The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life
Two Kinds of Revising
In his classic guide to nonfiction composition, Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes four kinds of revision: quick revising, thorough revising, revising through feedback from a reader, and cutting-&-pasting. Let’s consider the techniques and merits of the first two, which you can do in the solitude of your garret, without anyone else’s help.
First: quick revising
- Consider the audience and your purpose in writing to the audience.
• Visualize the audience; strive to produce a piece of writing that is good for your purpose with this audience
- Go through the draft and find the good parts.
• Mark them in the margin. Don’t worry about criteria for choosing these—your assessment may be intuitive. If the passage feels good, mark it.
- Figure out the main point, and then arrange the best passages in the best order to support that point.
• For a short piece, you may be able to number the supporting passages in the margins.
• For a longer work, make an outline: express each of the points as a complete sentence with a verb.
- Write out a clean but not quite final draft of the whole piece, which may exclude the beginning.
• If you don’t yet see how to start, just begin writing with your first definite point. You can • even start with your second or third point.
• Do the same if you haven’t identified exactly what your main point is. The lead and the main point will probably come to you as you write the draft.
• As you’re writing, you should be led to think, “What I’m really trying to make clear to you is. . . .” That’s the main point.
- Now that you have a draft and a clear statement of the main idea, write whatever is needed for an introductory paragraph.
• This should almost surely give the reader a clear sense of where you are going—that is, of what the main point is.
- If don’t have it by now, write the wrap: a satisfactory conclusion that summarizes things with clarity and precision.
- Next, read the draft not as a writer but as a reader. Read it out loud. Clean up places that are unclear or awkward or lacking in life.
- Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.
This eight-step process is essentially an act of cutting. You leave out everything that isn’t already good or easily made good. You’re not creating a work of art: you’re building a product that contains the best of what you can produce on a deadline.
The first three steps are basically the same:
- Get your readers and purpose clearly in mind.
- Read over what you’ve drafted and mark the important parts.
- Identify the main point.
- Think more about who will read the words. Look not for a general point but for the best emphasis that will get through to those readers.
- Summarize each of the good points in one sentence, each of which asserts something. This may help clarify ideas.
- Write more draft content, as freewriting or timed writing.
- As a last resort, invent a “false” main point or take the opposite point of view. Make up an outline of assertions supporting this. Sometimes this kind of distorted summary will produce the idea you want.
- Take another vacation from the stuff.
- Make a draft. Sometimes you can cut and paste large chunks of the original draft; you usually have to write a fair amount of new material. Here, the goal is not perfect language but to get the thoughts out.
- If you have a mess, deal with it.
- Take a break
- Think of opposing arguments
- Write more material
- Pursue an apparent contradiction to its logical end
- Describe the apparent confusion and proceed with the essay.
- Tighten and clean up the language
Goals: precision and energy
• Look for correct words, and zero in on precise meaning.
• Energy is usually gained by cutting. This saves the reader’s energy and keeps her or him from giving up.
Read the copy aloud.
Cut through extra words or vagueness or digression. Listen for places where the words get boring.
- Say the sentence aloud. It must sound strong and energetic.
- Think in terms of energy. Cast sentences so the syntax emphasizes what is important or most interesting.
- Simplify. Break long sentences into shorter ones; make verbs active and lively; cut out extra words; keep sentences from dribbling to a flabby end.
- Use active verbs; avoid the passive verb and too much of the verb “to be.”
- Keep Strunk & White’s Elements of Style in mind.
- Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.
Obviously, the second strategy will be far more time-consuming. If you’re not tossing off a blog post or newspaper squib on a deadline, if you’re writing something that matters or that needs to impress someone, then you will need to factor in enough time to do the job right — which requires twice as many steps as the quickie approach.
The last two elements — reaching for precision and energy and reading the copy (listen to it!) — apply to any writing process, whether you’re cranking out hack copy or trying to write the Great Document of the Western World.