Rewriting a Manuscript Is like Being the Sorting Hat


“Difficult. Very difficult. . . now that’s interesting. . . So where shall I put you?” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 121)



Usually, when a writer has been given a manuscript to rewrite, they are expected to read through the current pages and figure out how to improve upon them. As you read through it, you are constantly writing notes and asking yourself where to put this part, how to improve that part, and what to replace this part with. Like the sorting hat from Harry Potter, it’s all on you to make sure that everything is put in the proper place.


No pressure, right?


Before you start ripping your hair out, there are a few things to consider before and during the rewriting process.


Step 1: What is your purpose?


If you are rewriting someone else’s work as a ghostwriter, then you need to keep that person’s voice, tone, and inflections intact. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are given a document and told to read through it for theme and structure, but completely rewrite it, then you are in for a totally different experience.


Step 2: What is their purpose?


When a company or individual hands a writer a script to rewrite, you can bet they have a purpose behind their actions. You as the writer need to be aware of these particulars because you are being paid to produce what they want you to produce. Usually, one of the following reasons is behind the rewrite:


  • Scenario 1: A publishing company has landed a popular author for their project. For whatever reason, the author is unable to finish the project. Not wanting to lose the marketability of the author’s name, the company finds a ghostwriter to copy the writer’s style and voice in order to finish the project.
  • Scenario 2: A company has commissioned a manuscript to be written by an author. Either the author cannot finish the project, or cannot produce a quality document ready for publishing. Still having invested in the project, the company looks for a freelancer to write the piece as work-for-hire so that they can attempt to recoup their losses on the royalties produced from the new author’s finished document.
  • Scenario 3: An author has come up with a solid concept and has written out a part or all of the manuscript. Unable to get the document into a presentable form, they hire a ghostwriter or a collaborator to help them rewrite, restructure, and finish the project.

Step 3: Understanding what’s in a rewrite


Rewriting generally implies that an outline or a draft of the project has already been accomplished. Your job is to go through the present form of the document looking for certain key elements. The following key elements mainly apply to nonfiction:

  • Main point/argument
  • Supporting facts
  • Documented sources that can be fact checked
  • A logical linear structure
  • Sections/chapters clearly labeled and separated
  • Information about one topic predominantly in one location, and not spread sporadically throughout the document
  • Wording and sentence structure is easily understandable
  • Unfamiliar words/jargon is well explained
  • Graphs, pictures, tips, and/or case studies correspond with the sections they are placed in.
  • Grammar and word usage is correct

After you’ve checked for these key elements, you then have to figure out what is missing, what needs to be relocated, and what needs to be taken out.


Step 4: Writing the rewrite


 For something as long as a nonfiction book, you want to start with an outline.

 Usually a working table of contents is a great way to start your outline. You’re not writing entire chapters, you’re only naming chapters and including subheadings of what will be in each chapter. In this skeletal form, it is easier to check if all of your points follow a linear pattern, and you should be able to see if you are missing anything. Additionally, since this is a “working” table of contents, it is not set in stone and you can move things around as needed.


After the outline, start writing briefs about each chapter.

Your brief shouldn’t be any more than 5-10 sentences. All you are doing is touching on the main points that are going to be mentioned within the chapter, and what the reader might be expected to do with those presented ideas. This again will verify that your ideas are clearly organized, and it can help you brainstorm about what you will need to research when writing out the actual chapters.


Now it’s research time. 

If you’re rewriting a manuscript, some of your research my have already been done for you. If there are usable facts that apply to your rewrite, double-check them to make sure they are accurate before including anything. Don’t forget that when you’re including research you need to attribute your sources so that you are not plagiarizing. Furthermore, copying too much information from any source pushes the line of fair use, regardless of attribution, and may require you to obtain written permission to include the passage in your document.


 Write it out.

With all the pre-writing done, you should have a clearer vision of where you are going with each chapter. Plus, a majority of your research should be done at this point so that you can easily plug it in and attribute facts as you go.


Deadline Reminders.

When you are contracted out to do a project you will have one or several deadlines. Have a calendar that you can see every day showing your upcoming deadlines. Furthermore, if you put up daily duties that need to be done prior to deadline, it can help you manage your workload . Don’t forget to give yourself at least a week for the editing process. Also, for any permission forms you need to gather from sources, give yourself 4-8 weeks prior to deadline to contact people and start the process of asking permission and obtaining signed documentation from them.



Final stage. 

Editing works best if you have ample time. You want to take your rewritten manuscript in small chunks to look over and make sure that there isn’t a single mistake. Do not rely on tools like spell check and grammar check. Also, if you’ve been turning parts of your rewrite into whoever has commissioned it, you want to pay attention to any editing notes or comments they have given you as feedback and apply those as necessary.


Being the sorting hat for someone else’s work can be frustrating, especially if you are under deadline without a game plan. Using this strategy does take time and motivation to keep on track, but it will make the rewriting process run far more smoothly.


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