There it is. That song again. Every time I hear Paul Simon sing about changing the ending and throwing away the title, I have to smile. Changing titles and endings are just the beginning: spade work. Working on a rewrite requires serious machinery—the type of heavy equipment that allows us to dig deep and plow ahead.
What tools do you use when you’re working on a rewrite? Do you take the snowplow approach, blasting unnecessary material off to the side and clearing a path for your story? Or are you a weed whacker—using a wide-ranging method of eliminating adverbs and adjectives gone wild, cutting back runaway sentences and overgrown language to get the look and feel of a piece just the way you want it? Sometimes, despite our best efforts, all we really need is a shovel. But even when you have to resign yourself to letting a piece rest in peace, you’ll never forget it completely. Allow yourself to mourn, then save a copy anyway.
I’m in a couple of writing groups, and have learned to appreciate my fellow writers’ expertise with the snowplow, the weed whacker and the occasional shovel or shears. I’ve seen the before and after versions of our work, neatly trimmed and shaped into literary topiary after the hard work has been done. Rewriting requires time, effort, and sometimes chocolate.
When I rewrite, I rarely just drag the whole piece to the trash icon. My process goes something like this. It’s what I call the bonsai method:
I usually start with a small idea, just like the seedling or small tree a bonsai grower would select.
Let’s say it’s an essay, a short one. I have an idea of what I want to say, and have some sense of how it will unfurl. There is a point and a limited scope to the essay; I’m not going to allow myself to hop on a soapbox and tackle several big ideas at once. I favor the keyhole view that opens into a larger vista; that’s how I usually roll.
When I’ve said all I have to say, I read it through several times. Probably read it out loud too. Since I always suggest this to the students I work with, it behooves me to follow my own advice. If I’ve left out a word or repeated a phrase, I’ll hear it even if I’ve glossed over it with my eyes during repeated readings.
Hearing what I’ve written also reminds me to consider voice, and I don’t just mean the sound of mine as I read. Is this a “come sit down beside me and have a chat” sort of piece? Is it more conspiratorial? A rant? Am I looking back from a distance, or am I in the moment? Am I trying to be funny? Am I hoping to tug at the reader’s heartstrings? Is the vocabulary appropriate for the voice I’m using? If I am writing in a child’s voice, have I used the words of an adult? If I am trying to be sassy, or romantic, or annoying, have I set it up that way by using the right voice?
Then I ask myself whether the essay resembles the vision I had when I started to write it.
At this point, I consider what needs to be rewritten. As with bonsai, I believe the real key to success in writing is pruning. Are there problem branches that clutter up the piece? Too much bushy back story? Extra details that don’t add anything? Extended tangents that mess up the flow? Anything pointing in a different direction that doesn’t really belong there? Cut, cut, cut.
What about those bad habits in need of attention? Instead of using sharp blades on them, I highlight and delete the offending bits until I’ve reshaped the piece to meet my original design.
I get out the virtual pruning shears and weed out too many sentences that begin with “so,” “but” or “and”—and take out unnecessary uses of “that.” I search high and low for clichés, and listen for clunky rhythms in my sentences. Does the beginning actually come in the second paragraph? What about the ending and the segues: flowing and graceful, or herky-jerky? Have I been consistent with tense? If I’ve cut and pasted different versions together, have I done any inadvertent time travel: beginning in present and shifting to past, or the other way around? Are all the sentences the same length, or have I mixed it up well enough? How can I tighten a sentence, or exercise finesse with verbs? How many adroit alliterations actually alienate readers? Do I answer questions, or just ask them?
Each subsequent version of the essay will have a different name: something creative, like 1rev; 2rev, 3rev, etc. so I don’t keep coming back to an earlier draft and experiencing déjà vu as I change the same things all over again.
Sometimes I pick through a piece and just focus on verbs. Looking at each sentence, I ask myself the timeless question: to be, or not to be? Have I taken the passive way out and used “is”, “was,” or some other variation of that namby-pamby verb—or have I grabbed onto something that appeals to the senses or packs a punch to the gut?
As part of the editing process, I may need to hack through dense underbrush and clear a path to the heart of the piece. If the pruning cuts run especially deep, I allow both the piece and myself some time to recover. I’ll save the newly tweaked version and leave it alone for a while, maybe wander down to the kitchen for a snack and a peek at the latest New Yorker. If there is chocolate in the house, this would be the time to find it.
Whether we writers use a snowplow, a backhoe, or nail clippers—we have to cut, trim, clear out and shape our work until we see that no more needs to be done. I recommend the bonsai method, though. Begin with a seedling and shape it into a work you can stand back and admire.