Improving Writing by Rewriting
"Writing is Rewriting" is an old writer's adage, and it is the key to creating the best work you can. The books and stories we read in published form were rarely written in one take. They started out as first drafts, and then their authors revised them, quite likely more than once. The great masters of literature often spent far more time revising than they did on their first drafts.
So what is rewriting and how do you do it? Let's discuss some techniques that will help you revise and improve your own work.
Let it Sit
To effectively revise your work, you need to gain some emotional distance from it. Let it sit and work on something else before coming back to revise it. When you first finish a draft, you will be emotionally involved with it. You will either love it or think it's drivel, but either way it will be impossible to be objective. Give a story at least two weeks of rest time, more for a longer work, such as a chapter book. When you return to revise, your writing should almost seem like someone else's work. This is what you want. It's easier to judge someone else's work than your own.
Now the Critic Can Speak
The inner critic whom you silenced during the writing of your draft can now be allowed a voice, but with some rules. Tell your critic that constructive criticism is encouraged, but nothing else. Saying, "this stinks. Throw it away" is not constructive. Saying "I think there's too much dialog," or "the description is a little too vague" IS constructive. Try to judge your work only in terms of ways you can improve it. If you aren't sure how to improve it, try some of approaches listed below.
Techniques for Revision
Cutting. Look for ways to make your story more concise. If you have a specific word count in mind, try to trim down to it now. Look for repetitive sentences, description that can be condensed. Does every character action relate directly to the story's key problem? Cut out anything that doesn't feel crucial to telling the story. Cutting can often be done in several passes. Go through a round of cutting, try another revision technique, and then cut some more.
Add Detail. Look for places to be more specific. If there's a tree in your story, make it a white pine or an oak or an aspen. If there's a car, is it a Dodge or a Mercedes? Make the details agree with other aspects of the story. If it is set in Michigan, leave out the palm trees. If the character's parents are poor, they probably don't drive a Mercedes.
Remember the four non-visual senses when adding detail. What sounds would be heard in this setting? Are your characters warm or cold? How does that breakfast taste?
Break it Up. Look at your story as a whole. Is it too heavy on one element, such as dialog or description? Introduce some variation. Break up dialog with action. Make the dialog interactive. Make sure one character doesn't do all the talking.
You can also break up description with action. On the other hand, you may be long on action but short on dialog and description. Strive for balance and variation.
Work the Lead. A strong opening line is essential in grabbing the attention of your reader. It is often referred to as a "hook," as you hope to hook the reader with a lead that makes then want to find out what happens next. One technique for a strong lead is to start your story with action, as in this example:
Alex wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked at the hole he had dug.
With a lead like this, you are immediately showing the reader your character rather than telling. You are also creating interest. Why did he dig a hole? The reader will want to read on and find out. Have your main character doing something instead of describing a character or setting. You can do these things shortly after the story begins, but lead with action.
An opening line that arouses your reader's curiosity is also strong. Consider this example:
The worst day of my life started with a phone call from my cat.
Have I grabbed your attention? Most people will want to know how on earth a cat could have made a phone call. (I don't know. I haven't written the story yet. Feel free to try finishing this one yourself.) And what made this the worst day of the narrator's life? Is her worst day anything like my worst day, or can I top her? The above example also uses a technique called foreshadowing, or telling what's going to happen later in order to arouse the reader's interest. The narrator couldn't have known when she got up that this would be the worst day of her life, but now that she's telling the story she can allude to what will happen later. Here's another example:
Jill didn't know about the surprise party when she showed up late for class.
Here, the reader knows something is going to happen. There is going to be a surprise party. How will it go? Will the fact that Jill is late cause something to go wrong?
In an adventure story, you might lead with the moment just before something exciting happens:
Mr. Grady opened the airplane's hatch and Jill's stomach fluttered as she stared at the ground far below. Suddenly skydiving didn't seem like such a good idea after all.
Pay attention to your story leads. A strong opening will cause readers (and editors) to lean forward in their seats, eager to know what happens next.
Raise the Stakes
What is at stake for your character? What will he lose if he fails to solve his problem? Say your story is about a character who has lost his lucky rabbit's foot. So what? Is the reader likely to care? Probably not. Presumably life will go on as usual for this character, rabbit's foot or no rabbit's foot. But if really unlucky things start happening because the rabbit's foot is lost, the reader is likely to become emotionally involved. See that your character faces enough risk to make the story important. As you read over your first draft, ask yourself what your character stands to gain or lose through his struggle with the story's problem. Can you raise the stakes? If a character is lost, for instance, make her lost with night coming and the temperature falling fast. Or make sure she needs an insulin shot and she's lost it somewhere. Give your reader a reason to care about your character by raising the stakes as high as you can.
Read Out Loud
Don't Despair, Share!
So you've worked hard at writing the best story you can, and then you've revised so that it's twice as good as when you started out. You feel you've done everything you can with it. Is it good enough? It's time to let others look at your work. You will never be completely objective about your own work. You will need other people's opinions to help you determine whether you are on the right track or not. But this must be done with care. A story you've written, especially if it is one of your first, is like a child you have given birth to and nurtured. If your story does have flaws, and the wrong person points this out to you in an insensitive way, it can be heartbreaking.
Finding a "First Reader"
Ideally, you will have someone you will want to show your work to first. This should be someone very close to you. A spouse, family member, or very close friend, usually. Choose someone who cares about you and has always supported your dreams and respected your feelings in the past. This person is often called a "first reader" or an "ideal reader." He or she will be someone you can trust to give you useful information, but deliver criticism in a supportive way that hopefully won't make you throw your work in a drawer and give up writing.
If you are lucky enough to have a candidate for this role, talk to her about your writing. Let her know what your goals are as a writer, and where you see yourself and your skills now. Let her know what level of criticism you are prepared to deal with at this time. Help her understand how emotionally attached you are to your work, but promise to listen to her feedback with an open mind. Then ask for constructive criticism. Instead of "is this any good?" ask "what do you like the best about this story, and what do you like the least? Do my descriptions help you imagine the setting? Are my characters interesting to you?" Asking about specifics like this will help you improve areas of the story that need work. You want to stay away from global judgements like "this story is no good." You may not be ready for a Newberry Award, but that's not the point. The point is learning to write as well as you can. The point is improving the story in front of you and taking what you've learned from writing it and applying that to the next story you write.
Meeting Other Writers
You may not have an "ideal reader" you can turn to. Your spouse or best friend may want to help, but may not know enough about writing to offer useful feedback. Another place to look for constructive feedback is to develop relationships with other writers. Look for writers' groups in your area. There may be formal associations, such as a local chapter of the S.C.B.W.I., or informal groups that meet at the local library, or in private homes. The library is a good place to ask. You may also find local writers through the Internet. You will also find plenty of "virtual" writers groups and forums on the Web, and you may consider joining one of these.
Ideally, you will be able to find a supportive group of writers in your area who meet regularly to discuss writing and critique each other's work. Ideally, they will share your interests and have helpful things to say about your work that will help you improve it. Unfortunately, you may not get this lucky. There are a number of reasons why writers' groups can turn out to be a bad fit for you. The group's focus may be more literary. Its members may all be trying to learn to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald and they may not know how to critique your five hundred word story about talking bunnies. Often, many of the "writers" in the group aren't doing any writing at all. They wish they were, so they attend meetings in hopes that some fairy dust will rub off on them and they will rush home to chase their literary dreams. At worst, writers' groups can contain one or more members who have axes to grind. For whatever reason, they may be long on critique and short on sympathy and support. Or the critiques you receive may be vague and useless.
Despite this warnings, visit with groups in your area. If they turn out to be good fit for you, by all means join them. But be prepared to find that for whatever reason, they are not a good fit. In that case, explore the online forums and see if you can find a group that works for you.
Connect with Authors
It can also be very worthwhile to contact authors you admire. There is a long tradition of correspondence between authors, and there are some authors out there who are happy to mentor newer writers, or just to talk shop for a little bit. If you read an author you admire, try writing her a brief letter or email to let her know. Tell her what you like best about her writing or the piece of work you just read. If you can't find an author's e-mail or postal address through the web, write to her in care of her publisher, and the letter should get to her eventually.
When writing fan mail like this, feel free to let the recipient know that you are a writer, or an aspiring one. If you've published somewhere, you may try to work that in if you can. Under no circumstances, though, should you ask this person for a critique or worse, send along your manuscript and ask for a critique. This is an immediate turn-off. Famous authors receive reams of unsolicited manuscripts by would-be writers who think the authors have nothing better to do with their time than edit every manuscript that lands at their door. If you hope to learn something from an author, try making a thought provoking comment about their work, such as, "I really admire the way you fit so much description into so few words. I've tried to emulate your skill in my own writing." A statement like this lets an author know you respect him and would appreciate his help if he is inclined to give it. He will not feel as though you're trying to get something from him.
In most cases, you will not hear back from authors you write to, especially famous ones. But from time to time you will. If you do, read more of this writer's work. Buy all her books, read them, and write back to her with more comments about what you like. Authors are people, too. They want to hear praise just as much as you do. Through doing this, you may develop a relationship with a professional author, and this author may at some point offer to take a look at your work. By all means send it along, but be prepared for a tough critique. Professional writers are used to bad reviews and rejections. They will assume that if you're serious about writing and have sought out their opinions you'll be prepared to deal with whatever they say about your work. Be prepared and you can make the most of a relationship like this if you're lucky enough to happen on one.
Show Your Work to Children
Since you're writing stories for children, look for opportunities to show your stories to children who fit into your target age group. If they are not your own children, be sure to discuss this with their parents first, and offer to show the parents your stories first. Children can be a great antidote to all the critique you may be getting from adults. Don't expect a detailed critique from a kid. The most you'll probably get is "I liked it." If he asks you if you have any more stories he can read, then know you've just received the best compliment he can give you. If you show your stories to a few children and they all seem confused by the same passage, or if they don't ask for more stories to read, you'll know you have more work to do, but more often than not you'll find kids to be pretty encouraging. They will get a kick out of the idea that a story was actually written by someone they know, and they will feel glad to know you.
The Value of Moving On
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- Finding the Purpose of Your Creative Writing
- Novel Writing Help: Tips for Developing Great Characters
- Memoir Writing Help: Why You Fail at Writing Your Memoirs
- Creative Writing Exercises
- Writing Narratives, Plots, Conflicts, and Characterizations
- Humor Writing Strategies: The Importance of Starting and Maintaining Your Comedy Journal
- The Myths of Creative Writing
- The Process of Writing a Conclusion in Novel Writing