I had intended to write about rewriting. However, as I type this, I'm already rewriting about rewriting. Pretty soon I'll be rewriting what I've rewritten about rewriting. And so it goes, as author Kurt Vonnegut wrote, or rewrote, or...sorry, I'll make it stop.
I spend much more time rewriting than writing. I'm not sure what the ratio is; probably the equivalent of 3-5 total rewrites for every manuscript I've authored. Does that mean I'm a bad writer? I'd be a bad medic if I needed 3-5 attempts to treat a patient properly. Don't we pride ourselves on getting things right the first time?
Once we get past spelling, grammar and syntax, there are no rights and wrongs in writing--only better and worse. Reviewing and polishing our work improves what appears in print. Editors contribute, but writers must own the quality assurance process. That begins with a self-critique. Sometimes only fine-tuning is needed; more commonly, we rewrite paragraphs, pages or whole pieces. As noted raconteur and ridiculously talented baseball player Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till it's over." (Memo to my seventh-grade English teacher: I just used ain't in a sentence. No, communists didn't make me do it.)
As I review my manuscripts, I'm checking two broad aspects of composition: structure--the right words and punctuation in the right places; and content--how successfully I think I've communicated my theme, and how much value I've added for my readers. It's much easier to evaluate structure than content, particularly when polishing one's own prose.
This Life Support column in EMS World Magazine deals with a pretty weighty subject: death. My goal was to use an example from my personal life to illustrate how EMS changes the way we view death. I introduced Joel, a boyhood friend, who died after a long, debilitating illness. When my wife, Helen, read an early draft, she commented that it sounded like a eulogy for Joel--not my intent. I knew Helen was right, but I hated to change parts of the story that sounded so good to me. As I reluctantly shortened the first two paragraphs and removed a third that contained sentimental but irrelevant details about Joel's family, I conceded the importance of two steps I sometimes resist when I edit my own compositions:
Have someone close read it. It's difficult for authors to be objective about their work. Getting a second opinion--particularly from someone familiar with your tendencies--can highlight deficiencies before you submit your manuscript. You probably won't agree with every recommendation, but consider them all.
"Murder your darlings." Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, journalist and novelist, authored that sublime suggestion about what to do with self-indulgent prose. "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing," Quiller-Couch counseled, "obey it--wholeheartedly--and delete it before sending your manuscript to press."
Here's an example of "verbicide" I committed in an early draft of this piece: The fourth sentence of the second paragraph originally read, If I needed 3-5 attempts to treat a patient properly, I'd be unemployed, or I'd be working for…never mind. I was trying to be funny, but I might have sounded vindictive. I wouldn't want to be known as "that vindictive columnist."
I won't pretend to have Sir Arthur's flair for admonishment. What I'm offering instead is the rest of my pre-submission checklist:
- Every sentence of your manuscript should have a purpose, and each paragraph should support your story.
- The first two paragraphs should indicate, or at least foreshadow, your theme. Don't keep your audience guessing about what you're trying to say.
- Avoid overusing words, but keep the language simple. Multisyllabic, obscure expressions often sound pretentious.
- Don't assume readers will understand abbreviations or acronyms. Spell them out the first time, with the short form following in parentheses; for example, the American Heart Association (AHA).
- Check the consistency of tense, gender and number (singular/plural).
- If you're writing for a broad EMS audience, be cautious about including references to ALS medications and procedures.
- Compensate readers for their time: entertain, instruct, provoke thought or stimulate emotions.
- Your closing should summarize your theme, not introduce a new topic.
- Try to maintain structure--a beginning, middle and end; and flow--seamless progression within and between those sections.
- Soften inflexible, unverifiable terms such as always and never.
- Do a reality check on any attempts at humor. Better still, don't try to be funny unless you know your audience and your editor knows you.
- Let your manuscript sit for a day, then read it aloud to yourself. You'll be surprised at what you hear.
- Don't wait until you're finished before you read your work. Periodic reviews help you make sure you're headed in the right direction.
- Double-check your working title. Is it consistent with your theme?
- Spell-check--such an easy step, often forgotten.
When you know your work isn't working, fix it. Don't send it to someone higher on the publishing food chain for repairs. Remember, your submission is one of many in a competitive marketplace. Don't make it easy to reject.
For the record, I read this piece 11 times--wait, this makes 12--after I thought I'd finished it. Each time I changed more than one line. It's still not perfect--it never will be. I just can't find anything else to fix. But give it back to me a few months from now, after I've forgotten how it goes, and I'll wish I'd made more changes. Anything we write can always be better.
In part 9 we'll discuss what happens on the other side of the editorial desk. Meanwhile, reread, rewrite and rewrite again--even if you must murder your darlings.
Grammar & Composition, www.grammar.about.com.
Quiller-Couch A. On the Art of Writing. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1916.
King S. On Writing. Pocket Books, 2000.
- Part 1: Introduction--goals, philosophy, agenda.
- Part 2: Getting started--generating ideas, choosing topics and planning content.
- Part 3: Developing publishing contacts; submitting queries and proposals to editors.
- Part 4: Language, structure, essential elements of composition.
- Part 5: Using protected material--references, citations, quotations, graphics.
- Part 6: Grammar--common mistakes.
- Part 7: Establishing your style.
- Part 8: Self-critique--reviewing, rewriting, polishing.
- Part 9: Editors and editing.
- Part 10: Summary.
- Part 11: Case study--development of the December 2011 Life Support column for EMS World.
Mike Rubin, BS, NREMT-P, is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World's editorial advisory board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.