Talkin’ ‘Bout the Rewrite

One day at college I lost my five page writing assignment to the dreaded computer crash. Admittedly, this was in the early days of the personal computer, and things like this were much more common than today. I learned a few things from that incident.

After I had recovered from the shock and terror of watching my paper disappear into digital smoke the night before it was due, I rewrote the whole thing from memory. I realized a few things from that incident. Number one, I realized that I could type pretty quickly and that I could write fairly well while under pressure. The most amazing thing I learned, however, was that rewriting a paper could make it much better than it was before.

I had always shown some aptitude and talent for writing, even as as child. And through the years, I had convinced myself that my words descended from my brain onto the page like magical faerie dust, perfect like the brush stroke of a master painter (Yeah, I’ve matured a bit since then). I remember being almost afraid to disturb my words once they existed, as if I would be in danger of ruining some of the original magic. Today, I recognize that this was caused by insecurity and a lack of confidence in my writing skills.

For the rest of my college career, I rewrote everything. Even today, I rewrite everything. The first draft to me is where the bones are set down, but subsequent passes are where the craftsmanship and the artistry come into play. Knowing that I will have at least one chance (but more likely two or three chances) to get the text just right allows me a lot more freedom with my first draft. I don’t even try to get things perfect the first time around because I know that I will do that later during subsequent passes.

Here are a few tips from my rewriting experiences throughout the years:

1.  Give yourself some distance from your work. You will never be truly objective about your own writing, but getting if off your screen and out of your mind as best you can for at least a few days will allow you to approach your words with a better perspective. I either fill my days with things that are totally different from writing, like running, or I work on a different piece of writing altogether. When I return to my initial project, my brain is usually much clearer.

2. Listen to your work. You don’t necessarily have to read your words out loud, but it doesn’t hurt to do so, at least when working on difficult passages. Most humans read to themselves by speaking the words out lout in their head. In similar fashion, you can better hone your writing by paying attention to how it sounds to your own ears. If you have a hard time reading a piece out loud, then you can be assured your readers will have a tough time reading it also. As you develop your ear, you will find it easier to pinpoint the exact problem area(s), allowing you to fix them more efficiently. This technique is also good for working on the cadence or rhythm of your work. For instance, we (English speakers as least) are used to having our sentences and our thoughts end in a down-beat. Take this last sentence itself. Listen to how this altered sentence sounds: “For instance, we are used to having our sentences and our thoughts end in a down.” True, “down” is intended to be used as an adjective, modifying the word “beat,” or one could argue it is meant to be the first part of a compound noun. Regardless, any one-syllable word you put in place of the word “down” will most likely result in a similar feeling of not having closure at the end of that sentence.

 3. Kill your children or at least move them around. OK, don’t actually kill your children of course, but instead judiciously delete pieces of you work that aren’t puling their weight in your story. This is not always easy. Out sentences often seem dear to us. They feel like our children almost. When you rewrite, you have to be tough. If a word, sentence, or even a paragraph isn’t doing its job, either fix it or delete it. A friend of mine loves telling people to “delete for clarity” when he works in a team writing environment. Usually, this is good advice. And if the sentence is too good to get rid of, but it just seems out of place, move it around. Try taking a sentence and switching with the one previous to it. I’m not sure exactly why this works, but it often solves a lot of problems. Be ruthless with your own writing so other people won’t.

There’s a lot more to the art of the rewrite of course, but hopefully these tips have given you something to think about and have perhaps changed your perspective on the dreaded rewrite. If you are one of those folks who still hold your initial spurt on the page as being something holy or sacred, you should at least give a rewrite a try and see how it works out. You never know how pleased you may be with the outcome.

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