Personally, filling up the pages is not a problem - I can bang out about 5,000 words a day…but the problem is that only a few of those lines are actually readable! So to craft my writing into clear, effective communication geared toward other human beings it takes me a tremendous amount of proofreading and editing.
I used to hate rewriting, but as I kept doing it I learned the tricks of the trade, noticed patterns, and practice led to proficiency. And guess what?
I still hate it.
But I do see its glowing effect on my finished manuscript. I actually think that rewriting is more important than the first round of writing, and I dedicate about 75% of my time invested into a book into that process. I’m coming to realize that this tedious hard work is the barrier to entry that truly separates the indie amateur from the professional wordsmith. If you want to earn your place within that pantheon, put in that time.
When I was inexperienced and naïve and didn’t know my ass from my elbow about writing (which was Wednesday) I studied books on theme, plot, conflict, dialogue, developing characters, suspense, emotion, etc. ad infinitum, but I couldn’t find a good book about editing and rewriting for a layperson like me, who slept through most of high school English class.
A search for writing on Amazon (my new favorite thing to do is research target markets and competition on Amazon), 542,802 results come up. However when I add those two important letters and search REwriting, only 1,973 results come up - in the whole civilized English-speaking world! Including some parts of New Jersey!
That’s the secret. THAT’S what professional writers understand that novices don’t. When you are green and intimidated by writing a book you think developing enough content is the real mountain to climb, and therefore you spend three pages describing what the waitress at the diner looks like. Who cares? Certainly not the reader. Just tell them that Flo came over and poured black mud into your cup and they’ll fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
You can write one page a day and have a sizable manuscript by New Year’s Eve, so content is the easy part. (Note: if you only can write one page a day you’re either using a blunt crayon or you’re holding on way too tight and you need to drink some wine, crank up the music, and let it go.) But I assure you that no one has EVER started out with a polished draft.
I’ve kept copious notes as I chug along with my red pen, struggling and failing fantastically, and here are the first 10 tips on rewriting to get you started. (I’ll give you the other 5, including the Holy Grail of rewriting, in part 2).
1. Never use two words when you could use one. Chose the BEST word.
It was a hot, humid night. (If your story starts with those lines, burn in.)
It was a balmy night. (Still sucks, but there’s less of it to suck)
2. For strong sentences place your subject and verb at beginning of the sentence.
As the sunlight faded, we walked down the street.
We walked down the street as the sunlight faded. (much better, right?)
3. Trust your words, and don’t over-explain.
A good example of that? Look at the sentence I just wrote. I should have written, “Trust your words.” That would have been far more effective. Beginning writers try to bury you in an avalanche instead of letting one snowflake drift down and land on your nose.
4. Adhere to the rhythm of three.
In writing, three is the magic number. A list of three is always stronger than a list of two or even four! There is a rhythm to three items. It’s a fundamental tool of humor writers, who use the first two items to set and reinforce a pattern, and then deviate from that expected pattern in the third item to create humor.
5. Adverbs suck.
Do a Word search for words that end with -ly and erase your adverbs. They are useless for the most part, don’t read well, and are a symptom of lazy writing.
She walked across the room, silently and carefully.
She tiptoed across the room.
6. Avoid “filler” words.
Really, very, big, small, quickly, slowly, basically, actually, about, just, truly, some, all of, then, that, some, literally, both, other, for, I think, started, I believe, strongly, etc.
I could write a whole blog just on filler words (and maybe I will!). But until then, feel free to email me hi@NormSchriever.com if you want the list I've compiled.
7. Cancel out redundancy and duplication.
See what I did there? You only need to say something once when you’ve said it correctly.
8. Think ‘build up and pay off.’
This is the conscious tool of writing humor, drama, suspense, or emotion – blow up a balloon with conflict and then pop it with the resolution
9. EVERY line has to either advance story or build characters.
Anything else should be removed with extreme prejudice. Your sentences may sound cool or be written well, but if they don’t reveal the character or jolt the story along, they have no use to you, or the reader.
10. “Murder your darlings.”
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, wrote in On the Art of Writing, that you need to “murder your darlings,” meaning that you’ll have to cut out lines and scenes and even whole chapters that you love. Kill them. It doesn’t matter what YOU love, the only thing that matters is getting the reader from the starting line to the finish line. If you’re rewriting correctly you’ll have a lot of funerals for dead content, and then move on with a better story.
Read Part 2 of this series, where I reveal the final 5 ways to rewrite a great book, including advice that is Holy Grail of writing!