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Writing Is Rewriting
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Author Dorothy Parker once wrote, "I hate writing, I love having written." The love she alludes to is the blessed feeling we have when the writing is done. Until then, she says, it's something to hate. Granted that many writers see writing as a chore, there's another phase that's just as challenging: the rewrite phase, or that time when we go back to what we've written and try to figure out how to say it better. Good or bad, right or wrong, this uncomfortable phase of change is necessary. To give some writers their due, there are those who think they never have to rewrite anything. Noir novelist Mickey Spillane said that about his own work, but then who claims to be another Mickey Spillane?
If you're a student trying to write, you've probably learned that first drafts are usually flawed. Words need to be added or discarded; sentences need to be dissected or moved around, and even paragraphs end up in the wrong place. You make these changes because you want to make your writing better, more effective, and more memorable-and you'd like to get a good grade! But before you start applauding your performance, let's look at how you got there. What did you actually do during this phase we call rewriting?
Did You Do What You Said You'd Do?
Did you carry out your plan? Did you create a step-by-step process? Did you identify your purpose, audience, and message, or thesis? To decide on your purpose, you had to determine what you were trying to do: write an essay, a poem, a memoir, a narrative, a grocery list? After purpose, next comes audience, your reader, so did you jot down notes on what kind of writing is right, informal or formal? How about vocabulary? What words are right for this audience? And what tone is right? Is texting okay? Probably not, especially if you're writing for a teacher who agrees that texting is suitable only for informal chit chat between family and friends.
And the "Bug" Hunt?
You also need to read through our writing and remove all the little "bugs" that make your writing difficult to understand: unnecessary abstractions, annoying cliches, excessive jargon and acronyms, coined or clipped words, and former Texas senator Maury Maverick's famous but ill-fated gobbledygook. What is gobbledygook? Here's a sample:
"Absenteeism of primary pedagogy personnel often determines the need for available individuals with the necessary credentials to take a replacement position until said primary pedagogy personnel return to full educator participation."
And here's the same statement minus the gobbledygook:
"When full-time teachers are absent, qualified substitutes will take their places."
Did You Accentuate the Positive?
It's best to resist the urge to write when you're angry or revengeful. You may feel that some sort of revengeful writing is deserved, but make no mistake-sticks and stones are not the only things that can hurt. If you try to write something mean, don't forget that spiteful words remain long after the anger has subsided. Spoken anger lasts for only an instant, because spoken anger is invisible. It is heard, not seen. On the other hand, written anger remains visible, and even has the look and feel of a boomerang. And what do boomerangs do?
You Want Your Reader's Trust, Right?
Careless or wishful statements will destroy a reader's trust in your judgment and in your ability to present information honestly. A first draft is a good time to look for and delete bias or irrational statements. One essay included the statement, "There are still problems in our community that need solutions: speeders, vagrants, and juveniles." In this sentence, the writer names three problems, speeders, vagrants, and all juveniles. But is that what the writer meant?
Vagrants are a problem, that we know, as are drivers who speed. But how about juveniles? Is it a problem just to be a juvenile? No, of course not. Could it be that the student writing this essay meant to say "juvenile offenders"? If that's what he meant then he should have written, "... speeders, vagrants, and juvenile offenders." A good edit could have flagged that oversight.
Long involved sentences, and lots of them, typically confuse readers. Most of the time we can cut down on wordiness, delete the unnecessary, and end up with a better version. As writers, we want our messages or theses to be remembered; otherwise, they exist only for the short time a reader reads, a mere second or two, before they get run over by the next sentence. But what if fewer words could create writing that is more memorable? One person made history with a memorable response that probably set the record for the fewest words.
Toward the end of World War II, during the Battle of the Bulge, a company of American soldiers was surrounded in the town of Bastogne, France. The German officer in charge wrote a two-page letter to commanding officer General Anthony McAuliffe, demanding the Americans give up. The general read the letter, then sent back his reply... "Nuts!" That was the general's version of how to keep it brief, plus it gave him a page in American military literary history. Student writing will seldom be as brief, but the example does make the point-good writing contains only those words needed to convey a meaning.
It might help to make a checklist of editing steps you should take no matter what the assignment. There may be times when a structured approach like a list is not called for, but any list should include spell-check plus a word-for-word read through to catch the wrong word. Remember, spell-check and grammar-correction software will ignore the legitimate word "brother," but what if you meant to say "bother"? In this article I found an "exits" that should have been "exist." Those are the kinds of goofs only our naked eyes can spot. When you check you're writing four mistakes, you want the right words to be their, right?
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