Three Ways to Revise Your Writing

There is no writing. Only rewriting.

I’ll admit that in high school and college I used to sit down at my typewriter (yes, I’m that old) and knock out a piece of writing that I would turn in unrevised except for typos. (Thank God for Corrasable Bond and Wite-Out.) And I skated through somehow.

But now that I write and edit for a living, I know the value – the necessity – of rewriting. I checked my blog posts and they average six different versions before I post them each week. Some of those revisions are only a word or two here and there, or a better title or an illustration, but many changes are more significant.

The three main types of revision I do are to add, cut, and rearrange.

Add

By adding, I don’t mean padding. Hardly anyone pays by the word anymore, so there’s no need to bump up your word count on that account. But there are legitimate reasons to add to the text you’ve written. Here’s an example:

Nicky and Spike, trotting now, plunged deeper under the dim canopy of trees. A light sweat on the boy’s forehead and the dog’s rhythmic panting mixed with the early evening’s chill, a seesaw between warm and cool. A few newly fallen leaves scuffed underfoot, reminding him of the sound of rattling papers and the dusty scent of school.

This is a piece of fiction I was writing. In the original I used visual words like “dim”; sound words like “panting”; and even touch words like “sweat,” “chill,” “warm,” and “cool.”  In the sentence I added, I beefed up the sound words (“scuffed,” “rattling”) and added a smell – “dusty scent of school.” Smell is one sense that often gets overlooked in description. In a later scene, I described a garage mechanic’s shop using mostly smell words – “There was the distinct tang in the air entering my nostrils: grease, fuel, ozone, and some solvent that smelled like nail polish remover but probably wasn’t.”

Of course, sensory description can come in to play in nonfiction as well, but more often nonfiction needs supporting points to bolster a thesis, such as arguments or examples or sentences that extend a thought.

Cut

Back in the day, there were two kinds of cutting often required. The first was surgical editing, snipping a word (usually “very”) or even an ending here and there to bring up a widow or orphan in typesetting. (Yes, I am that old.) The other was slash-and-burn cutting, removing entire sentences and paragraphs when an author had overwritten the space allocated. When you have a specific word count, be it 300 words or 3000, you may very well have to cut.

Here’s one case in which I had to cut:

But let’s get back to (advertising. It’s bad enough that large men can’t find clothing to fit and flatter them, but onscreen they’re invisible.) real life. The plus-size men I know don’t even have a clue where they can find underwear that fits.

The text I cut is in parentheses and the words I added to take their place are in bold. When I looked at the paragraph, I realized that I was no longer talking about TV, so I ditched the part about on-screen ads and brought the discussion back to lived experience.

Rearrange

Finally, there is changing the order of sentences or paragraphs – rearranging. This can be triggered by pragmatic as well as aesthetic concerns. In one piece I wrote, I discussed pantyhose, hair coloring, and packaging. The best visual I could find for the piece was one of packaged fruit. Voilà! The piece became one about packaging concerns, hair coloring, and pantyhose. (If you wonder how all those worked together, you can find it at https://wp.me/p4e9wS-za.)

Another post started with the title “Does It Help When Celebrities Talk About Mental Illness?”

The first and second sentences were:

It usually doesn’t hurt.

(Except when it’s someone like Andrew Tate, of course. https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-zj)

I continued:

But how much does it help?

And then it occurred to me that the order was wrong. The intro should read:

It usually doesn’t hurt. But how much does it help?

So I rearranged it. But that left the Andrew Tate sentence hanging. So I cut it. Unless the reader already knew about the Tate incident, it was meaningless, and expecting the reader to go look it up was an imposition.

There are many other techniques of revision – unburying the lead, starting in media res, strengthening the flow of a piece, switching from third person to first – and ones that apply more to fiction or nonfiction (or poetry for that matter). But a fair amount of the revising you do will be a variant of one of these three techniques: adding, cutting, and rearranging.

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