Writing is Rewriting
At Literary Mama, we believe that great writing lies in the details and attention to language. Yes, your ideas matter, but unless the prose itself works, you’re going to bore your reader… and yourself. As a Senior Editor I see a lot of unpolished prose that could be great — with just a little more work. So here are some rewrite tips for accelerating your writing to the next level and getting our attention.
First of all, write it! Get your ideas down on the page before you begin messing deeply with the sentences. I believe firmly in the importance of what Annie Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.” Mine, too, can be exactly that bad: long-winded and redundant, choppy and inconsistent. In fact, without a word processor I could never be a professional writer. When it comes to writing. I need the cut and paste functions as much as I need dark chocolate and sun dried apricots (and that’s a lot).
Once you’ve completed a draft of your work, it’s time to revise. The difference between the amateur and the professional writer comes down to one thing: your ability — and your willingness — to rewrite: to slice, dice, stretch, squish, and hone the prose. First, look Big Picture. Stand back and reexamine your structure. Do your arguments, examples, stories happen in the right order? Does the form you’ve chosen get your points across? Don’t mess with the small stuff yet — you’ll get frustrated if you spend twenty minutes fixing a paragraph that you decide later to delete.
Now, look at the prose itself. Examine your word choice and your use of metaphor and simile. Get rid of clichés. Minimize adjectives and adverbs. Check your sentence rhythm. Do all your sentences fall into the same pattern? If so, you risk putting your reader to sleep. Cut unnecessary explanations, filler action, and unnecessary dialogue. Lean is mean.
And finally, do an Active Verb check. An Active Verb check is like an oil check on a car: you’re checking the quantity and quality of your verbs because without strong verbs, your writing can’t run cleanly and efficiently. The easiest way to check for Active Verbs? Checking for overuse of the verb “to be.” Reducing use of this verb can make your writing more clear, direct, and emotionally effective.
Okay, wait, stop! So what’s wrong with the verb “to be,” anyway? Actually, the verb “to be” is a fine, upstanding verb with many valid uses, and no, I don’t suggest eliminating it completely, though I know several sadistic high school English teachers who forbid its use in AP classes. The problems only occur when you overuse the verb “to be.” Here’s why:
- The verb “to be” doesn’t persuade. The verb “to be” means “to exist.” When you try to write persuasively but consistently use a verb that means “to lie there not doing anything,” you undermine the strength of your prose and your own ethos as a strong voice.
- English, while not a particularly beautiful language, gets what power and beauty it does have from its verbs. English has fabulous, interesting, compelling verbs. Why rely on the same old “is, are, was, were, being, been, ‘to be’…” when you can drive your prose (and your point) with something stronger?
- For writers with a conciseness issue, using strong, active verbs can help improve the power — and the succinctness — of your prose.
Ready to start your Active Verb check?
- First rule: Never try to write actively. Revise for active language. You’ll make yourself a little nuts if you scrabble for strong verbs while composing your first draft.
- Print out your draft. Now circle all forms of the verb “to be” (“is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “being,” “been,” “to be,” and so on). See a lot of them? That’s not uncommon. Most adequate writers will find passive language issues when they analyze their writing. But “adequate” is inadequate at Literary Mama. We look for excellence.
- Now eliminate at least 50% of the circled verbs by restructuring your sentences or finding the strong, hidden verbs within the sentence. Look, also, for where in the sentence the subject falls. Strong sentences generally have their subjects close to the beginning, so restructure your sentences to focus on the subject and your use of the verb “to be” will dissipate.
“The mother was breastfeeding her baby” becomes “The mother breastfed her baby.”
“The chocolate was eaten by Ericka” becomes “Ericka ate the chocolate.” (Or, even better, “Ericka devoured the chocolate.”)
“Naps are taken at two” becomes “The kids nap at two.”
“She was loaned a hammer” becomes “She borrowed a hammer.”
- Don’t get rid of all use of “to be.” It has its place. But even a 50% reduction will improve the power and strength of your writing. Few readers will read your work and think, “Cool! Amazing verbs!” But the overall effect will wow them.
What are your favorite writing (and rewriting) tips? We’d love to hear them!
4 replies on “Writing is Rewriting”
To me, reading passive voice is akin to running my nails down a chalkboard, so your examples of creating active voice were much appreciated! (as well as your other suggestions)
Since most publications/contests do have a word count, it is important the text be both lively and tight. (As you put it, “Lean is mean.”)
This guideline has helped me in that area: Reduce clauses and phrases to single words. For example, “Use the tablecloth with the floral design.” is tightened to “Use the floral tablecloth.” Or “The coat that the old woman wore . . .” becomes “The old woman’s coat. . .”
Hope this is helpful to aspiring writers!
I would really have to underscore the title of your column, Ericka, that Writing IS Rewriting. Don’t send us your first draft, when you come to “The End” and feel so satisfied. Send it around to your reading and writing friends first. Polish it up. Send us your fourth, fifth, or tenth draft. NOT your first. Please.
Great job! I think you could write a full column on the importance of the willingness to rewrite. For many writers, being edited can feel worse than outright rejection.
Years ago, I put together a zine for women in martial arts. One writer submitted something promising, but in need of serious rewriting. The author not only balked at my suggestion, she flat-out refused to edit any of her precious words.
In dealing with her, I learned some important lessons as a writer. Granted, some of my ideas feel precious (to me), but I take care to be receptive to feedback and always express my willingness to revise my work per my editor’s suggestions. I’ve also realized that my work typically reads better after the recommended revisions.
Kathy, lovely irony in your comment decrying passive voice (“your examples of creating active voice were much appreciated!”).