The Write Stuff--Part 8: Rewriting

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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 month's 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:

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