Edit, Edit, and Edit Still

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. —Elmore Leonard

When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done. —Stephen King

People love their writing and find it hard to shave off a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing read. And in case you didn’t realize, all amazing reads—all good writing—begin as weak writing.

Joyce Carol Oats—

“Before our work is set in print, as in stone, we maintain our power over it. We get to re-imagine, revise, and rewrite completely if we wish. The first draft may be stumbling or exhausting, but the next draft or drafts will be soaring and exhilarating.”

“Writing is not a race. No one really ‘wins.’  The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.”

The public reader expects more—demands more—than friends and family. Unless your manuscript is extraordinary, it will not be hung on the world’s refrigerator. To write well means to rewrite. To rethink, reevaluate, and to rewrite some more.

Hemingway discussed the process—

…writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done—so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well.

I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.

There’s no rule of how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

I love to write, too, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. Even while improving, the standard floats upwards. A new world opens, and I see how far I’ve yet to reach. Sure, the process becomes easier, but the process also elongates and takes on layers and depths and complexities beyond what it had at early points in my so called career.

We can’t expect to arrive at a polished product sooner than we had in the past. With our growth comes greater vision, and great vision means a greater endeavor.

Remember the Tools of the Trade

  1. Active Verbs
  2. Strong Verbs
  3. Think Detail
  4. Show, Don’t Tell
  5. Avoid Wordiness
  6. Choose Your Words
  7. Say Things in the Positive
  8. Listen for the Rhythm
  9. Vary Sentence Patterns
  10. Express Parallel Ideas in Parallel Form
  11. Usage
  12. Originality
  13. Imagery

Return to these tools with every piece you write. And when you’ve finished, read through your manuscript a minimum of thirteen times, with each run-through focusing on whether or not you dropped one of the tools. If you’re human you’ll find much to fix, but as every writer learns, writing is rewriting. Thirteen steps later, you’ll likely encounter a work that redefines what you thought you were capable of.


Revision Example

Compare the two drafts written by E. B. White, who revised a single paragraph six times before giving his comment on the 1969 moon walk. In version #6 (the second paragraph), he makes his point and much earlier than in his third draft. Although he cut the beach trip to accomplish this, White preserved his playful style with the bouncy dance.

Draft 3:

Planning a trip to the moon differs in no essential respect from planning a trip to the beach. You have to decide what to take along, what to leave behind. Should the thermos jug go? The child’s rubber horse? The dill pickles? These are the sometimes fateful decisions on which the success or failure of the whole outing turns. Something goes along that spoils everything because it is always in the way; something gets left behind that is desperately needed for comfort or for safety. The men who drew up the moon list for the astronauts planned long and hard and well. (Should the vacuum cleaner go, to suck up moondust?) Among the items they sent along, of course, was the little jointed flagpoles and the flag that could be stiffened to the breeze that did not blow. (It is traditional among explorers to plant the flag.) Yet the two men who stepped out on the surface of the moon were in a class by themselves and should have been equipped accordingly: they were of the new breed of men, those who had seen the earth whole. When, following instructions, they colored the moon red, white, and blue, they were fumbling with the past—or so it seemed to us, who watched, trembling with awe and admiration and pride. This moon plant was the last scene in the long book of nationalism, one that could have well been omitted. The moon still holds the key to madness, which is universal, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards lovers that kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity we couldn’t have forsworn our little Iwo Jima scene and planted instead a banner acceptable to all—a simple white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all.

The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers that kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affect us all, unites us all.

Rewrites & Edits