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The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life
Six Steps to Revising and Polishing
In my universe, revising consists of a half-dozen steps. It goes like this:
Now go away. Do something else. If possible, let the material sit for a day or so. If that’s not possible, go to lunch or get a cup of coffee and, for a short period, let it be. You need some transition between the process of putting words on paper and the process of thinking about those words.
If your work is coherent enough to present to another person, this is a good time to ask someone you trust—preferably not a spouse, unless it’s a very unusual spouse—to read and comment on it. More to come, in the next chapter, about how to get the most useful responses from a reader.
2. Returning to the Draft
At every step along the revision road, you need to listen to the prose. Reread what you have written. Preferably, read it aloud. If you are going to have someone else read it and comment, you may want them to read it here, or you may want to wait until you have done a preliminary revision—when the work is a little closer to presentable.
At this point, consider two things: what you have left out, and what you can get rid of. In other words, at this stage there are two kinds of revision you can do: revising by adding and revising by cutting.
3. Revising by Adding
As an editor and writing teacher, I’ve found that beginning writers, in particular, tend not to say enough. We tend to be abstract, to leave out specific details.
Have you said the forest was full of trees? What kind of trees were they? What did they look like? Were they leafed out? Were the leaves green or frosted orange and red? Were they young trees or old? Crowded so they blocked out all the sun from the forest floor, or logged out so that no two trees were close enough to string a hammock between them? What did they smell like? How did they feel? Who was there to see them? How did those people respond to them? When did this happen? What time of day? What time of year? What time of life? Where exactly was this forest? How high, how low? How far from civilization? Why were you there? Why are you telling us this? How did you get there? How do you expect to get out of there?
One way to get at these details is to ask yourself the classic journalist’s questions: who what when where why and how. The answers to those questions will usually contain the specifics you need to fill in the details that paint a vivid, accurate picture in the reader’s mind. You want to use language and details that allow the reader to visualize exactly what you’re talking about.
We’ve looked at Hayakawa’s abstraction ladder as a way of thinking about how writers clarify ideas in their readers’ minds. You should make a practice of running up and down the abstraction ladder—be sure to bring your reader as far down to earth as possible, particularly when you must explain a difficult or new concept.
So, one phase of revising is to look at your work and ask yourself what details you can add. Remember, though, that the details need to be significant. They really need to add to the reader’s understanding, and not to fill space with puffery or irrelevant chatter. They need to be relevant and meaningful. If you sense that the copy lacks solid content, go back to the library or Google to find some concrete, credible facts.
Usually, though, you can give examples that illustrate an assertion you’ve made. Ask yourself, too: Can you show how some abstract principle or procedure you’re explaining applies to the life of a real human being? Have you used the most specific term for the thing you’re talking about? Have you said how it looks? How it feels? How it smells? How it sounds? How it matters? Go through your work and add to clarify, as needed.
3.a. Digression! On the all-important verbs
One way is to produce more concrete, less abstract copy is by using strong verbs and nouns.
First, as we’ve seen in chapter 1, a good writer uses verbs that show action and that carry a lot of meaning. Often one word will do the job of two or three words. Consider a young woman who is perambulating, at her leisure, across a college campus. Your first impulse might be to say:
She walked slowly across the campus.
That’s all very nice, and…plain vanilla. It doesn’t tell us enough.
What single word means “walk slowly”? When a group of thirty people brainstorm for answers to this question, we find terms like these:
Notice the vivid difference between “she ambled across the campus” and “she trudged across the campus.” These more specific terms not only give us a clearer picture of how the subject looked as she proceeded, they even give us a clue to her state of mind. This is what is meant by the rule to use strong action verbs.
While we’re talking about verbs, let’s mention four principles remember about verb use:
1. Let your verbs and nouns carry the weight of your meaning. Many people are fond of hiding their verbs in long, wordy constructions:
Be simple: simplify
Use simplicity: simplify
As a teenager, I was barely cognizant of the Vietnam War: As a teenager, I barely knew about the Vietnam War.
2. Look for hidden verbs. Whenever you see a long wordy construction that appears where a verb should stand in the sentence, look for a single verb that will take its place. Chapter 1 describes this concept. Review it and keep it in mind while revising.
3. Avoid the passive voice. If you don’t recall the discussion in Chapter 1 or didn’t understand it, look up it up on Google.
4. Use action verbs, not verbs of being, whenever possible. Avoid, too, those verbose constructions like “there is and there are,” or “it is x that blah blah”
There are many hard-working adults enrolled at the Great Desert University.Many hard-working adults have enrolled at the Great Desert University.
Many hard-working adults attend the Great Desert University.
It was Oliver Boxankle who wrote our textbook.
Oliver Boxankle wrote our textbook.
When you’re adding details—and when you’re revising the material you’ve already put on paper—use these principles to strengthen your prose.
4. Revising by Cutting
You’d be amazed at how much immaterial stuff people put into their writing. One cause of this: the teacher or professor who asks you to write three pages or five pages or ten pages on whatever subject. What do you do when you’re assigned to write a ten-page report and you only come up with eight? Naturally, you pad, pad, pad! This trains you to fill space with inconsequential material, irrelevant remarks, and the like.
So—the first thing to do is get rid of that stuff. If necessary go back to the library or the Internet and find some material that is relevant.
Another source of unnecessary verbiage is redundancy. In conversation, we routinely repeat ourselves. But in writing, that’s unnecessary. Look over the entire piece and notice whether you’ve said the same thing twice. Often, writers will make a remark in the opening that gets repeated deeper in the story. Get rid of it. Sometimes a writer may introduce a quotation by writing, for example, Oliver Boxankle says things are tough all over. In the next sentence, Boxankle is quoted saying, “Things are getting very rough for everyone these days.” Let quotation carry the content, if you’re going to use it, and delete the redundant comment about it.
Some material may not be strictly relevant to the subject. Ask yourself: does the reader really need to know this?
You do not have to unload everything you know about a subject onto the reader. Indeed, you should not. Ideally, you should know a great deal more than you let on. In most instances, a piece of nonfiction will contain about a third of what the writer has learned in doing research on the subject.
Even in a piece of fiction: if you have fully visualized your characters, you have imagined each person’s childhood and the lives of his or her parents and the things that have molded the personality. But you don’t recite all this background to the reader: you simply show the fully thought-through character in action. Many of the character’s actions will be predicated on what you know of his or her background, but you don’t have to detail all the ancient history on paper.
Share with the reader what she needs to know, and stop at that. Do not unload a lot of irrelevant material that doesn’t help the person to understand your message.
On the sentence level, you can cut a surprising number of words. One way to do this is to change passive verbs to the active voice. Look for verbose constructions—search for hidden verbs, for example, and get rid of those “there is/it is” structures. Cut adverbs. You rarely need an -ly verb—let it stand only if you really need it. Words like “very,” “quite,” and “rather,” which modify adjectives and other adverbs, can almost always go. And often you can cut adjectives, too. If an adjective doesn’t add much to the message, get rid of it.
One final fillip at this stage of revision: be sure you have the facts correct. If you’ve shot from the hip, look up the basis of your assertions in an encyclopedia, in a source at the library, or on Google Scholar. If you’ve used numbers, be sure they add up. Once, in writing about a hike through Aravaipa Canyon, I said, “The terrain has three types of paving: loose, polished river rocks in dry floodplain; loose, polished, slimy river rocks underwater; ankle-deep mud with the lubricating power of axle grease; and ankle-deep sand.” Add these up: 1) loose polished river rocks; 2) loose, polished slimy river rocks; 3) ankle-deep mud; 4) ankle-deep sand . . .
If you’ve said there are 4,831,244 people in Zambia and 4,910,003 people in the Congo for a total of 9,741,247 people, get out your calculator and double-check. If you’ve claimed that you can drive across Arizona from Prescott to Kingman on State Route 89A, look at the map to be sure you have it right. If you’ve remarked that the Pilgrims brought three copies of the King James Bible over to Plymouth Rock, be sure the King James Bible was in print when the Pilgrims crossed the ocean blue.
Now is an ideal time to get someone else to review your magnum opus, especially if it’s a book or a research document to be published in an academic journal. Chapter 9 describes some strategies for eliciting useful responses from volunteer readers, sometimes called “beta readers.” However, for short, informal pieces, that’s not always feasible. In the absence of a reader, you’ll need to give yourself some intelligent feedback.
Remember, the essence of professionalism is willingness to change and revise what you’ve written. Your words are not your babies. They are not graven in stone with a diamond stylus. Even after they go to print, they are not necessarily set into the collective consciousness for all eternity—indeed, they most likely are on their way to the recycling plant.
Don’t be shy or vain about recasting and revising your stuff, or even about throwing some of it out. After you’ve revised by cutting or adding, as appropriate, it’s again time to set the material aside and let it cool off. Go away. Do something else. Go to the state fair. Watch a baseball game. Have dinner. Deflect your consciousness in some way from the intense activity of focusing on the piece.
Come back to it later. Print out a hard copy—most people find it easier to recognize flaws in copy that’s on paper than in copy that’s on screen.
Now read it aloud. Listen to it. How does it sound? Does it sound like English? Is it coherent? Does it contain any redundancies or repetitiousness? Is it verbose? Does it paint a clear, concrete picture of what you’re trying to say? Is the point clear—if you were reading this for the first time, would you understand why its author thinks the material is important?
Look at its organization. Is it logical? Can the reader follow the argument from one point to another without getting lost? Have you left anything out? Have you left the reader with an opportunity to say, “Hey! What about this?” If so, fix it. Have you been fair?
Does the piece have an effective beginning and an effective ending? Is the material in between interesting and coherent? Does it carry the reader along?
Have you said anything inane? Out with it! Have you made a broad generalization that cannot be supported by facts? If so, either get rid of it or support it.
Are there any organizational redundancies? Have you said anything more than once? If so, tighten.
6. Editing for Grammar, Spelling, Style, and Syntax
The final step is to clean up the surface errors. Be sure it sounds like English and that you have written in the tightest possible style. Then run the spell-checker.
After that, proofread with the brain! This is a crucial step. Do not leave it out! Your brain is smarter than the computer, no matter what Bill Gates says. You can bet you’ll find something the computer missed in the final read-through.