fingers resting on the keyboard.

If that tiny little (character’s) voice tells you to add something, you add it. Note: That little voice will never be negative. (That’s another important distinction: if the voice is from the critical mind, it will always be negative: something is wrong, something needs to be fixed.)

Again, it all goes to trust. The more you trust in your own ability to create a story, the less you’ll feel a need to rely on your (or others’) critical mind to “fix” things.

If you have that overwhelming urge to go back and “fix” what your creative mind has wrought, you’re mired in the myths that all of us were taught by English teachers. How terrible is it that we were all actively taught we couldn’t possibly create a good story without double-checking ourselves, or even without involving other people to double-check us! We were literally taught not to trust ourselves. And here I am trying to convince you to trust yourself again. I believe in you, so why don’t you?

Writing into the dark and cycling isn’t restrictive in any way. Rather, it’s freeing. But the fear of breaking away from all those myths (revising, rewriting, critique groups, etc.) will probably cause you to break out in a sweat.

Why? Because your conscious, critical mind wants to protect you. That’s why it’s so effective in stopping you from writing in the first place. Or in postponing or stopping you from publishing. If you never write (or never finish or never publish) you won’t open yourself to criticism. That’s why rewriting is so popular. The more you tinker with something, the longer you put off actually publishing it, if ever.

(Don’t tell me, but just check in with yourself; how much do you actually write vs. talking about writing or rewriting, revising, etc. before eventually publishing, etc.?) Once you can break free of all those insane, self-abasing myths, you’re in for one heck of a whirlwind ride as a writer.

And just so you know, when I cycle back through 1200 words, chances are good I might catch a simple misspelling and nothing else, or I might add a sentence or nothing at all. If I was rewriting or revising, I have no doubt I would rewrite several sentences, add or delete things that my critical mind thinks are needed or not needed, etc. All while polishing my own unique voice off my story.

For a great deal more on this topic, feel free to search in the box in the sidebar for “writing into the dark” or “cycling” or both. Or just suck it up and take a chance like I did almost 6 years ago. I set out to prove to myself WITD wouldn’t work, but to prove it wouldn’t work I had to give it an honest try. To my surprise I learned it does work. And I never looked back.

Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark make being a storyteller fun. Going the other way makes it more like a job.

NOW, all of that being said, it’s certainly your decision. If you’d rather succumb to that unreasoning fear and either not write at all, or not finish what you write, or rewrite, or run your work through critique groups (invite other critical minds into your work), etc. that’s fine with me. I’m not invested in your success or failure.

I’m only trying to pass along a little freedom here. Whether and how you write or finish or publish (or not) won’t affect my bottom line. I’ll continue to adhere to Heinlein’s Rules and write off into the dark. I’ll continue to be a successful professional fiction writer and have a ball doing it.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “46 Literary Journals and Magazines Open to Genre Work” at

See “You Ain’t No Shakespeare” at

See “Maintaining Steam As A Fulltime Author” at

See “How Long Does It Take to Replace a Habit?” at

See “Wordsworth at 250” at

The Numbers

Fiction words yesterday…………………… XXXX
Nonfiction words today…………… 1200 (Journal)

Writing of (novel)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… XXXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 309655
Total nonfiction words for the month… 6590
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 128830
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 438485

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 5
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 12
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 50
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 208
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

6 thoughts on “The Journal: The Difference Between Rewriting and Cycling”

  1. Great post, Harvey! I’m pretty new to WITD and lately I’ve let my critical voice bully me around.

    Since I know writing with my five senses helps with depth, I found myself going back later to “layer in” more five senses stuff. Well, that brought my writing to a screeching halt.

    What seems to work better is to stay inside my character’s head and only write, blow-by-blow, what she is thinking, seeing, touching, tasting and hearing…

    At least that’s the goal!
    P.S.How do you deal with five senses stuff? Have you got any tips?

    • Yes, stay inside your character’s head and write with the character’s five physical senses, not your five senses. Don’t ever add to a scene what you, the writer, thinks should be added. Add only what the POV character sees, hears, smells, etc. Every word on the page should come through the POV character’s senses and be accompanied by his opinion. You probably saw my example of different POV characters entering a library in a mansion. One will note the “stench” of pipe smoke; another will note the “pleasant aroma” and for yet another “the black cherry scent in the room reminded me of my grandpa when he smoked his favorite briar pipe.” One will think the room “warmly lighted” and another will see it as “dimly lit” and another will see it as “kept dark enough to invoke a sense of dread.” And so on. Just as “real” people “see” things differently when they walk into a setting, so do different POV characters. And the POV character’s opinion of the setting not only adds color but also can insinuate things about the character’s background. That’s how I deal with all of it. But actually there are six senses: the five physical ones plus the emotional one: a sense of joy or dread or elation or fear or forboding or nostalgis or whatever. This usually comes through as what the character says, how he says it, and any gestures, facial expressions, etc.

      Just so you know, during cycling I ofen find myself adding in more description (five senses stuff) but it’s always positive, always from the character. It’s as if he’s tugging on my sleeve: “Hey, Jerk, you missed this.” In other words, it’s never me “looking for” things, as in “I wonder if I left something out. Oh no, did I include all five senses?” It’s never that. It’s always just as I’m reading, the character goes, “Oh look. You missed that I saw that or touched that column or heard that sound or or or….”

      Hope this helps.

  2. WIIT is a threat because it terrifies them. At one point I had a discussion with an outliner. He tried to write a book without an outline and it so terrified him it kicked on his inner critic big time. The terror makes other writers lash out anyone who is trying it, and worse for anyone who is successful at it.

    And I think that many writers have trouble with the idea of cycling because its rooted into how the first draft is viewed. A lot of writers think it’s a distasteful step to get to the part where “the real writing starts” (NOT) in revision. Since the story is intended to be revised, cycling is huge disconnect because the story is in the first draft and needs to be finished first. It doesn’t help that cycling is horrendously difficult to explain and runs a little different from writer to writer.

    • Hi Linda. Thanks for the comment. You’re probably right about the fear. But it’s an unreasoning fear. What do they think’s going to happen? The world will end if they don’t write a story the way other people want them to? Shrug. Re cycling, I personally don’t find it difficult to explain at all, especially in comparison with rewriting. Cycling is done as a reader from the creative subconscious and is therefore always positive. Rewriting is done critically, from the thinking, conscious mind. Not sure what you mean that it runs diffierent from writer to writer, unless you mean (for example) one writer might cycle back routinely every 400 t0 500 words vs. once every writing session as I do. Doesn’t matter anyway as long as the writer doesn’t allow the conscious, critical mind to intrude. That’s the key.

      • Fear doesn’t need a reason. In fact, it’s likely the other writers are completely unaware of it. I worked with a cowriter who was deeply afraid of being published–and didn’t know it. The more I tried to get our story done, the more he attacked me.

        A friend and I puzzled over Dean’s explanation of cycling. She took the WITD workshop and that was the only area she had trouble with. I ended up doing cycling passes on a chapter and marking the updates in red so she could see what I did. My way–which I’ve been doing since the 1980s–appears to be different from what you and Dean describe. It changes from story to story, because I write thin in some areas and thick in others, depending on the skill I’m working with. On my current project, the cycling was 18K (rather than the last thousand words), and I was working on adding more hidden story and character complexity, the two areas I’ve been running thin on.

        • Whatever works for you. If your conscious critical mind is involved, I’d call that revision or rewriting. What I call “cycling” has to be from the creative subconscious. But again, what do I care? If you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, that’s fine for you.

Comments are closed.