Ten (Very) Basic Principles of Rewriting

I love fiction. I read one short story a day and at least two books a month. I say this not to boast, but so that you believe me when I say I can recognise good fiction when I see it. Polish is one of the key elements separating good, mediocre and foul.

Polish comes from rewriting, which is the core skill of the (professional) author. Any idiot can have an idea and it only takes primary level English to commit thoughts to text, but this is not writing.

If you want to be a writer you are going to have to master the art of revising your text. The ten points below represent the least you can do to make your work presentable.

1. Use the spellchecker in your word processor. It’s the simplest tool in your arsenal and only takes a few clicks. Not perfect, but a good start.

2. Hunt down and remove clichés. Be original in words, phrases and situations. Strong prose has roots in originality. Any phrase you’ve heard or read before is a cliché. At the end of the day it might have been considered cool in 1975, but not anymore. By the way, ‘at the end of the day’ is a cliché which should not have survived rewriting this article.

3. Use the active rather than passive voice. Novices seem to get confused about this point. The active voice means the subject should do the verb to the object. ‘Wale hit Nnena on the head’, not ‘Nnena was hit on the head.’  As a side note you might want to read George Orwell’s 1946 article “Politics and the English Language”.

4. Use ‘said’ in dialogue attribution for the most part. If you need to use anything else it means either your description or your dialogue is not as good as it should be. The context and content should be such that adding ‘he shouted’ or ‘she opined’ is redundant.

5. Learn basic punctuation, grammar and syntax. Seriously, this is not rocket science. Look it up. You don’t need to know everything, just commas, apostrophes, periods; enough to ensure the meaning of your narrative is retained. The idea of writing is to get thoughts from your head into the reader’s. Proper punctuation is necessary for accuracy.

6. Describe with clarity using verbs and nouns. Weak description can never be remedied by the use of adverbs, adjectives or flowery, fragrant prose. Clarity first, then poetry. Be lyrical by all means, but not at the expense of being understood.

7. Avoid repetition of words, phrases etc. Use a thesaurus. It exists for writers. The human mind is designed to attend to novelty. Repetition switches off attention. This is not to say you can’t have a deliberate stylish repetition, but it’s easy to recognise and requires skill to carry off.

8. Only submit your best work. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many writers send in stories with errors that no primary school child would make. Read over the thing several times. Don’t embarrass yourself.

9. Cut, cut, cut. Think about what you’ve written. Close your eyes and imagine the scene. Does it make sense within the reality of the story or have you written it to demonstrate your literary skill? Does it advance the plot, increase understanding of the characters, or improve clarity? Rewriting is pruning. When in doubt, slice. Many of the words in your first draft are unnecessary; trust the reader to understand.

10. Go back to 1. and do it all again. Only you can decide when it’s right, but several drafts is the norm.

Resources

a. There are a number of punctuation guides available free on the net. I would recommend going to the ones on university sites. Here’s one:

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/

b. The Orwell Article is here:

http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

c. Every writer should read ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk and E.B. White from cover to cover many times over.

d. Among thesauri you can’t beat ‘The Synonym Finder’ by J.I. Rodale. You can go old school and use ‘Roget’s Thesarus’ but language is dynamic and the best link is:

http://thesaurus.com/

That’s it.

Go forth and rewrite.

______________

By Tade Thompson



27 thoughts on “Ten (Very) Basic Principles of Rewriting” by tadethompson (@tadethompson)

  1. Wow, this is one insightful article! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for sharing…

  3. Yeah, this was very good, but I don’t agree with all.
    What is wrong with “Nnenna was hit on the head”?
    Or wasn’t she hit on the head?

    1. This guy’s a rebel. Lol

    2. @Kaycee

      You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s the mark of an intelligent person to disagree and question, but even a cursory Google search on passive voice/writing will yield a wealth of sources.

      a. Information conveyed is less in passive than active voice. Sure she
      was hit, but by whom?
      b. Active voice gives the writer more authority and hence more reader trust.
      c. Passve voice tends to avoid responsibility and definiteness. You
      can hide behind the passive voice.
      d. Passive voice tends to include redundant words. Redundant words
      weaken your prose.
      e. If you wish to compete on the international stage you should check
      out what attributes editors/publishers value in narrative. They value active as opposed to passive voice.

      http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html

      http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/passive.htm

      http://www.dailywritingtips.com/passive-vs-active-voice/

      But again, you don’t have to take my word for it. The other mark
      of an intelligent person is to search for the answer.

      Research it.

      Decide for yourself, but it’s really rudimentary.

      1. @tade,
        Active voice, passive voice. When a writer starts hearing voices, he should start worrying..
        And who says I must agree with google? I write what i like, so long as I am understood. All these rules cramp my style. I don’t know who’s voice should be active or whose voice should be passive. If I start reading text books and checking google for grammer before I write, then I won’t have time to write anything at all.
        Your advice is however noted… but discarded.

        1. @kaycee, some writers hear voices regularly. At least i do. All those muses clamoring to be heard, lol.

          1. @Lade, ogbanje things?

        2. loool. There’s no word to describe you @kaycee.

  4. Love this… thanks

  5. lol…..at Kaycee’s comment. Would you prefer “Nnenna hit Wale on the head”?…lol.

    Nice write-up. Learnt alot. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for sharing, Tade. We all learn with time. At least, we start with being foul, then to mediocre before finally being good. I believe if we keep trying as we’ve been doing, we’ll get there.
    @kaycee, this is English, everything gets outdated with time.

  7. Supposing Wale was the only one in the room when, ‘she was hit on head’, then there is no point indicating Wale did it… He was the only there… Moreover, some writers love to write on some issues halfway, so the reader could go through the puzzle of pointing out situations… This piece is an excellent key though… And @kaycee… You make jus dey laugh… Seems you were the only one I missed while I was away from Ns… Do search for me on Facebook, so we could connect… Cheers…

    1. @Idoko Ojabo,
      Ahh, longest time. For some months my profile message on NS was a search for you. Glad you are back.

    2. How could you Myles say its only Kaycee..does it mean others are less or not important. What about Seun Odukoya, Myne, Emmanuella…are they all irrelevant??

  8. Printing this,
    thanks for the imprinting!

  9. Good article with some useful links, will sure look that up

  10. Terrific advice, Tade, thank you very much!

  11. @Kayce , Ogbanje things…then there is a “spiritual konji” attached to that. Anyway…in the process of imagination, one gets inspiration to put down few things…..But Kaycee..na wa u oooo

  12. Thanks tade for this piece, it came at the right time for me.

  13. Incisive and detailed piece of work! Its a forceful guide for every writer. Thank you Tade.

  14. thanks a heartful for this piece.imma treasure it …and I recommend Strunk as well.

  15. Sunshine (@nicolebassey)

    This article is evergreen.
    Thanks @Tadethompson

  16. nice article/writing tips…. keep them coming…. and i bolster with you on one thing… revising

  17. certifiably right

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