Just Sit Down And Write (2)

Part 1: Getting started

Part 2: Rewriting & Editing

What’s the most important thing in writing? Is it syntax, rhythm, organization, the very words? None of the above. The most important thing in writing is the meaning. We forget this all the time. We should be obsessing about what we’re going to say, not how we’re going to say it. – Steve Padilla

Having finally sat down and written my shitty first draft, I can let the critical voices rush back in my head to rewrite and edit the piece. The editing process allows me to play with words, improve my writing, and talk about it to a friend. However, sometimes I just don’t know how to improve a piece. Having read it too many times, I don’t even want to look at it any more. Here is a compilation of the best advice I’ve found so far on the editing process:

Delete mercilessly

Once I’ve written my shitty first draft, I get attached to my words. It’s hard to step back and realise that what I thought was a cute puppy is in fact a rabid English bulldog, frothing at the mouth and ruining my text. In Spunk & Bite, Arthur Plotnik advises a zero tolerance policy in the editing process:

(…) gangs of predictable idioms and images will bully their way into first drafts. Let them appear, as they tend to do when the brain is spewing words. But in the editing process, show no mercy. (…) Kill, beat, and burn- sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable, clichéd, formulaic, laboured, or lazy.

I found out about Spunk and Bite on Truth and Cake. Thanks Rian!

I try and keep Arthur Plotnik’s list of writing faux-pas as I allow my critical brain to destroy my innocent, childlike first draft:

  • Predictable stuff: I tend to give unnecessary explanation which slows down the flow.
  • Clichés: English being my second language, clichés taste fresher and more interesting to me than to a native who’s read and heard them all his life. Clichés are often the first metaphors and similes that pop into my mind. Writing something different and new requires more work. In my first blogpost, for example, I compared life without anti-depressants to a roller coaster. The image perfectly described the feeling but is a tired cliché. Today, I would work on it until I find a fresher image.
  • Formulas
  • Laboured, overworked passages
  • Lazy writing: where I could just not be bothered looking up a synonym, googling something, or thinking up a cool simile.

My own additions:

  • Anything that sounds too preachy: being a teacher, I have a natural tendency to boss people around. Unfortunately, I do it in writing as well.
  • Transform extremes like: ‘this is very boring’, or ‘it was the best compliment ever’ into an image: “It was as boring as watching a Russian movie without subtitles” or “The compliment was as enjoyable as hot chocolate sauce on top of vanilla ice-cream.”
  • Run-on sentences: French sentences are way longer and contain more commas than English ones. Besides, my brain can be a disorganised place, so I have a big problem with run-on sentences; it’s even the first thing my writing partner commented on when I asked for his opinion on my writing, and I’ve tried to work on it since then, but obviously I still write a lot of run-on sentences- it’s terrible.

Use diagnostic techniques to assess your draft

Often, something in my draft begs for improvement but I just don’t know what. I recently came across an amazing podcast on the topic by LA Times editor and writing coach Steve Padilla. Check it out, it lasts about 20 minutes, I promise it’ll be time well spent. Steve Padilla compares the editing process to fixing a broken engine. A mechanic doesn’t “just stare at the engine, waiting for inspiration” to find out what’s wrong. He has a process: he checks various parts of the engine until he finds the problem. Steve Padilla suggests writers do the same with a checklist of potential writing dysfunctions:

1. Weak verbs: I never thought about verbs before listening to this podcast. I was more interested in nouns and adjectives and adverbs. I often used a thesaurus and tried to learn new words but somehow forgot about the verbs. Looking for weak verbs in my drafts has been a mini-revolution for me- using stronger, more evocative verbs boosts my writing.

In the podcast, Steve Padilla gives a sentence as an example: The lion ate the man. You can vary this sentence’s meaning just changing the verb: The lion devoured the man (scarier). The lion consumed the man (scientific approach). The lion nibbled the man (silly).

The meaning of life is all in verbs. If you emphasize verbs, you emphasize action. If you emphasize action, you have to emphasize people. If you emphasize people, you will have drama. If you have drama, you’ll have interest. And if you have interest, you’ll have the reader.

2. Too many prepositions

3. Generic terms instead of specific terms: don’t say ‘tree’, say ‘weeping willow’. Don’t say ‘fruit’, say ‘pineapple’.

4. Monotonous rhythm: read your draft out loud to check the rhythm. Honestly, I don’t really get the rhythm thing yet, but maybe you will.

The things that make music interesting are the same things that make writing interesting. Long-short. Loud-soft. Major-minor (happy-sad).

5. End of sentences: Steve Padilla advises to keep the best stuff at the end of sentences. As an example, he uses this sentence: Giant ant eaters cross the road at night. If you want to emphasise the giant eater, put it at the end: At night, the road is crossed by giant ant eaters. Think about what you want to emphasise and reorganise your sentences accordingly. Also something that will take me more time and practice to do systematically.

6. Anecdotes too long

Anecdotes often feel too long. Here’s the trick: Don’t start at the beginning, start in the middle. You never see a judge walk in, sit down and bang the gavel on “Law & Order.” When they cut to the scene, the judge is already banging the gavel.

This works for talking too. I like to tell stories but I often start long, meandering tales which end up at best boring, at worst, embarrassing. But starting in the middle is an easy concept and it does make a difference. It’s helped me skip all the exposition bits and the false starts, and to make my stories snappier.

Of course, I also check the punctuation. My reference on the matter is The Elements of Style.

Find a writing partner

There may be someone out there in the world- maybe a spouse, maybe a close friend- who will read your finished drafts and give you an honest critique, let you know what does and doesn’t work, give you some suggestions on things you might take out or things on which you need to elaborate, ways in which to make your piece sronger. – Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird

The first time I had tea with Andrew, he told me about a book he’d just finished writing as part of the project write a novel in 30 days. The book was called “Robots vs Vampire”. After I understood it wasn’t a joke, we immediately clicked on the topic (writing, not robots and vampires). Then he insisted I tried pouring milk in my tea- something the French find weird. I followed his instructions anyway and as the milk was curling in my black tea, he sighed in delight: “See? That’s the best part.” The tea had a creamier, cozier quality to it. Since then, I’ve drunk lots of black tea with milk in it and trusted his advice, however weird it sounded.
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I asked him for blog ideas and about English grammar while he made fun of me on his blog. We’ve been reviewing each other’s writing for almost two years now (I wrote a post giving a sample of our weird writing relationship, click here to read it, it’s funny.)
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I also ask Nick, my fiancé, to review all my pieces of writing. He gives great suggestions and I cherish his sharp, critical mind. But Andrew is as obsessed about writing as I am, if not more. Also, he’s not too afraid to piss me off if need be because he doesn’t live with me- he doesn’t have to put up with my bad temper after giving me feedback. When it comes to writing, I react to everything as an open wound. I get angry and I secretly hate whoever tells me that my piece needs more work. I really do feel hate at that very moment. But then I remember Andrew’s helped me improve many posts before. I know he’s right, and eventually, I’m grateful.
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Ann Lamott also gives advice on how to find such a partner: join a writing group, or look around among your friends for a “smart and civilised person” who likes your work. Of course, finding a writing partner who also writes is better. But it also means reviewing his or her writing. So make sure you enjoy the person’s work before entering such a relationship.
If you look around, I think you will find the person you need. (…) You’ll know when the person is right for you and when you are right for that person. It’s not unlike finding a mate, where little by little you begin to feel that you’ve stepped into a shape that was waiting there all along.

I enjoyed putting together my favourite tips on the editing process. Now I have them all in one place that I can check out when I feel helpless about my drafts. I hope it’ll be helpful for you as well. In a few weeks, I’ll post a third part in the series with a collection of tips on developing a style- the key elements of strong scenes, the importance of surprise and details, and metaphors.

What do you keep in mind while editing a draft? Do you have a writing partner? Any more tips or good books on writing I forgot to mention?

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19 thoughts on “Just Sit Down And Write (2)

  1. Thanks for the tips Cécile! This is golden advice! I have been increasingly interested in writing and how I deliver my voice (and words in general) with finesse and color; how did you read my mind? :P Oh and how I am the queen of run-on sentences! Not proud..

  2. Another great post! I need to print both of them and keep them by my writing space… wherever that might be? I guess I’ll just have to favorite* them for now.

    I especially like the part about starting anecdotes in the middle. Very smart.

  3. This is all fantastic advice, Cécile–thanks for compiling it all in one place! I find editing almost as fun as writing, like a complex puzzle that I get to reorganize to my liking. I think another way to think about rhythm is to focus on sentence variety and sentence length. If all of your sentences are the same length, it will sound strange and monotonous when you read it aloud. If you mix them up, short and long, and play with modifiers and sentence types (declarative, interrogative, imperative), you change the rhythm. You’re such a great teacher–it really shows through your blog. Keep it coming!

    • “Focus on sentence variety and sentence length.” Yes! The rythm thing makes more sense to me that way, thanks Rian, I’m sure you’d make a fantastic teacher too :-)

      Ps: I started reading Writing Down the Bones and I LOVE it! Thanks for the suggestion, it’s very close to Bird by Bird, with the Zen approach as a bonus.

  4. These are gret posts Cécile and it’s inspired me to start writing outside my blog. I had ideas but couldn’t start – now I know why! It’s funny, but I never really thought about how I write, I just do it (unless it’s for work). Maybe I’ve been going wrong there! Thanks!

    • Thanks Rebecca. It makes me really happy that my posts inspired you to write more. I don’t think you’ve been going wrong- the most important thing is to write! I love to learn and I often need to read before I start something new. At some point with writing though, I had to tell myself: “Now stop reading about writing. WRITE!” And I started. I authorise myself to read about writing again now because I’ve been writing for 2 years :-)

  5. Super conseils Cécile, je les ai imprimés pour les avoir toujours à portée de main – et de vue ;-) lorsque j’écris. J’en oublie certains bien trop souvent, merci de me les avoir rappelés! J’en ajouterais un à la phase d'”editing”: vérifier les sources! Il m’est arrivé une mésaventure avec le guide du Routard dont je parlerai peut-être dans un post, et ça m’a servi de leçon. Toujours vérifier deux fois les chiffres, dates, et autres infos spécifiques, même (et surtout) si la source a l’air fiable…

    • Merci pour le conseil, Aurélie… et pour ce beau compliment! Ca me fait trop plaisir de savoir que ce post t’es utile! Je l’ai vraiment écrit pour moi en premier lieu, pour mettre toutes ces ressources au clair et les avoir sous la main. Mais j’espérais aussi en inspirer d’autres- pari gagné!

  6. Few things give me as much satisfaction as highlighting a long & clumsy sentence and tapping ‘Delete’. A good deleting session is worth so much more than productive sentence-generation. :)

  7. Thank you Cécile for sharing that! :)

    All these tips are really good to remember, I should come back to this page regurlarly not to forget them!

    I totally recognize myself in the girl who gives uninteresting details which make the story far too long…I’ll try your advice from now: the MIDDLE is the key! ;)

    Laurène, Carnetdescapades.com

  8. I love this advice and learned a few things! I had never thought of rhythm. I am also classic for running on with my stories and will jump in the middle from now on!
    Thanks Cecile!

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