Friday, January 27, 2012

Writing is Rewriting

By Joe Moore

I just finished the first draft of my new thriller, THE BLADE, co-written with Lynn Sholes. This is our sixth novel written together; this one coming in at a crisp 92,500 words. Now that the first pass on the manuscript is finished, the rewrite begins. As E.B. White said in THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, “The best writing is rewriting.”

Some might ask that if the manuscript is written, why do we need to rewrite it? Remember that the writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, line editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes receives the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is rewriting.

There are a number of stages in the rewriting process. Starting with the completion of the first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during each pass. It’s in the rewrite that we need to make sure our plot is seamless, our story is on track, our character development is consistent, and we didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. We have to pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do our scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Next we need to check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. We can’t assume that everyone knows what we know or understands what we understand. We have to make it clear what’s going on in our story. Suspense can never be created by confusing the reader.

Once we’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of rewriting. Here we must tighten up our work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or contribute to character development, it should be deleted.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, we might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So we search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or our thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes the writing cleaner.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one that use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but those words don’t add anything of value to our writing or yours. Delete.

The next type of editing in the rewriting process is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did we end all our character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did we forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure we used the right word. Relying on our word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert us to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once we’ve gone through the manuscript and performed a line edit, I like to have someone else check it behind us. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while we were working on the first draft can get us into trouble if we weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, we’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages making up the rewrite are vital parts of the writing process. Editing our manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—we’ve read that page or chapter so many times that our eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake hiding there that we’ve missed every time because we’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify the writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once we’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a reasonable period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if the schedule permits while working on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. It’s always surprising at what was missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on a computer monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that’s much less forgiving than the glow of pixels. And never be afraid to delete. Remember, less is always more.

How do you go about tackling the rewriting process? Any tips to share?


Robin Allen said...

Great advice, Joe! I do a lot of that already, and I would recommend reading your book out loud. Part of what makes good writing good is its rhythm, which you can hear when you speak it.

Lois Winston said...

Welcome, Joe! I'm one of those authors who edit as I go. So by the time I finish the first draft, it's more like a third draft.

Joe Moore said...

Reading out loud is a great technique, Robin. During the rewrite, I often have my wife read aloud to me so I can hear the dialog from a human voice rather than silently in my head. If she trips up or hesitates or has to go back and read something again, it means trouble.

Hi Lois. Working with a co-writer, we tend to edit as we go, too. Either way, whatever works, works.

G.M. Malliet said...

I edit as much as possible as I go along, doing anything to avoid a lot of rewriting. Nice to see you here, Joe!

Joe Moore said...

Hi, Gin. It's nice to be seen. :-)

Keith Raffel said...

Joe, Always great to hear from a master. (Joe is a past co-president of International Thriller Writers.) I do love global search that lets me look for every "ly" adverb in a document. I also have a tendency to overuse certain words like "nod." I knock these out, too, during editing. Thanks for the great advice.

Joe Moore said...

Hey Keith. I, too, am guilty of using those pesky "ly" words. Isn't it amazing that when you delete them, you don't change the meaning of the sentence. And yet, they just keep sneaking back into my writing.

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks for the great advice, Joe! I was wondering, do you make house calls?

Kathleen Ernst said...

Lots of good points, Joe. Why is it we can edit better on paper than on screen? I'm not sure, but it's certainly true for me! Thanks for sharing.

Joe Moore said...

Hi Alan, yes I make house calls, but only once a year on February 30. :-)

Kathleen, the hard-copy editing tip is one of the best I can pass on to others. I've been involved in a number of discussions confirming that the physical makeup of the text on the printed page, particularly the visual "weight" of the paragraphs versus standalone sentences must be taken into account during the editing and rewrite. In most cases, this cannot be appriciated on a monitor. Plus, taking the text from the screen to the printed page lets you "see" the prose in a different enviornment. For me, it also helps spot repeating the same word or phrase.

Robin Allen said...

Another thing I do that I learned from reading my first galley is to simulate the actual layout of the book--fatter margins and single-spaced. I catch all kinds of stuff.

Joe Moore said...

Very cool idea, Robin.

Vicki Doudera said...

Perfect timing, Joe -- I'm revising Book 4 in my series right now. Your advice is very timely!

Since I write from multiple POVs, one additional thing I do is mark (using different colored post-its) whose head I'm in where. That way I can see how balanced the MS is and add more from one character's POV if necessary.

Joe Moore said...

Another great "analog" tip, Vicki. Thanks for sharing.