The Art of Rewriting and Unwriting
Perhaps you’ve heard this old joke. A visitor to New York once asked a musician for directions, inquiring, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer came back: “Practice!”
Whatever the art form, the development of real craft requires practice, which usually guarantees steady improvement and growing expertise. In today’s instant-results society, however, quite a few inexperienced writers seem to believe that all they will need to do to produce a successful book is to pour their ideas or stories onto the page, essentially following their noses from word one to word one hundred thousand, and then come up with a few sales techniques to get it all published and purchased. Fewer seem willing to sweat the writing process, so to speak.
This notion is similar to that of aspiring actors who imagine they can launch a career in film just by getting in front of a video camera and putting on an act. That effort may result in fifteen minutes of YouTube celebrity, but it’s unlikely to bring genuine, sustained success and fulfillment or the kind of attention that would engender great pride.
While the secret to superior film acting may be in the reacting, the key to effective writing is rewriting, by definition a lengthier and more labor-intensive process. Although the perfect words can sometimes seem to flow un-crafted and uncensored from the ether to the author, even the apparently flawless first draft can use some faceting and polishing. That said, what’s the best way to approach a revision?
Words Matter – Too Many Words Matter Less
Beyond basic development issues such as structure and character, the first rule of rewriting is to un-write. Even for a talented beginner, nothing says amateur like overwriting. My late dad, himself a writer and a teacher of writing, advised removing as many words as possible in each subsequent draft, and he was not alone in that assessment.
The trimming process may need dozens of passes
A tight, arresting narrative will grab readers and hold them from beginning to end. With each pass you make, ask yourself what is truly necessary and what you really won’t miss, and distill it all down to the essence. (While you’re at it, jettison most of those pesky adverbs.)
Trim the flab and fluff
The fundamental concepts are these: In fiction, strive to create and maintain suspense; in nonfiction, strive to be clear without boring your readers. Don’t underestimate them, and don’t overexplain. While depth and color are important, you’ll lose readers if you press the point or bog down in detail to the detriment of pace. Get rid of the flab and fluff, and the important elements will soar.
Trim until you remove any speed bumps
Beyond economy, what is necessary in each pass? The simplest answer is to review the standard literary rules and make sure the next draft meets them (apart from special stylistic exceptions). Then keep tweaking, tightening, and polishing until you are propelled from first page to last, and nothing stops the flow of ideas and emotions or bothers you even slightly as you read.
Work with an experienced book editor
Whatever your current level of proficiency, when you’ve revised your writing as thoroughly as you’re able, that’s when you should enlist the assistance of an experienced editor. In addition to providing a fresh pair of eyesand objective ones, at that—an editorial expert can suggest essential improvements and give your manuscript the level of polish and professionalism that will make all the difference to agents, publishers, and readers alike.
Between the first draft and the professional edit, remember the old adage “Practice makes perfect,” and take some time to rewrite.