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Exercises for Revising and Polishing Your Writing

Exercises for Revising and Polishing Your Writing
Writing is Rewriting

Once you learn to exercise your writing muscles, once you gain the confidence to dive in and write, once you have first drafts of your stories, plays, poems, even a novel, then the real work begins. Someone very wise once said that all writing is rewriting. In order to create, we must banish self-doubt and keep our pens moving. If we criticize our work as we create it, our creativity will suffer. We encourage you to try your hand at poems, stories, any form of creative writing you choose, or a little bit of each.

The first draft of any piece of creative writing, though, is rarely perfect. In your burst of creativity, you may have experienced fits and starts. A character that seemed interesting my not end up in a critical role. A metaphor that seemed so fresh may seem trite in the fresh light of a new day. This is normal. The work you read by professional writers you admire has been revised countless times before you ever see it. Revision is normal and necessary. All writing is rewritten. All first drafts can be improved upon. The ability to rewrite is what separates the professional writer from the amateur. Once you have trained yourself to turn your creativity on, once you have written gloriously messy first drafts, you can turn your attention to the equally important skill of revising. Here are some essential basics to keep in mind as you revise and polish your work.

Let it Rest

When you complete a piece of writing, set it aside and work on something else for a while. If you try to revise your work just after finishing a first draft, you will be too close to it, too attached to it. To change anything now will feel like a personal affront to your creativity. If you let a piece sit for a while though, you will gain perspective on it. After a few weeks, your memories of having written every word in front of you will fade. The work will almost seem as if someone else wrote it. This is what you want. It is far easier to criticize someone else's work than your own. Get some distance from your own and you will be able to make more informed decisions about its strengths and weaknesses.

Take the Critic out of the Box
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We initially talked about silencing the inner critic to foster creative writing. Now that your initial burst of creativity is past, and you have a first draft on your hands, it's time to invite your critic back into the dialogue, but only with some rules and limitations. You need to assess your work as objectively as you can. You need to try to determine where you have succeeded, and where your work needs improvement. What you don't need is self-defeating insults, and attacks on your worth as a person. Tell yourself that your inner critic is invited back to provide constructive criticism. As you revise, refrain from indulging in self-criticism, and focus on your work. What do you like best about it? What do you like least. You may decide a piece of writing is really not worth revising. This is no reflection on you as a person. Even the best writers experience cycles. Sometimes you're good, sometimes not so much. As a beginner, you may well have more bad days than good, but remember that you learn from each piece of writing, whether good or bad. If you are unable to let your inner critic into the revision process without becoming emotional, and criticizing yourself for your shortcomings, you are probably still too close to the work. Put it aside again and look at it later.

Cut Some Words

Chances are, your first draft has redundant moments, places where you restated something as you worked to discover what you wanted to say. Your story may have scenes that seemed to belong in the story when you wrote them, but have subsequently become less relevant as your plot took an unexpected turn. There is nearly always something that you can cut from a story to make it more concise, more coherent, more punchy. Go through your manuscript with a red pen and cross out everything you can do without. If you are working on a computer, you may want to try printing your work to go through this process. The physical act of crossing out words can be very satisfying. If you prefer to stay on the computer, your word processing software should have a "track changes" option so you can see the revisions you've made, in case you want to put something back in that you initially removed. In On Writing, novelist Stephen King mentions an early piece of advice that transformed his work and led to much of his initial publishing success. The formula for a second draft, one editor told him, was the first draft minus ten percent. You should be able to cut at least ten percent of any first draft, and doing so will nearly always make what's left much stronger.

Read Out Loud
We covered the importance of reading out loud in the section on playwriting, but any creative work should be read out loud. If a passage is clumsy to speak, on some level it will be clumsy to read as well. Read all of your work out loud, but especially your dialogue. Does it sound natural? Does it sound like something a person would actually say? Make changes based on your findings. While we read novels with our eyes, we are really saying the words in our minds. How do the words of your story flow?

Strive for Cohesion

Does every scene in your piece, every line, every word, contribute to the work's overall theme? Or is there a scene that you really wanted to write, that has great dialogue and description, but that really doesn't advance your story? Take a hard look at anything that isn't directly relevant to the story at hand, and take it out. You can save it and write a new piece around it. All of your reader's attention should be routed toward an essential, central story goal. Make sure everything you do is related. If you wrote an essay on plant life and included a short section on your political view, you would have some pretty confused readers on your hands. The same holds true for creative writing. Stick to the subject at hand, and cut out anything that doesn't directly relate.

Exercise: Choose any piece of writing you've created and revise it. Apply the tools we have discussed all at once, or one after another. Let the piece rest, then let your inner critic give you some constructive criticism. Cut out needless words, scenes, chapters, lines. Look for cohesion. When you have finished, let the piece rest again, then revise again. Rewriting is a process of gradually winnowing away parts of your work until you reach the essence of what you wanted to say. What you wanted to say may have been a mystery as you planned the work, but as you revise, you will get to the heart of it. Keep revising until the last draft seems to lack something that the one before it did not. Go back to the previous draft and stop. If you can only make something worse, there is no need to work further on it.

The creative writer is possessed of supernatural power. She can create new worlds and new universes, or change existing ones as she sees fit. She can bring to life people she has never met, or places she has never visited. She can ask us, "What would happen if?" and then tell us the answer as she imagines it.

Whether the writer writes of the mundane everyday world, though, or of the most fantastic magical kingdom imaginable, she must always strive to tell the truth. The truth about people and the things they would do, even if their circumstances were so fantastic that they wouldn't be possible in real life. While readers read to imagine the world as it could be, they always want to learn about the world as it is. As they read about people who never existed, except in a writer's mind, they always hope most of all to learn about themselves.
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