As writers, we understand how multiple revisions can polish a so-so piece and make it shine. But how we approach our polishing may be as important as how many revisions we undertake.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at a rewriting strategy for polishing your prose.
Hearing Is Believing
I tend to write a first draft without editing myself. I’ve been writing a long time now, so I can sometimes rephrase or replace as I type, but generally, I don’t censor myself. As the saying goes, “I write to see what I think.” Even if you are a meticulous plotter, writing without editing yourself can allow surprises and unexpected details to emerge.
Let your first draft sit for at least 24 hours—more if you can. Then, get out your first draft (you know, the version you haven’t altered from its creation) and read it aloud. Reading out loud taps a different part of the brain than silent reading. Without the speech component, our brains tend to fill in details (words) that aren’t there or reword sentences. Read your draft to your writing group or your dog, but not to your spouse or your mom.
Your ears will pick up clunky constructions and those darned dangling participles. You’ll be more apt to notice whether your passage “flows” or if what you’ve written confuses. Watch for spots that repeat or don’t move the story. This first-step revision doesn’t actually change what you’ve written but can give you important clues about how to rewrite.
Go Big at First
Some writers start out thinking that self-editing is a matter of switching out words or swapping sentences. But after you’ve read out loud, I tell my students to start big. It makes little sense to me to hone every sentence/word if the piece has structural problems. Start by thinking of the forest, not the trees.
Your story, chapter or scene must be a microcosm of the overall story. In other words, your protagonist has a goal. How does this chapter or scene move her either closer or farther from that goal? As you begin the self-editing, evaluate the piece or passage by testing against that overarching goal (or in nonfiction, the theme or point).
Many books and videos exist to help you with the Big Picture of your work. One way to think of whatever you’re editing is to imagine your story as a board game. Your protagonist is the game piece. Each square is a scene. How does each roll and landing get that protagonist closer or farther from the goal? What obstacles crop up along the way and how does your character overcome them?
One way to edit the big picture is to think of your story as a board game.
Save Nits for Last
You’ll be self-editing in many layers, so it’s safe to leave those small edits for last. After you’ve improved the Big Picture of your work, you can pay attention to word choices. Replace passive constructions with active verbs. Let those active verbs replace ly words and over-reliance on modifiers. Let verbs which are specific and active help you delete “ing” gerunds, transforming was playing into a simple past tense played.
Now you can also sharpen your dialogue and let descriptions be specific and vivid. Don’t forget that your protagonist (or point of view character) must filter all this through her perspective, her attitudes, her desires and goals. As you can see, many revisions are likely as you polish your writing.
After all these rounds of revision, you can end right where you started—by reading your work out loud, preferably after you’ve let it sit for a time. As you read, you may discover that you need even more self-editing. Or, if you think you can’t improve what you’ve done, it may be time for a pro editor to take a look. Self-editing is a process, not a one-time thing. If you write for publication, you’ll learn to value revision as much as the creative process itself. Polishing is just part of the game.