Everyone’s doing it—your kindergarten teacher, your car mechanic, your acupuncturist, that nosy neighbor across the street—so why can’t you? It’s not brain surgery, after all, and the only heavy lifting required is raising finger to keyboard, and voila, you’re a writer!
Or … not.
Writing may not be brain surgery, but it’s definitely surgical, and though it doesn’t require ditch-digging muscles, it does demand its share of sweat to construct precise words that will best support solid thoughts and ideas. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been writing since we first held a no. 2 pencil that we feel we can write the next Great American Novel without lots of time and effort. Certainly the digital age has made getting published easier. According to a May 2011 report by Bowker, the global leader in bibliographic information, the non-traditional publishing sector increased “169% from 1,033,065 in 2009 to an amazing 2,776,260 in 2010. These books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ‘micro-niche’ publications.” By contrast, “traditional publishing grew a modest 5 percent.”*
The traditional gatekeepers (editors, agents, brick-and-mortar publishers) to what gets published have given way to anyone who wants to write and be published. But with that comes a responsibility on the part of the writer to publish only the best, most polished work. I suppose in all the excitement of seeing your name in print it’s easy to forget that writing is a craft. But ask any good craftsperson — from a carpenter to a musician to a painter — and you’ll hear that a masterpiece takes time. They call it a work of art because that’s what it takes: work.
Like it or not, writing is 95 percent rewriting. Every first-rate piece of prose has been reworked numerous times to look seamless and effortless. And maybe Faulkner did write As I Lay Dying in six weeks, but honestly, few among us could lay claim to his gift.
Some writers (mostly newbies) will balk at the prospect of rewrites, claiming their manuscript is ready to publish now. Still, your first thoughts are usually not your best ones, even if those closest to you tell you your writing is brilliant. Face it: family and friends can’t be trusted to give objective feedback critical to a work in progress.
Alas, only a few blessed writers get it right by even the second or third draft. The rest of us need to toil longer and harder before we have our “work of art.” A manuscript may have to be rewritten as many as five, ten times or even more before it’s professional enough to be presented to an agent, publisher, and eventually the public. That requires an impartial eye, a steady hand, and a strong heart— not to mention a near-obsessive attention to detail. In other words, a willingness to take the work as Annie Lamott advised us, “bird by bird,” building on each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter, polishing and finessing, until the manuscript is buffed and shined for submission.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the Great American Novel, a memoir on trekking the Himalayas, or a how-to book on tantric sex, or if you’re publishing with an independent, a brick-and-mortar house, or from your uncle’s garage—it’s essential to read critically, rewrite, and then rewrite again. You may not reach perfection—few of us do—but your writing will be the best you can make it. And that’s all you can and should demand of yourself. You owe it to your readers.
Faulkner said it best: It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
So before you rush your manuscript off to be digitally published or send it out to an agent, a publisher, or even an editor (who will charge for expertise and time), rewrite. And while you’re at it, run your writing through this Writing 101 list of Basic Do’s and Don’ts.
1. Don’t rely on spell check. Spell check does not catch easily confused words. Its you’re work there reading hear.
2. Don’t equivocate or use qualifiers. I sort of, kind of, probably, maybe think my writing is a little bit, good enough to publish.
3. Limit exclamation points!!! Your words should convey the power of your meaning, not your punctuation. And don’t… pepper…your manuscript with ellipses because…when overused…they lose… their effectiveness.
4. Don’t repeat the same word on the same page in the same chapter in the same book. Get out a marker and highlight words that are repeated throughout the manuscript. Unless it’s deliberate, replace them with a better word or, if possible, eliminate them. The writing will be tighter, cleaner as a result.
5. Don’t use the following: started to; began to; and then; suddenly; in order to; in fact; at this point. I started to write and then suddenly stopped. In order to understand this, in fact, at this point I decided to rewrite this sentence.
6. Don’t use clichés, even if you think they’re right as rain, or sharp as a tack. You might sound dumb as a post.
7. Don’t use speaker attributions to explain your line of dialogue (“I hate you,” she raged.); that’s a telltale sign the dialogue is weak. “Said” is unobtrusive and usually the best word to use in this circumstance. The reader’s eyes go right over it, focusing on the line of dialogue. And please, under no circumstances use “chuckled” or “chortled.” “Really, dude?” he chortled. “Duh, I don’t think so,” she chuckled.
8. Do not use adverbs to modify verbs. The writing becomes redundant (screamed loudly, whispered softly); the writer intrudes and is caught explaining the dialogue. Watch for “ly’ words. You could end up with a book full of Tom Swifties. “Hurry,” said Tom swiftly.
9. Do show, don’t tell. Don’t tell us he was angry, sloppy, sad, lazy, smart, funny, crazy, studious, religious, lovesick, psychotic—show us. Let the reader discover it through experience.
10. Don’t write one-dimensional, clichéd characters. If you make a character a prototype of good or evil, you’ll wind up with a stick figure. Real characters (in fiction and nonfiction) are nuanced and complex, with their share of contradictions and weaknesses as well as strengths. Don’t be afraid to give your characters big ideas and thoughts; don’t shy away from endowing them with unusual passions.
11. Do have a strong story. A good story motivates readers to turn the page and leaves them wondering what happens next. A good story has something at stake, conflict; the plot is how the conflict unfolds.
12. Do remember what Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life: “You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words. The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip. You probe it, delicate as a worm.”