Rewriting is the essence of writing well—
where the game is won or lost.
~ William Zinsser
The first draft of your book is done on a blank slate, where the important thing is to get your ideas and thoughts down on paper (real or virtual). Even if you started with an outline, it’s almost impossible to see the whole work as you write. It’s like a painting—the picture can’t be appreciated until the artist is finished. Rewriting is a chance to look back at or revisit a first or previous draft—to take a fresh, critical look at what’s been written.
One of the guiding principles of writing is to avoid editing during the process. This prevents interruption of the creative process. But when your book is complete, it’s worth checking to see if what you wrote was worth saying, that your message is clear, and that a reader will be able to get your points.
Following are some ideas for revising your work:
- Take a break – Don’t start revising until you’ve given yourself some distance from the completion. How long? For some it can be as short as a few hours. For others, a few days to a few weeks works best. It’s important for you to be alert and focused, which also means that you should take regular reading breaks.
- Print a copy – Yes, there’s the expense and seeming waste of paper, but reading a printed document is more natural, it’s easier on the eyes, and people tend to read more carefully. It also allows you to make notes in the margins or paste on some sticky notes. To have room for comments, set wide margins and use double or even triple spacing. Don’t speed-read because you’re familiar with the text. Read slowly, even word-for-word.
- Read out loud—Some people take the time to read the work 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?” It’s a great way to see bumps in the road and to find out how the text you’re written actually flows.
- Be honest with yourself – As much as humanly possible, go through your book as a potential reader, not as the author. Try to assess the book from a neutral position. Read your book as if it were written by someone else.
- This is not editing – This is a chance to view your book from 1,000 feet up. Look at the forest, not the trees. This is a full reading; it’s not for dotting i’s or crossing t’s. Are the pathways clear? Can you get from one end to the other without any obstacles?
- Look for balance – Are all your chapters or sections in appropriate proportion? Did you spend too much time on one point, while short-changing another? Delete what’s not essential to your theme or topic.
- Look at the structure – Does the book flow logically and smoothly? Does your book deliver on the promise of the title, each chapter heading and section heading? Would your book be improved if you reorganized some of the text? Do you have a strong opening and closing?
- Remember your audience – Does your voice talk to the audience you have in mind for your book? Are the tone and formality appropriate?
- Fact check – Have you verified everything that you state as factual? Have you gotten approvals to use any borrowed material? Have you included proper citations, where appropriate?
As an effective writer, you often have to give up the idea that this is your “baby”. As you go through your book, be prepared to discard “stuff” that doesn’t work, no matter how attached to it you think you are. If you don’t do it, chances are an editor will. And then you’ll find yourself wanting to defend the work, instead of thinking how much better it would be.
Caution: Some people try to edit or revise while they’re writing the first draft. This may sound efficient, but there’s a risk. When you stop to edit, you’re interrupting the creative process and the flow. It’s usually most effective to get all your thoughts down, then go back and see the work as a whole. If you spend too much time fiddling with what you’ve already written, you may lose some of what hasn’t yet been written.
Please don’t view the second draft as a chore. It can actually can be fun to work on. Why? Because you’ve already done the hardest part of writing – getting your thoughts out of your head. Now you get a chance to refine your ideas and words, to sharpen your work. And realize that in most cases, two major drafts should be all you need.
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