20th Mar 2009

Rethinking and revising

By Jefferson Flanders

Writers differ in the way they move from outlining, whether formal or informal in nature, to composing. In creating their initial draft, some writers find they are most comfortable writing sequentially: they prefer composing, and polishing, their opening paragraph before moving on the second paragraph, their second before their third, and so on, until they reach their concluding paragraph. This step-by-step writing approach consequently matches the sequence of their outline.

In contrast to this ordered approach, some writers gravitate to block-writing—composing stand-alone paragraphs or blocks of prose and then connecting them together. I am a block writer, a reflection, in part, of lessons learned working for a wire service and for newspapers. Block-writing is common in journalism—often made necessary by deadline coverage of breaking news. Writing unconnected segments can build most of a news story in advance of filing, with the opening paragraphs saved for last (“topping” the story, in wire service parlance).

One benefit of block-writing is that it can help those who from suffer writer’s block. Writers who struggle to fashion the “perfect lead” and find themselves creatively blocked can be liberated by skipping ahead to compose other parts of their essay, report or article. Many times writing these blocks will help to surface ideas for that troublesome opening.

While the process of composition may differ from writer to writer, those who seek greater clarity in their prose know that the initial draft represents only the first of probably several drafts before completion. And the first step in this iterative process is rethinking and revising what you have written.

The great American writer Mark Twain, who advocated a clear and direct prose style, noted: “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.” Revision involves looking at the piece of writing in its entirety. It asks the writer to rethink sequence and shape. It is what Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story, calls “contemplating the structure.” Franklin advocates rereading your draft “as though you had never seen it before, as a reader would read it.”

There is a difference between rethinking/revising and rewriting. Rewriting follows the rethinking/revising stage and is narrower in scope. Rewriting focuses on words and phrases, sentence length and construction, and using language precisely. It’s when writer works on his or her style. Clear writers look to rewriting as an opportunity to prune and tighten their prose, communicating as much as possible in the fewest words necessary.

This distinction between revision and rewriting is somewhat artificial, of course, because in practice they often overlap. As you rethink you may decide to reorder and rearrange, which can mean rewriting initial (or topic) sentences in paragraphs, or changing transitions, to make the writing flow sequentially.

The scope and direction of the rethinking/revision process will reflect the writer. If you “write long,” then rethinking your writing will mean identifying what is vital to your argument and/or story and eliminating the extraneous. If you “write short” (my tendency), then revision will involve fleshing out your argument, and identifying where a more comprehensive approach is called for. In either case, the writer needs to keep an eye on word count—recognizing and respecting the reader’s finite attention span.

The rethinking/revision process has often exposed flaws in my initial draft: a too-glib thesis, an argument without enough supporting evidence, an inviting opening sentence that doesn’t really fit the rest of the piece. Revision requires a certain toughness on the part of the writer, a willingness to go back for more research, or to sacrifice that well-crafted, but off-point, paragraph or tangential argument. In extreme cases it may mean starting over completely.

There’s no set way to rethink and revise. Some writers start by comparing their draft with their outline. Franklin advises: “If there are parts of the structure that seem wrong, and the problem isn’t immediately apparent, consult your outline.” Another technique involves listing all of your topic sentences and consider whether they offer a logical, and sequenced, argument.

I print a hard copy of my working draft so I can see the structure of my paragraphs and sentences on paper. I begin by reading the essay or report out loud and looking for the unanswered questions a reader might ask. Where are the holes? What is missing? Then I turn to the shape and structure of the writing. Does it flow logically? Is the sequence natural (does it move from the general to the specific, for example)? I may find that paragraphs need to be reordered, or combined, for a more logical presentation of my argument.

Taking the time to rethink your writing will make the final polishing of your piece in the rewriting phase all that much easier. You can concentrate on wordsmithing, confident that your essay or story’s logic and flow will hold up to scrutiny. A successful rethinking and revision process can mean a faster rewrite—the writer’s equivalent of “measure twice, cut once.”

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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