Posts Tagged ‘rewrite’

Every writer I know has a different perspective on just how good grammar needs to be.

Some are sticklers who insist on adhering to the highest standards of the literary order. Others are comfortable taking creative liberties and believe that breaking the rules is an art unto itself and a practice that should be embraced.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I believe that a writer who is dedicated to the craft will take the time and invest the energy required to master the most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But I also believe there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules — as long as you know which rules you’re breaking and why.

Too many times I’ve heard aspiring writers shrug off good grammar, saying they’d rather focus on plot or character, they’d prefer to use a natural, unlearned approach to keep the writing raw, or they will simply hire an editor to do the dirty work.

I have a hard time buying into those lines of reasoning. Refusing to bother with grammar is just plain lazy, especially for writers who yearn to be more than hobbyists.

10 Good Reasons to Pursue Good Grammar

Why should writers should embrace grammar rather than make excuses for ignoring it? Here are ten reasons why good grammar should be a central pursuit in your writing efforts:

1. Readability

If your work is peppered with grammatical mistakes and typos, your readers are going to have a hard time trudging through it. Nothing is more distracting than being yanked out of a good story because a word is misspelled or a punctuation mark is misplaced. You should always respect your readers enough to deliver a product that is enjoyable and easy to use.

2. Communication

Some musicians learn to play by ear and never bother to learn how to read music. Many of them don’t even know which notes and chords they’re playing, even though they can play a full repertoire of recognizable songs and probably a few of their own. But get them in a room with other musicians and they’ll quickly become isolated. You can’t engage with others in your profession if you don’t speak the language of your industry. Good luck talking shop with writers and editors if you don’t know the parts of speech, the names of punctuation marks, and all the other components of language and writing that are related to good grammar.

3. Getting Published

How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work into the trash without thinking twice.

4. Working with an Editor

I love it when writers say they can just hire an editor. This goes back to communication. If you can’t talk shop with other writers, you certainly won’t be able to converse intelligently about your work and its flaws with a professional editor. How will you respond to feedback and revision suggestions or requests when you don’t know what the heck the editor is talking about? Remember, it’s your work. Ultimately, the final version is your call and you won’t be able to approve it if you’re clueless about what’s wrong with it.

5. Saving Money

Speaking of hiring an editor, you should know that editors will only go so far when correcting a manuscript. It’s unseemly to return work to a writer that is solid red with markups. Most freelance editors and proofreaders have a limit to how much they will mark up any given text, so the more grammar mistakes there are, the more surface work the editor will have to do. That means she won’t be able to get into the nitty gritty and make significant changes that take your work from average to superior because she’s breaking a sweat just trying to make it readable.

6. Invest in Yourself

Learning grammar is a way to invest in yourself. You don’t need anything more than a couple of good writing resources and a willingness to take the time necessary to hone your skills. In the beginning, it might be a drag, but eventually, all those grammar rules will become second nature and you will have become a first-rate writer.

7. Respectability, Credibility, and Authority

As a first-rate writer who has mastered good grammar, you will gain respect, credibility, and authority among your peers. People will take you seriously and regard you as a person who is committed to the craft of writing, not just some hack trying to string words together in a haphazard manner.

8. Better Writing All Around

When you’ve taken the time to learn grammar, it becomes second nature. As you write, the words and punctuation marks come naturally because you know what you’re doing; you’ve studied the rules and put in plenty of practice. That means you can focus more of your attention on other aspects of your work, like structure, context, and imagery (to name a few). This leads to better writing all around.

9. Self-Awareness

Some people don’t have it. They charge through life completely unaware of themselves or the people around them. But most of us possess some sense of self. What sense of self can you have as a writer who doesn’t know proper grammar? That’s like being a carpenter who doesn’t know what a hammer and nails are. It’s almost indecent.

10. There’s Only One Reason to Abstain from Good Grammar

There is really only one reason to avoid learning grammar: you’re just plain lazy. Anything else is a silly excuse. Like I said, I’m all for breaking the rules when doing so makes the work better, but how can you break rules effectively if you don’t know what the rules are?

No matter what trade, craft, or career you’re pursuing, it all starts with learning the basics. Actors learn how to read scripts. Scientists learn how to apply the scientific method. Politicians learn how to… well, never mind what politicians do. We are writers. We must learn how to write well, and writing well definitely requires using good grammar.

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I came across a column written by Jon Gingerich.  It echoes the process I follow on rewriting my first draft novels.  He sums it up perfectly and wanted to share.

So you’ve written your story, mulled over its potential problems, and even had it critiqued by friends or colleagues who’ve given you their praise, suggestions and ultimate diagnoses. You know your work has major issues that need addressed. Now what?

 

The first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. The inexperienced writer works on an idea, discovers it’s not working and gives up. The experienced writer works on an idea, discovers it’s not working but has the faith in the story and him/herself to keep going, because he/she knows it will get better with time. Contrary to many beginners’ opinions, stories aren’t truly born in the first draft, but through numerous, significant rewrites. While revision may lack the immediate romanticism of an initial draft, rewriting is a vital part of the creative process. Rewriting is an art form unto itself; just as much discovery is involved in the process, and it can be just as inspiring and inventive as the first draft. Any time you alter your story’s vital elements it teases your creative side to come up with new ideas. Rewriting can help your story become aware of itself; it can elevate an idea to its own reality. In order for the process to work however, a true rewrite cannot simply be editing, copy-editing or proofing. I know you’ve worked hard on it, but your first draft should be viewed as nothing more than a framework. A true rewrite is surrender; it is a complete re-imagining of the work, usually more difficult and always more time consuming than the initial draft.

 

In order to produce a compelling, well-written work of fiction, the writer must wear the hats of writer, editor and audience simultaneously. This is more than a difficult task — it’s a practically impossible undertaking. The writer is expected juggle the work, how she/he plans to change it and — most importantly — theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s been written. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses with three lenses and being asked to navigate a dark highway. The only way to rewrite successfully is to look through each lens separately and attack all elements of the story comprehensively. There are many ways to view a story, but when it comes to the task of rewriting I’ll suggest we divide stories into two distinct views — a Macro and Micro view — and adopt an approach that addresses each. The Macro view is your work’s overarching intent. It’s where you establish a story’s theme, shape, scenes and structure. It’s where you discover what your story is “about,” and who your characters are. Micro is the details: it’s language, length, style, and grammar, it’s the sum “feeling” your Macro qualities exemplify over the body of the work. In some ways, both offer different views of the same components: Structure is Macro, prose is Micro. Character is Macro, dialogue is Micro. Theme is Macro, imagery is Micro. Macro is a discovery process, Micro is a polishing process. Macro is where you lay the foundation for your story, Micro is where you make the house presentable.

 

Too many writers confuse these distinct disciplines and tackle one before the other is addressed. They tweak and retweak sentences while ignoring structural problems, and the result is a bad story that’s well-written, a piece of work that’s grammatically correct yet uninspired. It’s the equivalent of shopping for decorative window shutters when the foundation of your house sits on a fault line. The below four steps will hopefully help divide the tasks of rewriting into an undertaking that’s both reasonable and comprehensive. The idea is to move your rewriting focus gradually from a Macro process to a Micro one, ensuring each area of your story is given due attention — from the foundation up.

 

Restructuring

One of the best tools a writer has is time. After you’ve finished writing your first draft and had it workshopped or critiqued, step away from it. Give yourself distance, work on something else. When you return to your draft with a “fresh” eye you’ll be about as objective as any creator can hope for. Then look at it — a printed copy, not a computer screen — and ask what structural problems need to be addressed. What’s your story’s theme — what are you trying to say, and are you saying anything at all? What’s the story about (the litmus test is you should be able to tell someone in a single sentence, with a verb) and does it echo throughout the piece? How vivid is the world you’ve created? Remove scenes and characters that don’t adequately resonate this theme; add subplots, foreshadowing and new characters that strengthen it. For the characters that remain, who are they and what do they want? Do they speak and behave with authority? Can any of them be criticized as clichés, or do they avoid easy characterization? You’ll need to walk in their shoes, discover their histories, their upbringings. Is the point-of-view a correct one, does the voice reflect the internal structure of the story? Does the plot make sense? It should reveal itself not in a heavy-handed manner but through a slow unfolding of character, structure and theme.

 

The restructuring process should be concerned entirely with Macro qualities. This means it concerns itself less with actual writing and more with building. Leave grammar and sentences alone for the time being; right now you’re molding your story for meaning. Physically take a red pen to the scenes and characters that aren’t working. Cross things out, write in the margins. Then write your new scenes and characters in a new document. When you’re finished, paste the new scenes into the old document, and delete the old ones. You’ll notice the shape of the story and the behavior of characters will change as they begin to move around and interact with new elements.

 

Revision

The operative word here is “vision.” After more time has passed, print out your second draft and look at it again. Here you’ll hopefully see the literary forest for the trees, how your ideas are linking together. Make sure the story’s proportions and rhythms are even. Is the story revealing itself through action and dialogue instead of summary or a laundry list of descriptive details? Is your central theme resonating throughout but subtle enough to avoid being overbearing? The reader’s participation makes the story. Is the beginning of the story inviting? Is the ending profound? How can you maximize emotional intensity in the plot? Add complexity to your characters. Add details that flesh out who a character is; add “quirks” that redefine them as authentic individuals instead of types. In what ways do they contract themselves? Pepper characters with subtle details that resonate on a subconscious level. Do they have distinct ways of speaking, do they repeat specific phrases or words that are specific to them? Is the overall dialogue informative but genuine?

 

Notice with this step we’re moving from a view that began as Macro and is growing increasingly Micro. We’re mowing down, whittling from an abstract lump into a specific shape. The revision process is concerned with building the relationships of form, style and meaning. Here your story is gradually accruing metaphorical weight. What impact does your writing style have on the story? Language should absorb the theme of the work so you’ll want to manipulate language to match the material, but not in an overbearing way. Again, print out your work for this process, and do your edits in longhand.

 

Copy editing

We’re now fully at the Micro end of the process. Print out your second draft and set it on your desk (ideally, in an upright copy holder). Looking at your document, and with your second draft now closed — and, ideally, deleted — open a new document and retype the whole thing over again. The idea is to push the document through a filtration process that focuses on language. When you’re forced to confront every sentence, you’ll be amazed at all the stuff that can go. This is where you’ll see if your words are linking together. First, make sure the words inform, if the theme takes residence in the syntax. Look at how your paragraphs transition; transitions should be subtle evolutions of an idea. How does one paragraph relate to the next? Look at how your sentences grow and branch within the paragraphs. Does every sentence sound like an organic component of the voice, almost like its writer invented it?

 

In the copy editing process, we’re looking for the two “e’s”: what’s exceptional and what’s essential. Get rid of anything that’s not the latter. Delete incidental details. Cut redundancies. Listen to the acoustic properties your sentences have. Have you varied your sentence lengths, or are you delivering the same rhythms over and over again? Make sure your sentences are active. Look out for figurative cliché, unnecessary modifiers and anything that unnecessarily “pads” the sentence. Cut until it hurts; challenge yourself to omit as many words as you can while retaining the sentence’s intended meaning. Ask yourself: how would a first-time reader approach this sentence, this word? The editing process should not water down, the editing process should refine. If you’re still confused as to what your story is “about” you’ll need to stop and return to the first step before proceeding.

 

Proofreading and line editing

You should do this only after the first three steps have been accomplished, before you’re sending the story out for possible publication. Read your story for grammar, double-check your sentences. Watch for punctuation, which gives your readers space to “breathe” between ideas. Then, paginate your work into columns, using a program like InDesign or QuarkXPress. Change the font from the one in which you usually write. Sometimes the strange look of a different typeface and layout can reveal new problems to eyes already tired from the work. Finally, read your work aloud. Speaking puts your work in audible spaces; it objectifies the language and places it outside the writer’s head. Both of these methods are intended to temporarily “trick” the brain into seeing your work in a new light, to imagine your story from the perspective of a stranger.

 

You’ll notice I prefer an editing environment that’s as “analogue” as possible. There’s no doubt the medium you choose to transcribe ideas (computer, typewriter, shorthand) irrevocably affects the written product. Computers are great, but they’re machines of convenience; we live in an age where technologies allow us to circumvent essential parts of the editing process. You can be assured that when someone wrote a 500-page novel with a quill pen only the essentials remained. Computers, while enabling us to churn out rough drafts at incredibly short intervals, have given writers diarrhea of the mind. They’ve allowed a lot of unneeded superlatives and afterthoughts to pass through the filtration process. Moreover, by virtue of their design they’re constantly tempting us to scroll up and change what we’ve written before moving on, so the finished product is often a messy hodgepodge of polished crap aside half-baked brilliance. I’m not suggesting writers change the transcribing medium they’re accustomed to. Instead, my advice is to use the best of both worlds to your advantage: use a computer to write your first drafts quickly, so you can trowel the compost of your creative mind with abandon. Let it be sloppy, let it be messy. The rewrite however, should ideally take ten times the effort to complete. When switching cerebral lobes to your analytical side, switch mediums — a red pen, paper — to accommodate the new mental task at hand. Always type a new draft; do your work in a new document, not an existing one; and don’t keep multiple drafts. When you force yourself into a position where every word matters, you’ll be amazed at the effect it will have on your final product. Ideally, the rewriting process should be like wringing out a towel, where we void the bad elements and add new ones that contribute to its ideal shape.  Have one draft, and work it to death.