I went to college so long ago that I wrote my many English papers on an electric typewriter. Because I was 18 or 19 or so, I left every assignment until the last possible minute.
That meant that what I typed first is what I handed in. That may explain why, decades later, I still have nightmares about not being able to find the typewriter or typing paper with a term paper due the next day.
By the time I was a college senior, I was slightly more disciplined. That year I took a course on the poetry of John Milton. I never knew what to write about Milton. I spent a lot of time stuck between Chaos and Hell.
That was apparent to my professor. She told me that I must buy a word processor. She said it was essential for writing papers because you could easily move chunks of text from one spot to another. Ideas would be simple to organize. Revising would be a breeze.
I couldn't comprehend her crazy talk. Nothing was wrong with my typewriter. A word processor would cost a fortune. I was 21, and I knew everything.
Well, times change. I realized I didn't know everything.
No, I don't have a word processor now. I have a genuine computer. More importantly, I've learned that my professor was right about one key thing: Rewriting can be your friend.
Many people dislike the idea of rewriting. Human nature makes us believe what we have written is golden. But few pieces of writing are perfect, even after the 10th round of rewriting.
Maybe the idea sounds less severe when you call it revising, tinkering, altering, modifying or changing.
The process needn't apply only to academic writing. Whether you're writing an autobiography, a complaint about too much pulp in your orange juice, a Dear John letter or a job application, you can afford to revise.
Ask yourself a few questions: Is this the best way to start this paper? Does the rest of what I've written support my premise?
Could this sentence be written in active voice instead of passive? Why did I write "the" twice? Can I use a better verb here? Can I use a better transition there? Do I have enough information?
Do I really need this sentence? What words can I cut out? Is this a cliche? Is this paragraph clear? Am I repeating things? Have I checked the grammar, punctuation and spelling?
Then, guess what. You need to ask yourself all those questions again.
Ernest Hemingway explained his iceberg method of writing. "There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg."
Whenever you can, give yourself some breathing room before you rewrite. If something needs to be finished Wednesday morning, try to complete it by Monday. Then wait a day before you look at it again. You could be surprised by what jumps out at you. (When you're just starting out, you might need safety goggles.)
The poet Horace recommended that people wait nine years before going back to rewrite. I guess life moved a lot more slowly during the Roman Empire.
The distance helps you to refocus. When you return to your paper or letter or project, you will look at it with new eyes. (No, not literally.)
Sometimes printing the story can help you see something that needs fixing. Mark the changes on the printout, then, when you're sure about them, make the changes on the document.
It may be hard to accept that what you wrote wasn't perfect the first time, but do your best.
Prolific writer Roald Dahl said, "By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this."
I can't imagine where he found the time.
In researching this column, I found a newspaper story that said John Milton made few big changes to his writing, only tweaks. Now I'm irritated.
Sources: On Writing Well by William Zinsser, SUNY Empire State College, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Purdue University, The Boston Globe, Brooklyn College
ActiveStyle on 04/09/2018
Print Headline: To write well, you rewrite it