Ep 192: (Re)Write to Discover How to Improve Your Drafts
“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory1
First Drafts Reveal What You Want to Say
We’ve already covered the power of writing to discover what we want to say. We can do that with freewriting to discover our initial ideas, writing in our journals or as a warmup exercise when we first sit down to work.
We can also use freewriting to bang out our initial draft. This is especially powerful if we’re doing short-form work and pour out the entire story or article in one sitting.
If we prefer, however, we can sit down after we think, plan, plot, and outline, and version one may emerge more smoothly, flowing from one idea to the next with logic and fluency.
Your personality may feel more comfortable with one approach or the other; there’s no right or wrong. The goal is to get that first draft out so you have material to work with.
Once the draft is complete, the real work begins.
It’s time to refine that draft, through rewriting, revision, and editing.
Rewrite and Revise to Improve Your Drafts
As Ernest Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”2
Editing is how we arrive at our finalized message, our finished work. Because as freeing and freewheeling as we may be when writing the draft, the project needs this next discovery phase. We need to clarify our ideas and clean up our messes. We may need to tweak and tighten.
On the other hand, if the curse of knowledge causes us to write too lean, we might need to elaborate on an idea we’ve skipped over or ignored or we may need to expand a section that needs clarity.
Questions to Consider
To revise, we must begin with the same basic instructions a high school or college student receives in composition class: know the topic, audience, and purpose of your piece.
Read with those three things in mind to be sure you’re staying on topic, providing appropriate content for that particular reader, and achieving the intended purpose (such as to persuade, entertain, or inform). For example, you can cut paragraphs where you’ve veered off topic and add information if your audience would need background information.
Author Mary Karr offers a less formal approach to editing and revising:
“All the while, I question. Is this really crucial? Are you writing this part to pose as cool or smart?
For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing.”3
Stephen King, too, reads his drafts with certain questions in mind. In On Writing, he explains:
Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme?… What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.4
How to Rewrite and Revise to Improve Your Drafts
You’ll find various methods for rewriting and revising your drafts. Writers approach their work in all kinds of ways.
Some can’t move forward before they’ve refined the latest section.
Others basically freewrite and deal with the word-vomit that splatters onto the page by returning later and cleaning up the mess with next-level editing.
1. Revise and Refine Along the Way
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says Kurt Vonnegut micromanaged his drafts so that his completed work each day was crisp and clean:
Kurt Vonnegut…rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them. The result was days when he might only manage a page or two of finished copy (and the wastebasket would be full of crumpled, rejected page seventy-ones and seventy-twos), but when the manuscript was finished, the book was finished, by gum. You could set it in type.5