“Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost.” —William Zinsser
You’ve completed a draft. Congratulations! What happens next will make or break your piece. This short list of revision strategies reflects the experience of writers who effectively connect with readers. Run through these techniques as many times as it takes to hone your manuscript, and get in the game.
Review with fresh eyes
“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.”
First drafts are like great first dates. In the romantic warmth of the moment, all seems well. Once time passes and familiarity increases, particularly under the cool light of rational assessment, areas in need of improvement emerge.
Review your piece systematically and structurally
Just as a physician examines the body’s organs and systems during a physical, careful writers review Conclusion, Introduction, Framework, Character, Scene, Paragraph, Sentence, and Word Choice to insure the optimal health of their final product.
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
Vary sentence types and lengths
The axiom, “Variety is the spice of life,” applies here. Change the structure and length of your sentences and paragraphs to manage pace, create character, and cook up interesting fare that keeps readers at the table.
Use precise language
“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” —John Updike
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
—Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
Use active verbs
High school English teachers are right. Passive voice weakens expression. Readers appreciate the most direct route to an action.
Passive: A bestseller was written by Woodlyn.
Active: Woodlyn wrote a bestseller.
Repeat words only for effect
Imagine flipping through a fashion or news magazine only to find the same headlines or pictures used over and over. Mine the riches of language to keep readers riveted. Consult the dictionary and thesaurus to find alternatives to sullen repetition.
Use prepositional phrases sparingly
Prepositions indicate the relationship between words. Communicate information directly whenever possible, rather than overcomplicating sentences with an abundance of prepositional phrases. Common Prepositions: Above, Against, At, Around, Before, Behind, Below, Besides, Between, By, For, In, Of, Off, On, Over, Through, To, Under, With.
The opinion of the researcher remains valid.
The researcher’s opinion remains valid.
It is a matter of gravest importance for individuals with diabetes to monitor their intake of carbohydrates.
Diabetics should monitor carbohydrates carefully.
Avoid writers’ tics
Every writer has them. Tell-tale signatures embedded in text that, at their worst, annoy readers; and at their best, form the basis of individual style. Take the time to decide which is which.
Be conscious of voice
Consistency in voice provides readers with a seamless experience of characters and sequence.
Excise anything inessential to your story
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
—Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916
“Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’
—Stephen King, On Writing, 2000
“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word
Read your piece aloud
Aural review of text highlights awkward structure, punctuation, vocabulary, and pacing issues.
Run spelling and grammar checks
Proofread a hard copy
There is no substitute for a conventional read-through of ink on paper. Errors that elude the eye in digital form jump off the printed page.
Share your revised draft for feedback
This final suggestion can be the most enlightening (see first suggestion regarding “fresh eyes”). Writers’ groups, agents, editors—not relatives and friends—generally provide the most helpful feedback. Pay special attention to those critiques that stick in the craw. These usually contain a grain of truth irritating to the writer. Accept these as gifts disguised as insults.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 6th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. See Chapter 17, “Rewriting and Word Processing.”