This is a common question among authors. And there are two answers.
The first has to do with editing while you’re writing — a potentially bad idea. Most often, the best writing happens in free-flow; that is, the author has a concept in mind and just can’t wait to get it down — either typing it, hand-writing it, or speaking into a voice-recording device. Stopping to edit what’s documented or recorded breaks this flow. And it’s often difficult to reproduce the original concept or enthusiasm. It’s far more effective to get the idea for your text out of your head; there’s plenty of time for making changes later.
The second answer has to do with manuscript quality. There are two extremes. Some authors, especially those who use an editor, think, “Hey, I wrote it. You edit it.” The result is often sloppy, incoherent, rambling text. The other extreme is perfectionism. There are some authors who rewrite their text five, ten, fifteen times or more — to get that last measure out of the words. This may be true more in fiction than non-fiction.
So, how much rewriting should you do? Keep in mind that your goal is to write something that captures your reader’s attention, is interesting, flows smoothly, and is intellectually and emotionally strong. To achieve that, you may have to keep rewriting until you get there — it’s part of the writing process. Put yourself in the place of your editor or your audience. Would you be happy with the product in your hand? Does your text truly and effectively express what you had in mind?
One good way to review something you’ve written is to put it away for a while. This might be hours, days or weeks. Then, sit down and read your words as if you’ve never seen them before. Don’t speed-read, because you’re familiar with the text. Read slowly, even word-for-word.
Another idea is to read your text out loud, as if you were speaking to an audience. This might sound embarrassing, but if you pay attention, you might find that some ideas are incomplete, thoughts are missing, there are places where the emphasis needs to be increased or decreased, or the flow is broken. As you listen to yourself, ask yourself, “Would I really talk to people the way I’ve written? And if I talked this way, what would my audience be thinking?”
In addition, you need to read non-defensively. There’s nothing on the page so precious that it can’t be improved or removed. Your words are there as a means to an end — the conveyance of ideas — and nothing more. So, getting the words right is critical.
Once you start considering rewriting as part of the writing process, and consider how much fun it is to read your material as an outsider, or listen to yourself talking the text, you’ll probably find out that it’s not only effective, but fun as well. And the smoothness of your finished product will be well worth the time and effort.
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