William Forrester, the fictional novelist of the movie "Finding Forrester," gives this advice: "You write your first draft with your heart, but you rewrite with your head."
Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute advises: "Limit self-criticism at the beginning of stories. Turn it loose during revision."
Novelist Alan Gurganus says, "I rewrite in order to be reread."
Chip Scanlan advises writers to "lower your standards" in order to beat writer's block. Rewriting is when you raise your standards. Demand the most of your story in rewriting. Even if you wrote a terrific draft, be extra demanding. Rewriting elevates good writing into great writing and great writing into your best writing.
General rewriting techniques
These techniques don't all work for every writer, and you won't have time to use them all on every story. Try them on various stories and use the approaches that work best for you in a particular situation.
- Start writing early. Rewriting is not something that takes place at the end of the writing process. Rewriting is the process of writing. As you conduct interviews and research, start writing your story. This makes you write while the material is fresh and helps focus the work that remains. It also allows you more opportunities to polish your writing. You might end up writing three or four leads if you write this way, because the actual lead might come from a later interview or from an overview perspective that wasn't possible early. But will your story suffer from having three or four paragraphs written with as much care and polish as your lead?
- Revise each time you write. Each time you write on a story, read through and revise what you've written before. This adds polish. It helps you catch inconsistencies and update information. It helps launch the new writing.
- Read aloud. Read the story aloud. This will give you a feel for the pace, rhythm and voice of the story. It will identify the rough spots that need the most rewriting attention.
- Take a break. If you have time, set the story aside for a while (an hour, a day) when you think you're finished. Then go back and take a fresh read through it, polishing just a bit (or a lot if needed).
- Read your edited copy. When the editor is finished editing, reread your copy. If you don't understand a change, ask (to learn, not to argue). If you disagree, then argue for your point if you must, but ask yourself this: If your writing didn't sell your point, are you going to explain to each reader why that really does make sense? Chances are, if an approach doesn't interest or make sense to the editor (who has to read the story), the reader is simply going to turn the page. If you don't like what the editor did, listen to her criticism and questions and then seek a third approach that will achieve what you had hoped to achieve the first time, while addressing the editor's concerns.
- Devote one rewriting pass to a weakness (or a desired strength). Once through the story, concentrate solely on one thing you want to improve in your writing: stronger verbs, better use of quotes, description, whatever.
Ask key questions
- What's the story about? When you've finished a draft, ask yourself what the story is about. Sometimes your sense of the story will improve or change as you write. Then ask whether your lead reflects this current understanding of what the story is about. Then ask whether the body of the story reflects your understanding of what the story is about. If not, you must decide whether 1. You lost your focus, in which case you must rewrite the body of the story to maintain the focus established in your lead or 2. You gained a better understanding of the story as you wrote, in which case you must rewrite the lead to reflect your new understanding of the story.
- What does the reader want? Imagine who might read this story. Does it have the right tone for your audience? Does it assume more knowledge than the reader might have? Does it tell more process or insider information than the reader will want? Does the story entice the reader with enough interest to start the story but not enough interest to finish most stories on this topic? Will the reader tell friends or family about the story? If so, what might the reader mention? Have you played this most-interesting aspect appropriately? Does your story tell the reader why it is important to her? If not, should it?
- What's the news? Ask yourself what the news is. Is it high enough in your story? It's easy to lose sight of the news as you wrestle with a clever way to write your lead. This is a valuable check, though, when the story is finished. Maybe you should try writing a headline for the story. If you're pulling your headline from the sixth paragraph or from a part of the story that might jump, ask yourself whether that should be the lead.
Challenge your work
- An important rewriting technique is to challenge the first draft. Consider various aspects of it and see whether changes would improve it. Sometimes a challenge will result in improvements. Sometimes a challenge will increase your confidence in the original approach.
- Write an alternative lead. Once you've finished a draft, ponder a different approach. Write a lead, or maybe a whole new top, for this new approach. If it's better than your original, you can make your story better. If the original was better, this exercise will increase your confidence in the story as written. Do this even for leads that you really like.
- Try to make fun of your story. Did you write any obvious statements that will draw a "duh!" from the reader? Do you have any awkward juxtapositions or double entendres? If you know a smart-ass colleague who makes fun of such stories, enlist his aid by asking him to read your story in advance. If something does get by him, at least you know he won't be the one making fun this time.
- Don't get lost in process. On many beats, particularly government and court beats, reporters must learn and understand lots of processes. Sometimes the reporter loses perspective and thinks the process is as important to readers as it is to sources. Readers care most about results. When you've finished your story that involves processes, examine how strongly you've focused on the process and consider whether that's appropriate. If a story or lead focuses on process, consider whether it would be stronger focusing on results.
- Challenge each sentence. When you think you're done, go through sentence by sentence. In each sentence, see whether a word can be eliminated without hurting the meaning. See if you have a phrase that can be replaced with a single word or a shorter phrase. This is especially important if your story is longer than your editor is going to want. This sort of tightening can cut a story considerably and gives it a brisk feel that may convince the editors it's worthy of extra space.
- Challenge every word. Maybe you can't do this for the whole story, but do it for the lead and key passages. However long your lead is, consider whether it could be shorter. If it's longer than 30 words, it's probably too long. A lead that long has to flow smoothly to work, and few leads that long flow smoothly. Try writing a lead of 10 words or fewer. Maybe you can't for this story, but it's always good to try. Especially if your lead is more than 20 words, challenge each piece of the lead and ask whether that actually has to be in your very first paragraph.
- Challenge the verbs. Are you using the strongest appropriate verb? Is it in active voice? Never use a form of the verb "to be" without trying some alternatives. Sometimes it's the only accurate verb, but see if a stronger verb works. Challenge other weak verbs, such as have, do and get.
- Challenge prepositions and conjunctions. Identify each prepositional phrase, especially in the lead, and consider whether the information it adds is worth the words it adds. Can it be replaced with a single adjective or adverb? If a sentence contains and, or or but, consider whether you should break it into two sentences.
- Challenge adjectives and adverbs. Consider whether sentences would be stronger without each of the adjectives or adverbs. What do they add? Can you eliminate them by using more specific (and stronger) nouns or verbs?
- Challenge phrases. Can you eliminate a phrase without hurting the story? Can you replace a phrase with a single word?
Use your tools
- Use your computer. Use the spellcheck and grammar check. Hopefully, they won't catch anything. But if you do, you'll be glad they did. There is no excuse for letting errors into the paper that even a computer could catch. And for goodness' sake, don't routinely change the things the computer catches. Make sure it's really a mistake.
- Don't rely on computers. Write and edit as though spellcheck and grammar check were not on your computer. They can't find every spelling or grammar error. A "murder trail" is entirely different from a "murder trial," but either will slip past your computer if you mean the other. If you mean "condo" and write "condom," your computer won't catch that embarrassing error.
- Use your stylebook. Even if you think everything is following style, check at least a couple things as you rewrite, just to be sure. And if one of those was wrong, check a few more. And when you find a style mistake you were making, write it down somewhere to remind you not to do it again.
- Use your dictionary. Look up at least one word in the dictionary as you rewrite. Even if you're sure of the spelling and pretty sure of the meaning, you might learn a slight nuance of the meaning. That may steer you to a different word. Check at least one word in the thesaurus. That also might steer you to a different word (but check that one in the dictionary, to make sure its meaning is precisely what you want).
You won't have time on every story to check for all of these things, but check for at least a couple of them each time you rewrite. When you identify something as a weakness, check for it every time.
- Avoid vague phrases. If you use vague phrases such as there are or it is, see if you can replace them with strong, specific subjects and verbs. These phrases combine our weakest verb with vague pronouns, often robbing sentences of subjects.
- Keep it simple. Ask whether you're trying to tell too much in your lead. Are you answering all the 5 W's, when a couple could wait till the second graf or later? Don't try to cram everything into your lead.
- Make one point. Does your lead have multiple points? If so, perhaps you haven't decided what the story truly is about. Decide which point is most important and write a lead that makes just that point.
- Stamp out punctuation. Many of the best leads have one piece of punctuation, a period. Regard multiple commas or dashes in your lead as red flags. See if you can write a smoother sentence with just one comma or none. If you have lots of punctuation in the lead, read it aloud so you can hear whether it's choppy or whether it flows smoothly.
- Minimize attribution. Attribution lengthens a sentence, as well as weakening it. Can you state something as a fact, rather than hedging it with attribution? If not, do you need to bolster your reporting, so you can write more authoritatively? Can you write a blanket attribution to set up several grafs, rather than repeating "he said" every graf? Especially in your lead, keep attribution to a minimum.
- Subtract numbers. If you use any numbers in your lead, their impact must be strong and their meaning and relationship must be immediately evident. If the reader has to stop and ponder numbers, they don't belong in your story, especially in the lead. Consider a graphic or at least a better explanation of the meaning and relationship of the numbers. If you use more than three numbers in a paragraph, examine that paragraph especially. One hedge is plenty. If you've hedged the central statement of your lead, with a "may" or "might," do you really need to hedge again by attributing it? Consider whether you can write a stronger statement in the first place. Or at least consider whether you can make the hedged statement without attribution.
- Don't sweat the details. An important detail might strengthen your lead, but many details bog down a lead. Tighten your lead by cutting details that can wait until later in the story. Rarely do you need both a person's name and identification in the lead. If the name is not immediately recognizable to the reader, just use the identification in the lead. Or if the person is in the story as Everyman, just use the name and tell the reader later who he is. The cliche dog won't hunt. Watch for cliches that have crept into the copy.
- Say what is, not what isn't. Sometimes you have to tell the reader what isn't, but usually you should tell the reader what is. If a sentence, especially your lead, has a not or a never, consider whether you can recast to say what is.
- Punch quickly. Examine the first few words of your lead. Are they strong? Do they get to the point immediately? Can you open with key words that immediately identify what the story is about?
- Close with a kick. Examine the last few words of each paragraph. Are they strong? Do they carry the reader right into the next paragraph.
Make it right
Fact-checking to ensure accuracy is a separate process, a separate topic for another workshop and another handout. But it merits a reminder here because many writers rewrite and check facts simultaneously. Doublecheck every fact, every name, every title, every spelling, every figure, every mathematical term.
One last perspective on rewriting from another writer, Bob Baker of the Los Angeles Times says:
The writers you admire, like great athletes, push themselves to the point of breaking. They don't have to say "ouch" or wake up with cramping hamstrings the next morning, but they're aware of the necessity for making themselves rewrite and rewrite and revise, at least one more time than they'd prefer to.
It's this final, demonic, savage, self-punishing edit -- the moments where you make yourself give your copy one more read for fat, sequential logic and perspective -- that will set you apart from your colleagues. This is never fun, it always hurts, and it sometimes feels like a waste of time. If it doesn't feel that way when you do your "final" self-edit, you should put your copy through one more round.
This one-more-check discipline starts out as a quest to shave fat off your copy--say, the last 5% of hidden fat. But the habit will evolve into a more sophisticated spirit, in which you also start to make your story leaner by making it more expressive and aggressive. You'll find yourself using bolder approaches to say more in less space. You'll give yourself permission to say things more directly, less elliptically, than you used to.
Baker continues, with some examples, in an essay on rewriting at: http://www.newsthinking.com/story.cfm?SID=117
Other resources to help with rewriting
Chip Scanlan's "Surgery Without Pain: A Tale of Revision": http://poynter.org/column.asp?id=52&aid=11693
Chip Scanlan's "Two Questions that Drive Revision": http://poynter.org/column.asp?id=52&aid=11279
John Christie's "Writer, edit thyself" http://www.freep.com/jobspage/academy/selfedit.htm
Roy Peter Clark's "Thirty Tools for Writers": http://poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=707